The Proto-Surrealist

Arcimboldo’s ‘Vertumnus’ (c. 1590).

The late, legendary S. Lane Faison Jr., professor emeritus of art history at Williams College, responded to over-the-top works of art with a vigorous “Hoo boy! Whoops a daisy!” He tended to reserve this evocative phrase for High Baroque extravaganzas and the apses of 18th-century Austrian churches, but I suspect he might have applied it to “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy,” the small, engaging exhibition dedicated to one of the most peculiar artists of the 16th century, on view at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. At once an exploration of a side-road of Mannerist painting, a brief survey of natural history in the late Renaissance, and an inquiry into perception itself, the show brings together paintings, prints, illustrated books, ceramics and bronzes united by their devotion to the apparently mutually exclusive worlds of nature and the fantastic.

Even those unsure about the pronunciation of “Arcimboldo” (are-cheem-BOLD-oh) will probably recognize his extraordinary “composite heads”—a genre that he apparently invented—in which sometimes comical, sometimes sinister likenesses are conjured up with clusters of fruits, vegetables and gourds, with flowers, twigs and sea creatures, and even, memorably, with books. The exhibition brings together 16 of these puzzling pictures, ranging from allegorical personifications of the elements and the seasons to portraits and witty images in which seemingly straightforward, if tightly packed, still lifes turn into heads when inverted. (Strategically placed mirrors at the National Gallery allow us to participate in the joke.) The selection includes many of Arcimboldo’s most characteristic, best-known heads, painted between 1563 and 1590—from about the time he left his native Milan for Vienna, seat of the Holy Roman Empire, to become court painter to Maximilian II, until a few years after the homesick Italian was allowed to return to Milan while remaining in the service of Maximilian’s successor, Rudolph II.

Little is known about how Arcimboldo attracted the attention of the Hapsburg court. He was, like his artist father, associated with the workshop of Milan’s vast cathedral, designing frescoes, banners, stained glass and the like. Of this early work, only a few unexceptional windows have survived, nothing that suggests extraordinary talent. He may have been known for illustrations of the natural world—a few have emerged—or else, then as now, connections helped in obtaining prestigious appointments.

Certainly the paintings Arcimboldo made for his Hapsburg patrons announce his mastery of the high realism for which Lombardy became known, a tradition based on close observation of nature, thought to be influenced by Leonardo da Vinci during his 17 years in the service of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The flora and fauna that make up Arcimboldo’s weird profiles are exquisitely and accurately rendered, their details and textures meticulously accounted for. It is believed, too, that Arcimboldo had first-hand acquaintance with Leonardo’s drawings of grotesque heads, many of which belonged to a family friend; the irregular profiles of the composite heads often have remarkable cognates in Leonardo’s distorted profiles.

Scholars find allegorical allusions to Hapsburg power in Arcimboldo’s “portraits” of the elements and the seasons, deciphering coded references to dominion over the world. Most of us concentrate on the obsessive virtuosity of the depictions of individual elements—a diagram identifies more than 60 sea creatures and a seal in the personification of water—on the shifting scale among these elements, and on the sheer strangeness of the images. (Not surprisingly, it was the Surrealists, with their taste for dislocation, who rescued Arcimboldo from centuries of obscurity.)

We struggle to see these playful, slightly disturbing images; our interpretation constantly changes. Drawn to the particulars, we try to amalgamate them into an illusionistic head, then get seduced by details again, unable to reconcile the two readings. We recognize the wonderfully painted peaches and pear suggesting the fleshy cheeks and nose of “Vertumnus” (c. 1590), note his peapod eyelids and cardoon moustache, then fleetingly manage to see this paean to abundance as a portrait of the robust Rudolph II, before losing ourselves in cabbage leaves, olives, a blackberry eye, and the glistening cherries of his protruding Hapsburg lip. Least appetizing? “The Jurist” (1566), thought to represent a famously ugly legal scholar’s scarred face by means of plucked chickens and a fish. Most improbable? “The Librarian” (c. 1566), a superb three-quarter portrait constructed with stacked and tipped books; only the picture’s impeccable provenance convinces us that it isn’t a Cubist effort.

At the National Gallery, Arcimboldo’s extravagant composites are illuminated by the presence of some of Leonardo’s bestial grotesque heads, along with drawings and illustrated books documenting the cinquecento’s burgeoning interest in the natural history of both the New and Old World, recorded with scientific accuracy. An enchanting marmot by Jacopo Ligozzi competes with Albrecht Dürer’s cowslips and the charming red squirrel of a Dürer contemporary, Hans Hofmann. Polychrome ceramic plates with high-relief amphibians and bronzes of real and invented creatures remind us that Arcimboldo’s composite heads were once displayed in kunstkammers, along with miscellanies of man-made and natural curiosities. Suddenly, the chicken/fish portrait of “The Jurist” doesn’t seem so odd.

Ms. Wilkin writes about art for the Journal.


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