Exhibit of the week: Arcimboldo, 1526–93: Nature and Fantasy

Included in the exhibit at the National Gallery is one of Arcimboldo’s “reversible” paintings, The Cook, a portrait that looks like a platter of meat when it's turned upside down.

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Through Jan. 9, 2011

Giuseppe Arcimboldo wasn’t your typical Italian Renaissance court painter, said Gabe Starosta in Roll Call. His portraits were like nothing else seen before—“strikingly original” compositions for which he arranged “fruits, vegetables, and a collection of other objects from nature into the recognizable shapes of human heads.” The artist’s best work, named Vertumnus—after the Roman god of the seasons—is said to represent his benefactor, the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. “The emperor’s rosy cheeks are formed by apples, a pear becomes his nose,” while grapes occupy the place of hair. Like so many of the oddball visages in the current Arcimboldo exhibition at the National Gallery, “the work is a treat to behold and a little disturbing at the same time.”

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“It’s easy enough to see why the surrealists adopted this quirky artist” as one of their artistic forebears, said Karen Rosenberg in The New York Times. In one portrait, “the face of the lawyer Ulrich Zasius is a surf-and-turf platter of chicken and fish.” In another, the white hair of Wolfgang Lazius, a librarian, is formed from the fanned-out pages of books. Most shows of Arcimboldo’s works emphasize their obvious peculiarity, yet this one takes the opposite tack, revealing unlikely links between this seemingly sui generis artist and others working around the same time. Early in Arcimboldo’s career, for instance, he became fascinated with Leonardo da Vinci’s grotesque profiles of old men and women. Some of them hang here beside Arcimboldo’s own paintings, and “it’s not hard to see the connection between the waddles, bulges, and warts of Leonardo’s subjects and the lumpy features of Arcimboldo’s.”

Arcimboldo’s bold conceits certainly give his portraits “a huge ‘wow’ factor,” said Blake Gopnik in The Washington Post. Unfortunately, the easy punch lines that his art provides “keep most viewers from going very deep with it.” That’s a mistake. To truly appreciate an Arcimboldo work, you need to get right up close—“so close you can’t see the painting has a face.” Then you’ll notice the wonderful care and detail with which he rendered fruits, vegetables, and other fare. “The stems of the cherries in Summer are gorgeously attached to their fruit,” and Spring features a delicately silken iris. The Cook is one of Arcimboldo’s “reversible” paintings—a portrait that, turned upside down, looks like a platter of meat. In fact, the inverted view is superior, balancing “a sense of lavish plenty against hints of excess and death, like the best still lifes you could name.” Considering that the genre of still life had just been invented, Arcimboldo’s achievement seems “especially impressive.”

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