16 May 2008

Arcimboldo - an eccentric artis

I am busy at the moment writing a book about Fantasy Art and its history. While searching online and reading reports and books on this subject, I have discovered that some artists, that for me so obviously (and without any doubt) should belong to the genre of unique fantasy art/fantastic artists haven’t been mention at all; either in books or reports. Extremely peculiar.

One of the artists that I haven’t come across in any of the sources I looked through is Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Maybe the reason that nobody has mentioned him is the fact that his art is very bizarre and very difficult to categorize. People love to pigeonhole everything. If something or somebody is very unique or uncanny or extremely original and difficult to put away in a drawer with other similar things than sometimes we just ignore it or forget it. This is only my speculation.

Back to the artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Arcimboldo was born in Milan in 1527 and grew up during the High Renaissance (Mannerism). He was extremely famous during his lifetime. He was a court painter of Emperor Ferdinand I (Habsburg), then Maximilian II and at the end Rudolph II. Part of Arcimboldo's duties included designing gala events for the imperial family. These were flashy affairs with gilded fountains and rivers of champagne, parades and promenades, flocks of coloured birds, music, theatre, tons of original artwork, sculptures, and much pageantry. Arcimboldo invented many unique special effects for these events such as an enormous hydro-mechanically powered musical instrument which acted like a modern colour organ; called the "Harpsichord of Colour." He was a man of many talents, and in the vein of other Renaissance great spirits (like Leonardo da Vinci) he served also as an architect, stage designer, engineer, water engineer and art specialist.

But as soon as he was dead he was totally forgotten. I can only speculate again about the reason, why people lost interest in his art. Perhaps he was misunderstood by the generations that followed? Maybe his sinister paintings weren’t enjoyable, interesting or intriguing? Or maybe they were too bamboozling, too insane for people of past centuries. Some of the contemporary reviews spoke about “the state of a deranged mind”. The interest in his abstruse and fantastic pictures, of which we only have a very few originals nowadays, revived only at the end of the 19th century. The surrealist movement brought him back into the public interest.

Personally I like his bizarre paintings. They are such unique art works, unique concepts, the creations of a very eccentric, intelligent and sophisticated brain. The documents of the time bear witness to the fact that monarchs and his contemporaries in general were also enthusiastic about his art.

His most recognizable paintings are known as the The Four Seasons series. The artistic concept of these pictures from 1563 was unique and laid the foundation of Arcimboldo’s success as a painter. The Four Seasons consist of four paintings - Winter, Spring, Summer and Autumn. All of them depict faces and heads but not normal human heads, vegetable-fruit-flower-tree heads.

Other famous works by him are: Water and Fire (1566), The Lawyer (1566), The Cook (1570) another series of the Four Seasons from 1572, two series of Four Seasons in 1573. He painted The Four Seasons twice again in 1577.

In 1591 he painted two of his most famous pictures, Flora (c.1591) and Vertumnus (1590-1591. Vertumnus is a portrait of Rudolph II, showing him as Vertumnus, the ancient Roman god of vegetation and transformation. The painting Verumnus consists entirely of magnificent fruits, flowers and vegetables. Rudolph II awarded Arcimboldo one of his highest orders in 1592. Next year on 11 July 1593 the painter died.

The Winter 1572 (Private Collection, Bergamo)

Looking at Arcimboldo’s bizarre paintings I can’t escape from thoughts about the human brain and the endless possibilities of the uncontrolled imagination. How did a man born in the time of the Renaissance, in a time when nobody painted such paintings, decide to create monstrous images of human heads?

For example, have a look at the Winter - head from The Four Seasons. The profile of the man is made up from the knobby stump of a tree, with a broken branch for the nose, moss for the stubble on the chin and two parasitic mushrooms for the lips. Is this more or less sinister than the hellish monsters thought up by Hieronymus Bosch? Arcimboldo paints a parody that is at times almost plausible in its suggestions of death and decay in a living being. The Winter portrait, the image of the head can horrify people, but at the same time it is so amazingly beautiful. The balance of the colour-palette is astonishing and tremendous. What a great imagination Arcimboldo had, and what a great colourist he was!

These puzzle-visionary-capriccio images of all the Portraits-Heads-Faces made by Arcimboldo are incredibly unusual, surreal and fantastic. I am curious if there are viewers who won’t see any faces in his paintings, only flowers and vegetables?

Above is a painting from a series based on the Four Seasons; this one is called Summer. The nose of the person appears to be made out of a very ripe cucumber. The chin is from a pear, and the cheek is made from a peach. Look closely at the man's coat. Can you see the name of the artist woven into the collar of his jacket, and the date 1573 embroidered on the shoulder?

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