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Sight Gags

The Arcimboldo Effect: Transformations of the Face from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century

An exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice (February–May, 1987)

The Arcimboldo Effect: Transformations of the Face from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century

by Pontus Hulten et al.
Abbeville Press, 402 pp., $75.00

The reputation of the Milanese painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo is based entirely on a dozen or so bizarre pictures showing portrait-like heads made up of animals, plants, or inanimate objects. The most famous are the four Elements and the four Seasons. Fire, for example, is a combination of burning coals, guns, fuses, and the like; Air is formed of a multitude of different birds, Water of fishes, and Earth of quadrupeds. The Seasons, by contrast, show flowers, vegetables, and trees. A portrait of a librarian is composed of books; another, of a well-known jurist ravaged by syphilis, has a body made from legal documents and a head formed of plucked fowls and a fish. The Cook and The Vegetable Gardener are based on a slightly different conceit. When displayed one way up these images look like human heads; but when reversed they show respectively a platter of roasted meats and a bowl of vegetables.

From such little evidence as survives it seems that the early work of Arcimboldo, who was born in 1527, was entirely conventional. From 1549 he is known to have been employed at the cathedral of Milan, mainly in the production of designs for stained-glass windows, and in 1558 he made drawings for tapestries for the cathedral of Como. In 1562 he entered the service of the Austrian Hapsburgs as court portraitist, and continued to work for them until he died in 1593, six years after his return to Milan. The earliest securely dated examples of the bizarre heads are the Seasons, of 1563. The last, a portrait of Rudolf II in the guise of Vertumnus, composed principally of fruit and vegetables, was sent to the emperor from Milan in 1591. During the period he spent at the imperial court Arcimboldo produced several versions of the composite heads, including at least four separate sets of the Seasons, but he seems to have been mainly occupied in providing designs for court festivals such as pageants and tournaments, for which a number of his drawings still survive. Very little is known of his activity as a portraitist, but the few traces that exist are unremarkable.

The Arcimboldo Effect,” held last spring at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, was the first exhibition ever devoted to Arcimboldo. It was divided into two main sections. On the first floor was an impressive group of the composite heads, represented mostly by originals of high quality but in a few cases by copies of lost pictures, thus fully illustrating his output in this genre. There was also a generous selection of his drawings, together with paintings and prints by contemporary and later imitators. The upper floor was given over to a more miscellaneous selection of twentieth-century works, with the Surrealists and Dadaists most strongly represented. These were included not so much to illustrate the direct influence of Arcimboldo in the early part of this century, which seems to have been very slight, as for considerations of a more ambitious, if also much vaguer, kind. As Yasha David, the exhibition commissioner, explains in the foreword to the catalog:

The comments of his contemporaries on the symbolical meaning of Arcimboldo’s work and the repetitive interpretations of today do not address the basic issue of the real significance of his gesture in intervening on the human face to reconstruct it. It is clear that humanity is being put to the question, thereby opening a new aspect in our vision of the multi-dimensional man.

Despite David’s apparent lack of interest in the problem, it was evident that some of his colleagues were more concerned to explore the significance given to Arcimboldo’s work in his own day. This would be a difficult thing to do in any exhibition. But simultaneously to set Arcimboldo within his own cultural context and to treat him as a forerunner of a type of sensibility that fully flowered only in the twentieth century was to attempt altogether too much. The result was an exhibition incoherent in its organization and superficial in its presentation of ideas.

Each room had a different theme. Some, such as “Arcimboldo in Milan,” were quite specific, while others were vague and portentous, for example “Perspective of the face,” “The testimony of the eye,” “Break in ideas.” Since a similar sequence of these more generalized titles was given to rooms on both floors, evidently the intention was to suggest that Arcimboldo’s innovations in the representation of the human head, like those of twentieth-century art, were in some way related to a wider challenge to conventional ideas. Just how seriously this was meant to be taken, however, is not at all clear, since the objects displayed were inadequate to illustrate the subjects indicated by the titles of the rooms and the issues themselves were discussed only tangentially in the catalog.

Thus “Break in ideas” on the first floor was illustrated by a couple of small cabinets containing a few books, such as the illustrated volume on human anatomy by Valverde (1560), Alciati’s collection of emblems (1531), and Fracastoro’s poem on syphilis (1530). For the modern period there was an unsurprising selection of works by Husserl, Freud, Einstein, Nies Bohr, Kafka, Nietzsche, and Apollinaire. Evidently both collections of books were intended to convey the sense that new ideas were in the air. What those ideas might have been and what possible relevance they might have had to the other exhibits was never explained. Perhaps the most useless of all the captions was “Magic Prague,” which served as the label to two display cases, each of which contained a view of Prague made of colored stones, a medal of the Emperor Rudolf II, and a scientific instrument. Elsewhere in this room there were a few curious objects and carvings, including a painted horoscope and a mandrake root, and a pile of books, most of them closed.

Most visitors must soon have realized that this was not meant to be a particularly didactic exhibition. Like window dressings, many of the objects displayed were simply there to puzzle or entertain, or both. Thus two rooms on the first floor were given over to a selection of anamorphoses and other perspectively distorted images of the human head; but only a very attentive reader of the catalog would have come upon a footnote which implied (probably incorrectly) that Arcimboldo himself had produced works of this type, which no longer survive. The general intention was to make the works of art more interesting by hinting at a connection with difficult or esoteric ideas, without attempting to explain the nature of those ideas or their relationship to the objects themselves: in short, an approach of deliberate mystification and cultural name-dropping, which made the presence of the Surrealists and Dadaists particularly appropriate.

The upper floor was also the most attractive and varied part of the exhibition, and included a number of works of outstanding quality. It may have been a more considerable achievement on the part of the organizers to have succeeded in bringing together most of Arcimboldo’s authentic paintings and related prints, together with a number of early copies, including no fewer than four versions of The Librarian. But few visitors could have been convinced by the claim of Pontus Hulten that “the quiet beauty of [Arcimboldo’s] panels, a serene musical melancholy, is similar in tone to Vermeer’s work.” Arcimboldo had one good idea, which he exploited with considerable ingenuity. His followers and imitators, unfortunately, proved for the most part to be altogether less witty and inventive.

The frivolousness of the exhibition was most clearly demonstrated by the catalog, now published as the book under review, which in fact is not a proper catalog at all, but a collection of twenty-one essays by various authors. It is divided into two parts, roughly corresponding to the two sections of the exhibition. The first part contains a series of articles on aspects of Arcimboldo’s work and on Hapsburg culture. Several of these are informative and useful, notably Piero Falchetta’s anthology of early criticism about the artist. But in general the authors are concerned to address specific historical problems or to advance their own theories about particular pictures. What is missing is any clear general account of Arcimboldo’s career, of his place in sixteenth-century art, and of the current state of knowledge about his output. The second section is even less coherent. Falchetta provides an anthology of modern criticism, of which the most striking is a brilliant attempt by Roland Barthes to interpret the composite heads in terms derived from rhetoric. But too many of the other contributions consist of self-indulgent theorizing that often seems remote from the concerns of artists in this century or any other. In short, the catalog is like the exhibition itself. It is good to look at, full of attractive illustrations, but lacking any clear focus, organization, or purpose. As one might expect, none of the illustrations is numbered and many of the objects reproduced are not discussed in the text. As a result the volume was useless as a guide to the exhibition, and this was all the more regrettable because the labels beside the exhibits were often inadequate.

The clearest impression that the attentive reader would obtain from the catalog is that scholars now believe that far from being mere curiosities, visual jokes, Arcimboldo’s paintings are complex allegories of monarchy, drawing in some ill-defined way on the more esoteric ideas current in the later Renaissance, such as hermeticism, hieroglyphics, the Art of Memory, and Neoplatonism. In addition to the widespread scholarly belief that almost all Renaissance paintings are in some way didactic or edifying, there are two main reasons for this view. The first is the fact that they were painted for the Austrian Hapsburgs, and that one of Arcimboldo’s patrons, Rudolph II, was certainly an eccentric man drawn to the less conventional currents of thought of his day. The second is that two of Arcimboldo’s contemporaries provided very elaborate interpretations of some of his pictures. One of these was a Milanese writer named Giovanni Battista Fontana, or Fonteo, who spent some time at the court of Maximilian II, while the other was Gregorio Comanini, from Mantua, who published a dialogue on poetic and pictorial imitation in 1591.

Fonteo collaborated with Arcimboldo in at least one court festival, in 1571, but it seems that relations between the two men were not especially easy, because twenty years later the painter recalled that on this occasion Fonteo had tried to take credit for his inventions. At the beginning of 1569 Fonteo presented Maximilian with a poem about the Elements and the Seasons. It has been suggested that these pictures were given to the emperor at the same time, and that Fonteo’s poem was written to explain the significance of this gift. But since the pictures had been painted some years earlier this proposal is not entirely convincing. Be that as it may, the poem is a long and convoluted panegyric of the emperor, intended as it were to give “a voice to the royal pictures, and in the hope that the work will be more welcome.” The text has never been published in full, but the basic theme seems to be that the harmony of the elements and seasons wrought by Arcimboldo symbolizes the power and clemency of the emperor and proclaims that his family is destined to rule the world in future ages.

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