Peter Greenaway Quotes for the Aspiring Creative

, Staff Writer
Updated February 16, 2022
Portrait of Peter Greenaway With Quote
    Portrait of Peter Greenaway With Quote
    Karwai Tang / WireImage / Getty Images editorial
    Used under Getty Images editorial license

Peter Greenaway is a filmmaker, screenwriter and artist who has lent his eccentric, distinct style to arthouse films like Drowning by Numbers and The Pillow Book. Over the course of his four-decade career, he has experimented with various art styles, ranging from Renaissance to Baroque to Flemish painting, and voiced his views on film, art and the creative process.

Peter Greenaway Quotes About Cinema and Art

In a series of interviews and biographies, Greenaway describes his artistic process and how he views film, not just through a lens but out in the world, and how he applies this to his own filmmaking.

  • “I have often thought it was very arrogant to suppose you could make a film for anybody but yourself.”

  • “If you want to tell stories, be a writer, not a filmmaker.”

  • “I always think that art is one of the most wonderful, exciting, curious ways to learn. I have no worries or apologies about art being used as a teaching medium.” - Rome Interview: Peter Greenaway On ‘Goltzius And The Pelican Company,’ Sergei Eisenstein, 3D & The Future Of Cinema

  • “Only cinema narrows its concern down to its content, that is to its story. It should, instead, concern itself with its form, its structure.” - Peter Greenaway: Interviews

  • “Cinema is far too rich and capable a medium to be merely left to the storytellers.” - Being Naked - Playing Dead: The Art of Peter Greenaway

  • “Why illustrate a great piece of writing whose very advocacy and evocation and efficacy lies within its very existence as writing?” - "105 Years of Illustrated Text" in the Zoetrope All-Story, vol. 5, no. 1

  • “Perhaps, sadly, in the end, cinema is only a translator's art, and you know what they say about translators: traitors all.” - "105 Years of Illustrated Text" in the Zoetrope All-Story, vol. 5, no. 1

  • “In practically every film you experience, you can see the director following the text. Illustrating the words first, making the pictures after, and, alas, so often not making pictures at all, but holding up the camera to do its mimetic worst.” - "105 Years of Illustrated Text" in the Zoetrope All-Story, vol. 5, no. 1

  • “​​I don't have any particular wish to be polemical or didactic; I don't have a "message", but what I do thoroughly enjoy are those works of art, not necessarily in the cinema, but in the other arts as well, which have an encyclopedic world.” - interview with Art and Design, no. 49

  • “All my films are somewhat experimental, they are all, each one, taking a certain amount of risk, but there's always the basic assumption that we should be able to appreciate the cinema as much with the mind as we can through emotional empathy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.” - interview with Art and Design, no. 49

  • “Film is such an extraordinary rich medium which can handle so many different modes of operation, combining together in the same place all these extraordinary disciplines which may be executed in their own right -- music, writing, picture making of all kinds, and I often feel that some filmmakers make films with one eye closed and two hands tied behind their backs.” - interview with Art and Design, no. 49

  • “I think that films or indeed any art work should be made in a way that they are infinitely viewable; so that you could go back to it time and time again, not necessarily immediately but over a space of time, and see new things in it, or new ways of looking at it.” - interview with Art and Design, no. 49


Quotes From Drowning By Numbers

Greenaway’s award-winning 1988 film Drowning By Numbers explores the lives and marriages of three generations of women.

  • “Counting is the most simple and primitive of narratives — 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 — a tale with a beginning, a middle and an end and a sense of progression — arriving at a finish of two digits — a goal attained, a dénouement reached.”

  • “The pretense that numbers are not the humble creation of man, but are the exacting language of the Universe and therefore possess the secret of all things, is comforting, terrifying and mesmeric.”

  • “Dawns and sunsets. The Magic Hour — when the sun and the moon can be in the sky at the same time — a magic and disturbing occurrence for a child. And for an adult.”

  • “All this could be enough — we would leave an Impressionist painting at this stage — probably much earlier — and leave it possibly with great satisfaction.”

  • “There is no obligation for the author of a film to believe in, or to sympathize with, the moral behavior of his characters. Nor is he necessarily to be accredited with the same opinions as his characters.”


Quotes From The Pillow Book

One of Greenaway’s most popular (and quotable) films is The Pillow Book, a film that centers around words and the meaning of language.

  • “The pages are so harmonious in their proportion/disharmony in the contents is impossible.”

  • “Isn't that why people keep diaries — to be read by someone else? Why would they keep them otherwise?”

  • "Perhaps. I need writing. Don't ask me why — just take out your pen and write your name on my arm — go on."

  • “Farewells can be both beautiful and despicable. Saying farewell to one who is loved is very complicated.”

  • “Go on. Treat me like the page of a book. Your book”

  • “This is where I begin to do the writing. I am now going to be the pen and not the paper.”

  • “His writing — in so many languages — made me a sign-post pointing east, west, north and south. I had shoes in German, stockings in French, gloves in Hebrew, a hat with a veil in Italian. He only kept me naked where I was most accustomed to wearing clothes.”

  • “I am certain that there are two things in life which are dependable — the delights of the flesh and the delights of literature. I have had the good fortune to bring them together and enjoy them together in full quantity.”

  • “Itch to read, scratch to understand.”


The Artist’s World