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Reaping the Fruits of His Artistic Visions

Arcimboldo's Fanciful Paintings Shape Fruits, Flowers and Tree Trunks Into Human Forms

The Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo lived during an age of kings, but you probably wouldn’t know that from looking at his paintings.

Glancing through Arcimboldo’s work, you won’t find traditional portraits of monarchs wearing dark robes draped over their shoulders and serious looks on their faces. But you will find that the subjects have tree trunks for necks, mushrooms for lips, flowers for hair and sea creatures — lobsters, turtles, you name it — for torsos.

Arcimboldo, who lived in the 16th century, did in fact work at the royal court of the Habsburg monarchy in Vienna and Prague. But he made his name with a series of strikingly original paintings in which he molded fruits, vegetables and a collection of other objects from nature into the recognizable shapes of human heads.

The best of those paintings, along with a series of nature-related works by Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Durer and others, are on display at the National Gallery of Art in a new exhibit, “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy.”

The exhibit will be on display until
Jan. 9 and is part of ITALY@150, a series of events celebrating the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification and its relationship with the United States.

David Brown, the National Gallery’s curator in the department of Italian and Spanish paintings, said the idea for this exhibit came from a display of Arcimboldo’s work at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. But that show featured too much local history for a Washington crowd, so exhibit organizers got creative as they looked for a way to bring Arcimboldo stateside.

“The theme we evolved here was nature and fantasy,” Brown said. “That is, we would take from the exhibition in Vienna the core works by the artist — the composite heads, which are his greatest achievement — and provide for them a context in the form of nature studies and other works relating to the depiction of nature in the 16th century drawn from the National Gallery’s own collection and local collections.”

The works of the other artists are displayed alongside Arcimboldo’s, although his work is the highlight of the exhibit. The best-known painting, and the one used to headline the exhibit, is called “Vertumnus,” after the Roman god of seasons, change and plant growth; the work is supposed to represent Emperor Rudolf II, Arcimboldo’s second benefactor at the Habsburg court.

In that piece, the emperor’s rosy cheeks are formed by apples, a pear becomes his nose, lettuce and artichoke heads fill his shoulders, and a crown of grapes and other fruits take the place of hair. The work is a treat to behold and a little disturbing at the same time. That’s a common reaction to Arcimboldo’s work.

Images of the four seasons are central to the display, and Arcimboldo takes care to accurately represent each season in his work. For example, in “Spring,” attractive, blooming flowers are everywhere on the subject’s head and neck, while in “Winter,” a set of threatening, leafless branches stand in for flowing hair.

To add even more variety to the show, three of Arcimboldo’s reversible pieces — paintings that look like inanimate objects when viewed straight-on but resemble humans when viewed through a mirror — are on display.

Ironically, Arcimboldo didn’t produce the exhibit’s most eye-catching piece, although he did inspire it. In “Winter (After Arcimboldo),” contemporary artist Philip Haas created a 15-foot fiberglass sculpture of the head depicted in the original “Winter,” and the result is astounding, as if the character from the painting has materialized outside the frame.

Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, curator of the exhibit, said that in May, the artwork will be packed up for restoration — the pieces have been on display all over the world and need a break, she joked.

She also referred to Arcimboldo as “an eternal contemporary artist,” and the moniker seems appropriate: His work was unique and modern 450 years ago, and it remains so today. And with its use of fish and vegetables for body parts, won’t it always be?

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