In this new weekly feature, City Paper's art critics wll look at a single work of art that is on view somewhere in the city. Except, as this first installment shows, it is almost impossible to talk about a single work without being drawn, inexorably, towards others.
We start with 'The Ideal City,' at the Walters Museum. The painting, part of a series of three 15th-century Italian panels, depicts the architectural and intellectual ideals of the Italian Renaissance, with its focus both on what Friedrich Nietzsche would call the Apollonian aspects of classical antiquity: the Greeks and Romans as pure reason. Probably painted by Fra Carnevale in Urbino, it is tempera on wood that hung so that it appeared to be a window, looking out onto the perfect morning view of a square, almost empty, bathed in light. It is silent and serene and there are but few shadows. Classically inspired buildings draw the eye in vectors toward the vanishing point in the middle of the central arch of the triumphant arch. "Marveling at how linear perspective shapes a view is one of the pleasures of the Walters' painting," writes Joaneath Spicer in "Masterpieces of Italian Painting, The Walters Art Museum." "Laid out in Alberti's 'On Painting,' this mathematically derived system is fifteenth century Italy's contribution to the challenge of projecting a three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional surface."
That's fucking cool. But there is also something spooky about it. My wife bought me a coffee mug with this painting on it from the Walters gift shop and I think about it a lot in that quasi-conscious meditative quiet of my morning brain as I sit on the couch with my dog, CP's erstwhile Night Editor, and it may be the kind of city one wants early in the morning. But the quiet is disquieting. Before we moved to Baltimore, we lived in the planned New Deal part of Greenbelt, with its grass sidewalks that go behind the houses instead of by the road, and it was nice, but it was too quiet. And Columbia's planned and orderly horror! Give me chaos. So, in the painting, despite the statues depicting the cardinal virtues, there is the metaphysically creepy lonesomeness that you feel in Giorgio de Chirico's 'Piazza D'Italia,' which came 500 years later, when trains had already disrupted the quiet and the shadows have grown long. For we who come a hundred years later than De Chrico's 1913 painting, the silence is unbearable, the order sinister. Cubism destroyed its linear perspective and we know, or ought to, that order equals control. There is something totalitarian—or one could say Platonic—in its perspective. It is monstrous.
Of course, "ideal" here, as always, also means not real. We can look at Caravaggio, roughly a century after Carnevale, to see what the people in this city might actually do, and how dirty it may become. Look at 'Judith Decapitating the Holofernes' by Trophime Bigot, a student of Caravaggio's, in the Walters and the shadowy candlelight as the older woman seems to examine Judith's work with a warm, human passion to see the real city. It is an astounding painting, which shows that richness does not lie in order. But that is on a bad day. Elswhere in the Walters, as an antidote to both of these paintings, it is really necessary to look at 'Peasant Wedding Dance' by Pieter Bruegel the younger (after a painting by his father). Nowhere in all of painting is there as much life as in the elder Bruegel, and the younger does a good job capturing it here, as corpulent people eat, drink, embrace, and dance around in cod-pieces (I especially like the guy in the yellow suit to the bottom far left).
It's nice to imagine these people moving, becoming urban, and overhwhelming the stillness of the 'Ideal City' and making it real, somehow, and more like life, more like Baltimore. But the luxurious calm of 'The Ideal City' has its place. It is, in many ways, more museum than city, bringing to mind the refrain of the poet Charles Baudelaire's famous 'Invitation to a Voyage' (which is about looking at Renaissance paintings): "There, everything is ordered and beautiful, light, calm, and pleasurable."