Seeing double

Patrick Hughes

  • The Arcimboldo Effect by Pontus Hulten
    Thames and Hudson, 402 pp, £32.00, May 1987, ISBN 0 500 27471 1

Four hundred years after his return to Milan from Prague in 1587, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) is having his first one-man show at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice: 15 February until 31 May. This is the book of the exhibition.

Modern interest in Arcimboldo dates from his inclusion, by means of enlarged photographs, in the exhibition ‘Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism’, organised by Alfred Barr at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1936. Margaret Barr remembers:

Alfred and I were in Paris in 1931, going around to the galleries. We went to the Pierre Colle Gallery in the Rue de la Boétie where there was a show of Dali’s. Dali came in poor and emaciated. He had no suit jacket and wore a raincoat over his shirt. We all went into the back room and saw a big painting with an opalescent sky – The Masturbator. Dali showed us a postcard of one of the colonies in Africa. Natives in front of a big white tent, leaning, sitting, lying, etc. It was a horizontal photo. When he turned it vertically what we saw was the large head of a woman – the tent was her chin, the figures her features. The double image. This is how Alfred and I got the idea of the double image. We then went to Bad Gastein in Austria. In this little town we saw an Art Shop, a cheap tourist shop with a lot of bright flashy tourist pictures – flowers and fruit – just awful. In one corner of the room was a dark picture. We went over, and saw it was a horizontal landscape. We could see it was old. The dealer turned it vertically and we saw it was a hunter with a cap. Trees made the cap and bushes the chin. The ears were the target. We bought it.

  Back in New York we showed the picture to Panofsky and he said it was of the ‘School of Arcimboldo’. When Alfred did the Surrealism show, he put in a lot of peculiar and enigmatic pictures from previous centuries to accelerate the public’s acceptance of Surrealism.

The most important thing about the pictures of Arcimboldo is that they contain two meanings. For instance, in Spring (1563), the head and shoulders of a young man is represented by many spring flowers. The particular meanings of man and flowers are not as meaningful as that there are two, instead of the usual one. Further, what is exciting is not the two meanings but the relationship between them, the gap and the oscillation as we choose between the readings. Psychologists tell us that we cannot hold two such readings at once, that we must switch between them. The apotheosis of this art is René Magritte’s painting The Human Condition (1936), in which a canvas on an easel in front of a window in a room appears to represent the scene outside the window. The trouble is the canvas obscures the very scene which would allow us to judge the picture’s truth to nature. Looking at The Human Condition, we alternate between believing and doubting the absent artist.

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[*] Collected in The Responsibility of Forms (the French tide, L’Obvie et L’Obtus, is more typical and more illuminating), discussed by Michael Wood (LRB, 9 October 1986).