Reality, Distorted

It’s the second day of my vacation in Venice, Italy. I pause for a minute and take it all in: the faint saltwater scent of the blue-green water in the canals, the chant of gondoliers beckoning “Gondole! Gondole!” to passersby, the elegant curves of Gothic windows in waterfront palaces. I make my way through colorful throngs of people in San Marco Square, past window shoppers and families posing for action shots with well-fed pigeons, and into a labyrinth of alleyways that eventually leads me to the Rialto Bridge.

Looking out across the Grand Canal, I’m reminded of two landscape paintings at the NCMA: Capriccio: The Rialto Bridge and The Church of S. Giorgio Maggiore (circa 1750) by Canaletto and Venice without Water, June 12, 1990 by Donald Sultan. Both depict the Rialto Bridge yet evoke completely different emotional responses. Canaletto painted a postcard-worthy fantasy to “sell” the city to visitors. His painting appears realistic, but the historic landmarks shown beside the bridge are actually located in different areas of Venice (think Photoshop, 1750s-style). North Carolina artist Donald Sultan takes a much different approach in his work. His foreboding, tar-splattered image of the Rialto Bridge (based on a 1990 newspaper photo of the bridge over a waterless canal) reads more like an environmental awareness PSA, showing us the barren wasteland that a city known for its beautiful canals could become if changes aren’t made to maintain its waterways.

Each artist, in his own way, distorts the reality of this architectural symbol of Venice and of the city itself. But what is the reality? I can only answer for myself. My reality here feels like a dream. Layers of peeling paint and rusty watermarks on vacant, flooded buildings are not signs of deterioration. To me, they’re magic; they’re tactile symbols of the passage of time. Without the distraction of “real life,” I’m free to find beauty in every detail, whether it’s a rare sculpture on display at the Salvador Dalí exhibition or the sock-and-shirt-shaped shadows dancing on the wall behind a clothesline.

Visiting a city so rich in history and art makes me wonder: isn’t “real” art almost always a distortion of reality to some degree? And this distortion—which I like to view as the artist’s interpretation—seems to be the very thing that makes us stop, lean in, and take a closer look.

These two landscape paintings are featured together in Art of Game Design, an online course we’ve developed in collaboration with the North Carolina Virtual Public School to empower high school students to make real-world connections between works of art at the Museum, commercial advertising media, and game design. These paintings are also featured side by side in the Museum’s European Galleries in West Building.

—Cindy Byrd Yandle is writer and editor for the NCMA’s teen and college programs.

Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal), Capriccio: The Rialto Bridge and The Church of S. Giorgio Maggiore, circa 1750, oil on canvas, 66 x 45 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

Donald Sultan, Venice without Water, June 12, 1990, 1990, butyl rubber, acrylic paint, and plaster on vinyl composite tiles, mounted on four Masonite panels, 96 x 96 in., Purchased with funds from the North Carolina Museum of Art Foundation, Art Trust Fund

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