Review of reviews: Art

Art abroad: Spring exhibitions in Europe


Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

Through June 1

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No one knows what drove Giuseppe Arcimboldo to create “the strange vision of human heads made up from fruits, vegetables, and roots, for which he is famous,” said Souren Melikian in The International Herald Tribune. For much of his career, the 16th-century Italian painter produced mostly bland religious scenes. But starting in the 1560s, he began creating uniquely surreal ersatz portraits that were simultaneously still lifes and meditations on human mortality. Winter (1563) shows “a man made up from the knobby stump of a tree, with a broken branch for the nose, moss for the stubble on the chin, and two parasitic mushrooms for the lips.” Summer, from the same year, substitutes a gherkin for a nose, a pear for a chin, and red cherries for eyes. Such works are both comic and chilling. “Arcimboldo paints a parody that is at times almost plausible in its suggestions of death and rot in a living being.” This exhibition shows that the artist’s flights of fancy were part of a larger fascination with the grotesque in 16th-century Austria. Which raises the question: Was Arcimboldo simply giving patrons what they wanted, or “does the surreal here reflect the state of a deranged mind?”

Peter Doig

Tate Britain, London

Through April 27

This retrospective of paintings by the 49-year-old Scot “is easily the most enthralling show in town,” said Laura Cumming in the London Observer. Colors and shapes swim mystifyingly in sylvan scenes that frequently feature a solitary figure or, more often, the empty canoe that “Doig has painted over and again like some deathless Raft of Medusa.” There are always realistic-seeming elements in Doig’s work—he often uses snapshots as sources for certain sections of a picture—but these are submerged in a hallucinatory whole. “Every scene suggests an idée fixe, some sight or experience perpetually trapped in the mind that can never be exorcised.” In one, a girl in white pajamas sits, mysteriously, high in a tree. In another, a boy studies his reflection in a mauve pool, where “the paint—flecked, scribbled, stained, perilously thin”—stands in strikingly for the unstable ice. For all their complexity, however, Doig’s paintings never seem arbitrary. Viewed together in this exhibition, the individual works can be seen as a career-long exploration of a few key ideas, “and they seem to grow more original and mesmerizing by the year.”

Picasso and His Collection

Museu Picasso, Barcelona

Through March 30

“What motivates an artist to collect art?” said Julius Purcell in the Financial Times. For Pablo Picasso, big names and supposed importance weren’t what attracted him to a piece by another artist. In this exhibition of works from Picasso’s collection, “there is no van Gogh, Juan Gris, or Paul Klee to be found.” Instead there are traditional Iberian masks, portraits by the untrained painter Henri Rousseau, and many odd works by little-known artists. “The derided, the strange, the clumsy”: These were what fired Picasso’s imagination. Perhaps the most valuable and important paintings here are three by Paul Cézanne. But even these are most interesting for their role in shaping Picasso’s own art, which was greatly influenced by Cézanne’s innovations. Seeing the Cézannes alongside Picasso’s own work, here in the very city in which he began his artistic career, one can “sense the raw excitement of the young Picasso’s world, circa 1905, where Cézanne’s probing of vision, his purification and simplification” first set the Spanish artist on his revolutionary course.

Sebastiano del Piombo

Palazzo Venezia, Rome

Through May 18

Sebastiano del Piombo wasn’t the best painter in 16th-century Rome, said Frances D’Emilio in the Associated Press. But “when the competition is Raphael and Michelangelo,” you can understand why. Sebastiano first began working in Rome in 1511, when those two giants of the Italian Renaissance were both still active. Only after their deaths, however, did he become one of the most important painters in Rome, rising to a prestigious position in the court of Pope Clement VII. Posterity has not been kind to his reputation, however, and this show “is being billed as the first exhibit in his honor.” Sebastiano was best known in his own era for his portraiture. Examples on display here depict everyone “from cardinals to Christopher Columbus,” and include at least one work previously thought to be a Raphael. This exhibition gives credit for this and other masterpieces to their true creator, whose reputation it should help restore.

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