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.…

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