Arcimboldo's 'Vegetable Gardener' at National Gallery of Art: no prank at all

A show at the National Gallery gives us almost all the surviving oil paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a Renaissance painter best known for his portraits built from fruits and vegetables and beasts. He was also one of the first painters of free-standing still lifes.
Friday, January 7, 2011; 12:14 AM

The lowly vegetable gardener now occupies a place of high honor in a world that sees profound virtue in homegrown food, but that wasn't always the case. Years ago, the gardener was forgotten. Centuries ago, he was the butt of a particularly biting caricature by a masterful artist named Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

If you hurry, you can see the prankster's take on the humble cultivator at the National Gallery of Art, where "The Vegetable Gardener" is one of 16 paintings on display in the East Building. The exhibition ends Sunday. As a lowly vegetable gardener myself, I got a big kick out of it.

In contrast to his subject, Arcimboldo (1526-1593) was a pretty exalted fellow. As court painter to successive Habsburg rulers in Vienna and Prague, he returned to his native Milan as a noble superstar, shortly before painting the gardener around 1590. He was a painter who constructed portraits from fruits, vegetables, nuts and flowers (not to mention fish). They were a big hit in his day.

When he was rediscovered in the past century, he was hailed as the artist who virtually invented the still life and may have been the first surrealist. His images of educated professionals, a jurist and a librarian are contemptuous enough. Think what was in store for the yokel digging the turnips.

The joke is multilayered. First, the figure is seen upside down. Right side up, the viewer observes a rather crowded arrangement of vegetables in a black bowl. The gallery has placed a mirror beneath the painting to reveal its preferred aspect, though turning one's head upside down gives a better view. Suddenly we see an amiable buffoon, with a radish for a nose, and onion and turnip as cheeks, eyes made of filbert and walnut shells, and lips of a pair of reddish mushrooms. The bowl becomes a helmet pulled comically low.

X-ray analysis showed that Arcimboldo first composed the still life but continued to rework it as he painted to get the facial features right. "You have to imagine him constantly turning the panel upside down" as he worked, said David Brown, the exhibit's coordinating curator.

Some art experts see the radish nose as a phallus, another of the painter's low japes. It wasn't obvious to me or to Brown, but, as he says, "it doesn't seem unlikely. They weren't squeamish about these things as we are. There was no problem about veiled and comic eroticism. That would be part of the joke."

The fundamental joke is one of social satire. Arcimboldo chose as his subject not just what we take to be an estate gardener but the one on the lowest rung of the horticultural ladder, beneath the landscape architect, the hothouse grower, the rosarian, the herbalist, the orchardist. Even the veggies seem vulgar; no globe artichokes or fava beans here, just your basic yellow onion and white turnip.

Not all of the assembled edibles are immediately recognizable. Arcimboldo invited the viewer to identify the veggies; the game not only persists, it intensifies as varieties blur 420 years after he put paint to wood.

A globular tuft in the shadows below the onion is a chestnut burr. Below that is a sprig of mint. I can't figure out his beard. The white rooted vegetables that come to mind - parsnips, salsify, scorzonera, parsley root - all have different foliage from the one depicted. It might be a radish lost to cultivation.

All is not play, though. Look at "The Vegetable Gardener" and some of the other paintings in the show and you see symbols of the abundance of the Holy Roman Empire. The "Reversible Head With Basket of Fruit" is another upside-down face, full of luscious apples and pears. No image is more lavish than "Vertumnus," named after a Roman god but actually a portrait in flora of the artist's last patron, Rudolf II. The figure is made of grains, grapes, gourds, vegetables, roses, lilies, tulips and more. Another of the paintings, "Spring," shows a subject composed of 80 identifiable garden plants.

I can't look at these old paintings of flora without thinking of how limited our world has become by comparison. How many varieties of pear did you eat this fall? Of course, theirs was a world of famine, war and pestilence, but the gardener Arcimboldo had in mind toiled in the palace and knew a cornucopia that would have made today's foodie drool. The idea suddenly transforms a clown into a genius.

If Arcimboldo's plan was to make the gardener a fool, I think he fails. I see a peasant who may have been simple and dimwitted but who embodied the purest ambitions of the vegetable gardener: a love of nurturing plants from seed and an immense but not boastful satisfaction in bringing them to the table. In that regard, perhaps the joke's on Arcimboldo.

If you go

"Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy" closes Sunday. The National Gallery of Art is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, East Building. 202-737-4215. . Free.

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