Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, painted as Vertumnus, Roman God of the seasons, 1590, Skokloster Castle, Sweden

If you bop around the web reading the various articles about this artist you learn pretty quickly that plagiarism is alive and well on the internet. So it is nice to discover an artist I can say almost anything about and remain original. Our boy Arcimboldo here is a man who went from this…

Bust of a Daughter of Ferdinand I, 1563, oil on panel, 44cm x 34cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

…to this…

Autumn, 1573, oil on canvas, Musee de Louvre, Paris, France

…right in the high point of the Renaissance when people couldn’t help but notice. Now this is the middle of the 16th century, and while the Church in Italy was, for a change, somewhat tolerant of the suddenly explosive Italian culture, everywhere else people were being burned at the stake and hung for almost anything that poked at the status quo. I suspect the very first patron to get a look at one of these Man-As-Salad masterpieces (also known at the time as a “Big Salad” which is how Arcimboldo became known as the “Father of Seinfeld.”) must have thought long and hard about whether he was the butt of some joke. If so, we can thank goodness that he was, apparently, a man of character and wit, and his thumbs-up set Giuseppe on the path to immortality.

One of the many cool things about these works is that from a distance they look perfectly ordinary. Arcimboldo had to imagine this effect for himself, he could not rely on computer simulations or studies on the human eye and its ability to register data. He just had to recognize that things blur with distance and can be morphed into each other sometimes just by squinting.

Winter, oil on canvas, 100 x 140cm

Within each work he reinforces his own metaphor. Spring is composed entirely of spring plants and flowers; Autumn likewise is rendered by things of the harvest. Sometimes you have to stare a bit to figure out the portrait, and once you see it you gasp at the way it springs to life. Winter is like that for me. (His portraits of the seasons are one of the many reasons we call him the “Father of Calendar Art” which leads us to call him the “Father of the Pin-up” which in turn leads us to call him “the Guy Who Did Betty Grable.”) (Do you sense the inter-connectedness here?)

Vegetables in a Bowl or the Gardener, 1590s, oil on canvas, Museo Civico, Cremona, Italy

Several of his paintings can be stood on their heads to surprising effect. A bowl of vegetables becomes a gardener…

The Cook, 1570 approx, oil on panel, 53cm x 41cm, National Museum, Stockholm, Sweden

…a platter of meats becomes a cook. This kind of tomfoolery, of pictures as puzzles, is still enjoyed today whether as optical illusions or as fold-ins on the back of kids’ comics. (This is one of the many reasons Arcimboldo is often referred to as the “Father of Mad Magazine.”)

Fire, 1566, oil on panel, 67 x 51cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

His pictures are more than curiosities. His picture of the Librarian troubled scholars of the time who felt he was mocking them. Perhaps he was. His portrait of Fire, the substance we are told our world will end in, is comprised primarily of tools of war. It would be easy to pronounce him the “Father of Political Cartooning.”

But there is always more to discover the deeper you look and think about a thing. Smart, talented people don’t spend months at a time to create an eternal piece of art if it is meant for no more than a joke. Perhaps once in a while, but as a calling? I don’t think so. His paintings seek to connect us as human beings to all the things of life and nature that surround us, to remind us that we are fragile, temporary beings made up of the same stuff that makes up that life over which we presumably hold dominion.

Earth, 1566, oil on panel, 70 x 49cm, Private Collection

It is interesting that his perception of the Earth uses only mammals. These are the creatures, the things of the earth that men of his time most often equated with the biblical notion of “dominion.”  But it is clear he equates earth with life. I wonder how many of the creatures in this painting are now extinct, if any. I wonder how long it will take humanity to remember that “dominion” implies service and stewardship equal to the expression of power. I wonder when we will all get off the web and go into our back yards and streets and parks and forests and start looking for life again. I wonder when I will learn to take my own advice on that.

I wonder if Arcimboldo would have liked Basil Wolverton.

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4 Responses to Giuseppe Arcimboldo

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Wow, I really like this a lot.

  2. Pat Snyder says:

    That’s a riot – he has an amazing imagination and a really good painter. Thanks for another great introduction!

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