Monday 1 October 2007


About two weeks ago I visited the Musée du Luxembourg to feast on fruit and flowers, reptiles and fish, trees and vegetables, rodents and amphibians, all pressed into service as substitutes for human features by one of art history’s great anomalies, Arcimboldo. As an adolescent with a passion for the most exhibitionist varieties of Surrealism, the existence of Arcimboldo’s paintings was evidence that Dali’s visual trickery had a historic pedigree. The passion for Surrealism faded (although it never quite went away) and the work of Arcimboldo made little further impression despite its Taschen led ubiquity. The single fact I did know about Arcimboldo was that I had never actually seen one at first hand.

That is no longer true since there were three large rooms lined with his paintings in this exhibition providing a rare opportunity to get acquainted with these much reproduced but physically elusive images. The organisers had included a good selection of contextual material, sketchbooks, ceramics and 3D figures which were largely ignored by visitors who swarmed around the paintings with scarcely a glance at such enticing exhibits as the glazed dish decorated with an image of a human profile entirely constructed from knobs and testicles. Some of the drawing had an unexpected delicacy of touch. The conclusion to be drawn from this material which included some very finely modelled and cast, small scale replicas of reptiles and amphibians was that Renaissance patrons had a considerable appetite for the bizarre which was well catered to by artists and craftsmen. Nothing is quite so good as an Arcimboldo for the final embellishment of a Cabinet of Curiosities.

Examining the paintings was no easy matter given the crush of spectators and it’s difficult to explain what could only be experienced by actual observation when the images are so familiar from reproduction. The ancient varnished paint surfaces trap the illusionistic colour and texture under an amber layer. Some disparity in quality can be detected. Some illusions carry more conviction than others. Some are calculated to give pleasure and others are meant to shock and repel. The portraits of the seasons are ingratiating but the figure of a reader constructed from books and folios has something to say about the loss of vitality that goes with an excessive adoration of books. The eels and toads and the rats and mice can be distinctly unsettling; the fishy head has a quality of deep chill and a generous coating of mucous like substance that enhances its repellence. Strangest of all was an image I hadn’t seen before of a young and well-dressed child whose regular and almost perfect features were graced by a covering of fine fur. This painting possesses a malevolence and venom which alone makes it worth the price of admission.

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