The Arcimboldo Effect 
by Pontus Hulten.
Thames and Hudson, 402 pp., £32, May 1987, 0 500 27471 1
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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.

Roland Barthes, in an essay called ‘Arcimboldo, or Magician and Rhetorician’,* decides that Arcimboldo uses Metaphor, Metonymy, Allegory, Allusion, Antanaclasis and Agnomination. I think he used, in the small, visual puns; and, in the large, personification. In Upon the Pun: Dual Meaning in Words and Pictures (1978), which I wrote with Paul Hammond, we proposed that ‘a visual pun is made when someone notices that two different things have a similar appearance, and constructs a picture making this similarity evident.’ Mankind’s built-in ability to see faces enables us to see faces in all sorts of things: this is catalogued in John Michell’s Simulacra (1979), which has 196 illustrations of faces in trees, stones, vegetables and animals. In a visual pun, seeing things in things is incorporated with the game that we play, as we sit at our desks, of lining things up, making that window-catch exactly cover that chimney pot. So the rose stands exactly where the eye would be.

A variant of the visual pun which Arcimboldo also practised is the ‘upside-down’. There is one known as the Cook where two shiny platters are being parted to reveal some small cooked carcases – one way up: the other way up, the picture looks like a ruddy, shiny, gat-toothed cook in a wide-brimmed hat. Another one is the Vegetable Gardener (c. 1590). In the exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi these pictures have had electric motors mounted on the back of them so that they can be physically turned the other way up. In Upon the Pun Hammond and Hughes argue that a more promising way for them to have been presented is with a mirror on a table beneath the picture. Arcimboldo’s patron, Rudolf II, would have said: ‘Come and see my new painting of the vegetable gardener.’ The visitor replies: ‘I see no gardener, O Holy Roman Emperor, only a bowl of vegetables.’ The Emperor (triumphantly): ‘Look in the mirror!’ The alternatives of the visitor turning his head upside down, or the Emperor taking the picture off the wall, seem less likely than using the magic of the mirror.

Barthes says of the Cook: ‘In rhetoric this figure is called a palindrome.’ But a palindrome – ‘T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I’d assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet’ (Alastair Reid) – reads the same frontwards or backwards. Upside-downs read differently depending on which way up they are. Hammond and Hughes call this a metathesis: ‘A raven is like a writing desk because it bodes ill for owed bills’ (James Michie). Barthes goes on to say:

‘Everything is always the same,’ says the true palindrome; whether you take things in one direction or the other, the truth remains. ‘Everything can assume an opposite meaning,’ says Arcimboldo’s palindrome: i.e. everything always has a meaning, whichever way you read, but this meaning is never the same.

The Greeks and Romans made erotic visual puns (Geschichte der Erotischen Kunst by Edouard Fuchs, 1912). Apart from Arcimboldo, visual puns have been, until recently, a part of popular art, not necessarily prized and kept. Modern historians are showing more interest in these things. The exhibition ‘The Topsy-Turvy World’ of 1985 at the Goethe Institute in London and elsewhere contained a number of puns and upside-downs. René Magritte and Salvador Dali were influenced by their friend Paul Eluard’s collection of turn-of-the-century postcards which punned naked women with politicians and types: distantly influenced by Arcimboldo.

Apart from his conventional work as a portraitist, designer and illustrator, the oeuvre of Arcimboldo is small and symmetrical. There are four Seasons, and four Elements. There are Vertumnus, and Flora. There are the Librarian, and the Jurist, portraits of contemporaries Wolfgang Lazius and Johann Ulrich Zasius. There are the Cellarer, and the Cook, portrayed in the tools of their trade, and only known at the moment from photographs. There seems to have been an Agriculture in this series. There are the two upside-downs. There seems to have been an anthropomorphic landscape. There is a tantalising description of an Annus or Janus: ‘He also painted a Janus representing the year itself, doing it in profile in the likeness of Summer, with a head behind which signifies Winter, and at the neck a snake with its head in its mouth to mean that is the year.’

It is surprising to learn that pictures like the Librarian, which in one reading is a pile of books, and the Jurist, where cooked meats stand for the face, were portraits. Our usual experience of these pictures in books, where one sees the detail of the things first, and the faces second, is probably the reverse of what happened in the large dark halls of a 16th-century palace. There one would have seen from a distance what appeared to be a well-known face: on close inspection it would disintegrate into its component things. Arcimboldo must have been skilled at perceiving what would read as what at a distance.

Arcimboldo was court painter to the Hapsburgs, Maximilian II and Rudolf II. Giovanni Battista Fonteo writes in his Divinatio (1568):

We marvel now no less at the Elements
– Composed, merciful Caesar, in your honour –
That stand side by side with every Season:
And we will admire their human forms
Made so that they may venerate the benevolent
Graces of the demigods of Austria.
And this not only because you rule the world,
But that of this world you also rule the Elements ...

And so on, in frightful sycophancy. Apparently the Seasons and Elements are all portraits of Maximilian II, and come in pairs: air-spring, fire-summer, earth-autumn, water-winter. The grotesqueness of the representation takes some of the taste of the bootlicking away.

Gregorio Comanini wrote in his Il Figino (1591) of the painting we know as the Jurist: ‘Laughable to the highest degree was the portrait he painted, at the command of the Emperor Maximilian, of a certain Doctor, whose entire face had been ravaged by syphilis, leaving only a few hairs on his chin. It is all composed of various roasted animals and fishes, and he caught the likeness so well that anyone who just glanced at it recognised the true features of the good jurist.’ Comanini writes of the portrait of Rudolf II as Vertumnus, god of the seasons:

If you do not admire the hideousness that makes me
Beautiful, then you know not
By how far hideousness
Surpasses every beauty.
I am various from myself
Yet, various, I am single
Though made of many things.
With my various appearances
I portray many a likeness.

Arcimboldo is ancient and modern. His pictures may have served as ideological symbols for the Kunstkammer, the collection of curiosities and marvels kept at the Prague court. Similarly there was for many years a cabinet in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, containing such things as Méret Oppenheim’s Déjeuner en Fourrure, and Man Ray’s Cadeau, the flat iron with tin tacks, and other modern marvels. Some of Arcimboldo’s paintings will have been made by setting up objects to form a face and then drawing from it: the Librarian, for example. Our new sculptors – Edward Allington, David Mach, Tony Cragg – give us the set-up pure and simple.

There are 21 articles in this book, one of which samples a further 16 texts. Those by Sven Alfons, R.J.W. Evans, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, and Piero Falchetta are the most useful, as they enable the reader to piece together the history. Apart from a brief quotation from the Barthes essay, the modern quotations and poetic indulgences are not worthwhile. There are many interesting and many uninteresting pictures. The whole is indispensable.

The originator of the exhibition and hence this book is Pontus Hulten, to whom we should be very grateful. Unfortunately he contributes a wild surmise which has Cubist Picasso being influenced by someone who could have shown him a photograph of the Librarian. ‘Could’ only in that a photograph was in existence in Sweden, and a Swede called Ulrik Wrangel ‘seems to have known’ Picasso. An 18th-century drawing is reproduced which prefigures Magritte’s painting The Rape of 1935. Magritte is very likely not to have seen it.

On page 63 there are portraits by Antonis Moor of Maximilian II and Empress Maria, dated 1550, and opposite, on page 62, a portrait of Maximilian II, Empress Maria and their three children, attributed to Arcimboldo. It looks as if it was painted by Antonis Moor as well, to me.

There may be a parallel between Mannerism and Modernism. There is a sense in which Arcimboldo’s pictures exist to display what can be done with the marvellous techniques bequeathed him by the Renaissance. The work of Magritte and Dali, coming as it does right after the invention of realism and photography, uses those techniques to quite different imaginative ends. According to Evans, ‘scholars at the court achieved work of lasting importance in plant identification and classification, which surely underlies the floral portraits of Arcimboldo.’ He used the drawing techniques of the Renaissance on new subjects.

I particularly enjoy Arcimboldo’s Winter. A distinction can be made between a visual pun, where unlike objects – books and people – are compared, and a visual double meaning, where like objects are compared. In Winter, which is Arcimboldo’s King Lear, the decrepitude and decay we are seeing more of in the mirror on fine bright days is compared with the decrepitude and decay in a tree, another living body with a skin, and sinews, and growths, and sagging muscles. It is a most moving study of slow death. Posed as it is in this poetic form, it is much more successful than a mere portrait of an old man. Similarly, the Jurist, like a Francis Bacon, is a terrible reminder that we are hunks of meat.

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