Paris, Musée du Luxembourg, from 15 September to 13 January 2008. Then Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, from 12 February to 1 June 2008

1. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593)
Fire, 1566
Oil on panel - 67 x 51 cm
Signed and dated bottom right
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Heaps of flowers, animals or objects tracing human figures, is a way of summarizing Arcimboldo’s unique art. A native of Milan, his name forever associated to these “composed heads”, he worked principally at the Habsburg imperial court in the 1560’s. Thus, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna owns an extensive collection of works by the artist and has naturally organized this exhibition in partnership with Paris. As for the Musée du Luxembourg, it remains consistent with its practice of creating special events, as this is the very first monographic exhibition devoted to Arcimboldo. The collaboration of the prestigious Viennese institution imparts a certain amount of credibility to the show, in spite the inherent flaws of the Parisian museum. Often criticized for a lack of scientific discipline and the high price of the entrance ticket, the Musée du Luxembourg is also a victim of poor museum design. The lighting sets a shadowy atmosphere, too filtered to take full advantage of the reduced space and the choice of gray and bordeaux colors for the rails holding the paintings is just as unfortunate.

2. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593)
The Librarian, 1562
Oil on canvas - 110 x 72 cm
Skokloster (Sweden), Skokloster casle

On the other hand, the selection of works here is remarkable. Some of the very few drawings known to be by Arcimboldo, notably as costume designer for imperial festivities or as illustrator for the process of silk manufacturing, are presented. There are also a large number of his signed paintings, mostly from the Kunsthistoriches Museum or from Sweden, as well as the full series of Seasons from the Louvre. Only one Allegory, Air, from a private Swiss collection, seems to us too weak to be by Arcimboldo [1]. Curiously, some comparative bronzes such as the Pond with Serpents or the Round Loaf, are left in total anonymity, when they are in fact typical of XVIth C. workshops in Padova, around Riccio. The catalogue does a better job of discussing these attributions, offering as well some valuable essays by specialists (Thomas Da Costa Kaufmann, Philippe Morel, or the commissioner Sylvia Ferino to name just a few) on the different aspects of Arcimboldo’s art. Our only regret is that some of the works with entries found in this rich publication are not present in Paris [2].

3. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593)
The Cook (reversible painting), c. 1570
Oil on panel - 52,5 x 41 cm
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum

3. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593)
The Cook (reversible painting), c. 1570
Oil on panel - 52,5 x 41 cm
Stockholm, Nationalmuseum

This is a pity as the exhibition strives to be not only the first major retrospective ever devoted to Arcimboldo but also to evoke the cultural milieu of his time. It is a welcome attempt, rare at the Musée du Luxembourg. As the artist’s work is limited, the attempt to set the context is extended to other works that were also influenced by the shape of living objects. In the XVIth C., the obsession with nature went so far as to work with molded objects in some German and Italian workshops, and witnessed the rise of realistic drawings of animals in early zoological treatises or other works. Fascinated by “naturalia”, contemporaneous silversmiths would supply the Habsburgs’ Kunstkammer with pieces that were as strange and extraordinary as Arcimboldo’s paintings. Blending silver and coral, these objects reflect the same fixation on nature’s multi-faceted wonders as the painter’s creations. The artist’s talent teams up with natural phenomena in all its variety for the unending pleasure of Rudolf II, the refined emperor of a vanishing XVIth C.

4. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593)
Vertumnus (Portrait of Rudolf II), 1590
Oil on panel - 68 x 56 cm
Stockholm, Skoklosters slott

Just what exactly does anyone know about Arcimboldo before his genial representations of the Elements and the Seasons ? As suggested in the first galleries, not much can be said about his early years. The tapestry of the The Dormition of the Virgin, for which he drew the cartoon in 1561-1562, is one of the few examples of his Italian period. It was meant for the Cathedral in Como and reveals an artist still unsure of himself, and a poor master of already outdated Raphaelesque conventions. This rare attempt at the historical genre then makes way essentially for portraits, and corresponds to his almost permanent departure for Vienna for reasons yet unknown. Among the first paintings commissioned by the Habsburgs, a series of portraits of Ferdinand I’s daughters is associated with Arcimboldo, a hypothesis based mainly on literary sources. In any case, one can see the rigorous, and dry, manner of a Lombard artist, probably also the author of the full-length portrait of Maximilian II and his family, likewise attributed to Arcimboldo.

5. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593)
The Four Seasons in One Head
Oil on panel - 68 x 56 cm
New York, private collection, courtesy
of Pandora Old Masters, New York

The switch-over to the characteristic Arcimboldo style is due in part also to the artist’s origins in Milan. One senses the major role of the caricature, a genre dear to Leonardo and carried on by his followers. The Head of Cazzi with its multiple phalluses forming a human face, constitutes a crude and comical precedent to Arcimboldo’s works. The Habsburg painter, nevertheless implements this same figurative system in a very different way also : the over-abundance of objects or creatures in these profiles constitutes a tribute to the cosmic power of Maximilian II and his successors. As well as providing a stylistic comparison confirming their attribution, the assembling of the Seasons and the Elements (ill. 1) offers a veritable rhetorical process : by accumulating symbolic objects, Arcimboldo creates unmistakable identities for his personifications.

6. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593)
Self-portrait in paper (Man of Letters)
Pen and ink on paper - 44,2 x 31,8 cm
Genoa, Musei di Strada Nuova,
Palazzo Rosso, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe

Expertly skilled in the process, he pursues in this vein when portraying figures of the imperial court : sometimes playful, as in the case of The Librarian (ill. 2) made up of mostly of books ; at others more critical as with The Jurist, whose battered face is rendered by roasted fowl. The question of Arcimboldo as a precursor of still-lifes is difficult to answer. Should one consider some “reversible” portraits (ill. 3) as works with a double purpose ? In any case, it is clear that Arcimboldo upsets certain aesthetic conventions and does so with an incredibly modern critical eye.
In apotheosis, at the end of his career he leaves a portrait of Rudolf II with the traits of Vertumnus (ill. 4), an original image of an enlightened and generous prince, as well as The Four Seasons in One Head (ill. 5). Rarely displayed, this last work reflects an amazing culmination of the earlier series ; the painting is intended above all as a tribute to the intellectual Comanini, thus thanking him for his generous praise of Arcimboldo. But the most moving portrait is perhaps that of the artist himself. His Self-portrait in Paper (The Man of Letters) (ill. 6) reveals the melancholy wisdom of Arcimboldo, aware of the fact that the ambiguous genius of his talent could metamorphose even his own image.

local/cache-vignettes/L115xH147/Couverture_Arcimboldo-b1785.jpgSylvia Ferino-Pagden, Arcimboldo 1426-1593, Skira, 2007, 319 p., 38 €. ISBN : 9788861303829

Visitor information : Paris, Musée du Luxembourg, 19, rue de Vaugirard, 75006 Paris. Phone : + 33 (0)1 42 34 25 95 Open daily. Monday, Friday, Saturday, 10.30 am - 10 pm ; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, 10.30 am - 7 pm ; dimanche, 9 am - 7 pm. RAtes : 11 €, 9 and 6 € (reducted)


Benjamin Couilleaux, mardi 16 octobre 2007


[1] The sign in fact reads : Giuseppe Arcimboldo (?).

[2] These are often works belonging to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and it is possible that they will be present at the show in Vienna. Of special interest is the masterpiece of Mannerist craftsmanship, the famous writing desk by Wenzel Jamnitzer.

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