Sunday, October 10, 2010

Whimsical Arcimboldo at the Natilonal Gallery

My Boston friend Yulia was in town on a business trip. Whenever she is here we try to see an art exhibit, usually at the National Gallery. Today was no exception: she called and asked me what was going on in museums and galleries. I mentioned, among other things, the Truth/Beauty photo exhibit at the Phillips, the Palladio exposition at the National Building museum, the Arcimboldo show at the National Gallery, and she chose the latter. I have heard of Arcimboldo but, until today, never saw his paintings. The NGA has put together a delightful Arcimboldo: Nature and Fantasy exhibition. For the first time, Arcimboldo's famous bizarre heads were on view in the U.S.
Anyone looking at Arcimboldo's composite heads for the first time feels surprised, startled, and bewildered; our gaze moves back and forth between the overall human form and the richness of individual details until we get the joke and find ourselvesamused, delighted, or perhaps even repelled. Any transformation or manipulation of the human face attracts attention, but the effect is accentuated when we are confronted with monsters where, instead of eyes, mouths, noses, and cheeks, we find flowers or cherries, peas, cucumbers, peaches, broken branches, and much else. Arcimboldo's paintings stimulate opposing, irreconcilable interpretations of what we are seeing and thus are paradoxical in the truest sense of the word.
Soon forgotten after his death, Arcimboldo was rediscovered in the 1930s when the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred H. Barr, included the artist's paintings in the exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. Ever since, Arcimboldo has been considered a source of inspiration for the surrealists and their successors.
Read Abigail Tucker's article Arcimboldo's Feast for the Eyes from the January 2011 Smithsonian magazine.


Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1526–1593
Vertumnus, c. 1590
Skokloster Castle, Skokloster
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1526–1593
The Jurist, 1566
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1526–1593
Four Seasons in One Head, c. 1590
National Gallery of Art,
Washington, Paul Mellon Fund
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1526–1593
The Librarian, c. 1566(?)
Skokloster Castle Stokholm, Sweden

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