In the nature of things

Duncan Wu on the sheer delight of Arcimboldo's punning, painstaking and peerless portraits

November 18, 2010

Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy

National Gallery of Art, Washington

19 September 2010 - 9 January 2011

Palazzo Reale, Milan

January 2011 - 8 May 2011

I remember, years ago, standing in front of one of Giuseppe Arcimboldo's portraits and finding it nightmarish - for, at his most inspired, Arcimboldo was a visual punster with an inventiveness that verged on the insane. In Spring, for instance, a peony becomes an ear, while cabbage leaves form a sleeve; in Winter, broken branches form the ear and nose, fungi become lips, while moss indicates stubble on a man's chin.

Arcimboldo's art resides in a paradox that is easy to appreciate when one confronts the paintings themselves: the individual objects (fruit and vegetables in the case of Summer) that comprise facial features are depicted with breathtaking accuracy. In Spring, each petal of each flower is painstakingly illustrated precisely as it must have appeared to the artist as he held it in his hand. Yet it is his fidelity to the inherent properties of the object that enables him to transform it into something else.

Take a look, for instance, at Water, in the series based on the elements. The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC has isolated 50 separate species of fish that make up features of the face, each depicted with the scrupulousness of a scientific textbook. There are two comparatively small rooms devoted to this special exhibition of the Milanese artist in Washington, but what an epic journey it provides. The gallery has assembled 15 of Arcimboldo's remarkable portraits, principally from Vienna and Paris, to hang alongside its own recently acquired Four Seasons in One Head, dating from 1590.

For years Arcimboldo was court artist to Ferdinand I in Prague, and his successors Maximilian II and Rudolph II. The Washington exhibition covers that side of his career with Vertumnus, in which Rudolph II is portrayed as the Roman god of vegetation. In this astonishing image, vegetables from different seasons are combined in a single visage, illustrating the harmony of Rudolph's reign. Rudolph was in on the joke, presumably, and was unsurprised by the ears of wheat that comprise his eyebrows or the pear that is his nose. They are (need it be said?) very funny. But then, Arcimboldo is nothing if not witty: in Autumn there is a snail, barely visible, on the top of the man's head.

Such a virtuoso talent must have been easily bored. In a series of invertible portraits, Arcimboldo complicated the challenge. The National Gallery borrows three: in one, a bowl of vegetables, turned upside down, becomes the portrait of a gardener; in another, a basket of fruit becomes a man wearing a straw hat; and in the last - and in some ways most startling - a plate of roasted meat turns into the portrait of a cook. Inverting mirrors are helpfully provided to save visitors from having to stand on their heads.

The glory of this superb exhibition must be the series of portraits that comprise "The Seasons", normally retained at the Louvre, which the National Gallery displays on a single wall. If one were drunk, it would be easy to regard them as the articulation of some frightful psychosis. But they are precisely the opposite: they depict the order and fecundity of the natural world, in which Arcimboldo had an absolute faith. Nor was he alone; alongside "The Seasons", the curators of this fascinating exhibition have placed book illustrations and bronze casts that show how compelling his precursors, including Albrecht Durer, Leonardo da Vinci and Hans Hoffman, found animals and plants as subjects. Most of all, "The Seasons" are Arcimboldo's signature statement. They speak of virtuosity, mastery of the particular, imaginative skill, and a profound sympathy with the natural order of things.

It is easy to see why the Surrealists loved him; Dalí's paranoiac theory of art, by which one thing functions as the image of something completely different, is no more than an updating of what Arcimboldo had done four centuries before. But it is not as if Arcimboldo requires ratification from the Surrealists, although they did much to revive interest in his work. Not only was he a great draughtsman (as the exhibition demonstrates), he was a visionary whose ability to exploit the shape-changing potential of everyday reality surpassed that of anyone else, before or since.

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