Blake Gopnik on the Arcimboldo exhibit at the National Gallery of Art

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; C08

On Sunday, when crowds start thronging to the National Gallery of Art for "Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy," they're likely to have a lot of fun with its 16 uncanny paintings.

They'll enjoy how a strange-looking face, representing the figure of Spring, is in fact built from 80 different kinds of flowering plants. They'll marvel at images of a personified Summer made up of fruits and veggies, of Autumn as grapes and grains and Winter as citrus and dead wood, as well as at "portraits" of Fire (embers, candles, flint) and Water (fish and seafood). The Habsburg emperor Rudolf II gets depicted as Vertumnus, Roman god of growth and abundance -- by having his face and torso constructed out of corn, grains, fruit and squash. Rudolf and his father Maximilian II, rulers of most of Central Europe, were Giuseppe Arcimboldo's patrons from 1562, when the Milanese painter moved north to Vienna and then Prague, almost right until his death 31 years later.

A visit to the show might end with a broad smile at three paintings by Arcimboldo (pronounced Arch-im-BOLD-o) that look to be standard still lifes of fruits, vegetables and cooked meats. Then, seen upside-down, they turn into portraits.

The clever conceits behind Arcimboldo's paintings -- "jokes," "fancies," "curiosities," as his contemporaries called them -- give them a huge "wow" factor. It's why they've been riffed on in so many ads. It's why, ever since a big, scholarly Arcimboldo show in Paris in 2007, the Louvre says that he's been its most asked-after artist -- except, of course, for Leonardo and his Mona Lisa. (The current Washington show is a much shrunken version of that Paris exhibition.)

That instant impact is also where a big problem lies with Arcimboldo's art. It's likely to keep most viewers from going very deep with it, or looking very long. One reason Mona Lisa is so popular is because we already know her so well, we're saved doing any work in looking at her. Arcimboldo, with his jokey shtick, also gets us to a punch line, fast, then lets us off the hook.

Maybe that's okay. Maybe Arcimboldo's not worth that much of our time. By any normal art-historical standard, he's a pretty minor figure, especially when compared with most artists given solos at the National Gallery. It's easy to feel that his art has been brought in because it's a cheap-and-cheerful crowd pleaser, rather than because it much needs to be seen -- which might leave you wondering why the National Gallery, of all places, is trying so hard to please.

But closer looking and deeper thought does pay off, if you let it, even with this trippy art.

Deft surfaces

I'm not talking about the symbolism that's often said to lurk behind the artist's paintings. From his own day until now, aficionados have backed Arcimboldo by claiming that his apparently superficial art is about the messages hidden in its depths -- that he's a scholar in motley. They say his portrait of Rudolf as a salad bar is actually about imperial dominion over all the earth's bounty. Other pictures are said to riff on recondite passages from classical texts. Both could be true -- Arcimboldo moved in scholarly circles -- and it still wouldn't make his art weighty. Just having hidden depths doesn't make you profound; there has to be something worth fishing for in them.

I think that Arcimboldo's true depths are in his surfaces. You see him at his best by completely avoiding his punch lines, paying attention instead to how his jokes are built. When you get close to the National Gallery's newly purchased picture of a personified Four Seasons -- so close you can't see the painting has a face -- you have the chance to admire the stunning rendition of the bottom of the apple on his head. If you look so intently at the chest in Arcimboldo's "Water" that it loses all physique, you get to see it only as a frog, brilliantly observed from nature. The stems of the cherries in "Summer" are gorgeously attached to their fruit, and only the most observant artist could have caught the silken details of the iris in the Madrid version of his "Spring" or the knobbly lemon in his "Winter" from Paris. (This show includes multiple versions of several of his pictures, pulled from different museums.)

But the most important and compelling details are in Arcimboldo's three reversible still lifes, when they're looked at as unpeopled kitchen scenes. The onion in his heap of vegetables, like the autumn grape leaf in his basket of fruit, are him at his very best as a painter of things. His platter full of meat balances a sense of lavish plenty against hints of excess and death, like the best still lifes you could name. It outdoes many of them in its strangeness and impact. That's especially impressive, given that it's one of the very first still lifes ever painted, and just about the first by an Italian.

Over the last 400 years, we've learned to take the still-life genre for granted, as though it were obvious that one thing an artist can do is stack a bunch of food or flowers and paint them. Before Arcimboldo, however, it wasn't merely un-obvious -- it was practically absurd. Why would anyone want a painting with no people in it, and barely any subject to speak of?

Certainly, an image of plants or animals might be useful to a natural historian. Arcimboldo did botanical and zoological studies that were published in the books of his scientist friends. It's even possible he was hired by the science-minded Habsburg court because of that work. (Before he went north, he had yet to make any high art that could have earned him the position.) Details from the forest or the larder might also find a place as grace notes in larger storytelling pictures, or as decorative details in murals. But framed and hung as independent artworks? Impossible.

And that's why Arcimboldo's paintings had to have more to them than that. If paintings had to have figures or a message to be valid, Arcimboldo would make sure his did -- even as he let them also be still lifes in drag.

Taken seriously as portraits, Arcimboldo's paintings start looking goofy and forced, even off-putting and ugly. His personified Spring, his Water, his Vertumnus only really pay off as vehicles -- as excuses -- for great still lifes. Try viewing one of his reversibles as a straight-ahead food picture, and I think you see it at its best, and as the harbinger of a future only a few decades away. That was a future where painters realized that the world itself, even at its most quotidian, came packed with free-standing interest, meaning and profundity. It was a future that came to see that there could be as much depth in Shakespeare's descriptions as in Spencer's allegories.

It was a Galilean future, you could say, where man wasn't the measure of all things and the universe didn't have to revolve around him. (Galileo himself dismissed Arcimboldo as the maker of dumb jokes, and compared bad science to his paintings.)

Back in Milan a few years before his death, Arcimboldo was granted a title of nobility by Rudolf II. That put him in the company of artists such as Titian and a bare handful of others. It was more than a jester deserved, but just reward for an ancestor of Chardin and Manet.

Arcimboldo, 1526-1593:

Nature and Fantasy

runs Sept. 19 to Jan. 9 in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, on the north side of the Mall at Fourth Street NW. Call 202-737-4215 or visit

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