Greco's Ghosts

Art. History. Culture.

A Cornucopia of Wit: Still Life and Arcimboldo

I’ve had another small hiatus from the blogosphere; my apologies. My November has been hectic (I feel like I’ve been out of town over half of this month), and here the Thanksgiving holiday is upon us. I’m seeing holidays as a great opportunity to explore certain artistic themes which come to mind when we think about the traditions involved in said holidays. Last month, Greco’s Ghosts explored themes of horror in connection with my favorite holiday, Halloween. Now we celebrate Thanksgiving, a time for acknowledging what we are thankful for. Important, yes, but also cheesy. I’m sure there are many examples in the world of art that would represent the history and traditions of Thanksgiving. What comes to mind for me is still life painting. Why? Because the main thing we do on Thanksgiving is engorge ourselves at tables filled with delicious foods – a common element found in still life painting. Center pieces and elegant tableware as well as flowers and dead fowl are also depicted in many still lifes.

Most often I find still lifes incredibly boring. There is no drama, no story to contemplate in these works. No profound statement. Yet I appreciate them for their importance to the art world. Artists are trained in still life because it is a primary method in developing technical skill. Many of the great masters such as Caravaggio, Carracci, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velazquez were accomplished in still life in their early careers, and would incorporate it in later works containing the human figure as a means to emphasize more virtuoso skill. A still life can be great for its rendering of very intricate details of each flower, petal, stem and seed. Those are the still lifes that make you gasp and say, “How did he do that?” Those are the still lifes that are so incredibly done that you can actually feel the softness of the petals, the fuzziness of the leaves, the sharpness of the stems. You can actually smell the sweetness of the fruits, or hear the quiet buzzing of the bees fluttering above. But I look at such works, thinking OK that’s pretty awesome, there’s no way I could ever do that, and then move right along because I’m the opposite of entertained. One exception is Arcimboldo.

Click image to enlarge. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italian), Self Portrait, drawing, National Gallery, Prague.

Click image to enlarge. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italian), Self Portrait, drawing, National Gallery, Prague.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, called Arcimboldo (Ahr-cheem-bowl-doe), 1526-1593, is, in my opinion, the greatest creator of still lifes. He painted other things too, and is actually known as a Mannerist, but it is his still life work that is probably the most well known today.  Arcimboldo gave life to his still lifes by creating composite figures out of the inanimate objects or nonhuman creatures. While there is nothing human in these composite still lifes, they come together in the shapes of bodies, heads and faces. The composite heads are Arcimboldo’s trademark. At the time of their release they were seen as amusing as well as controversial, as some of the works were made to resemble actual court residing aristocrats and royal patrons. Some of the most interesting examples of Arcimboldo’s still lifes are his various series of works. One such series consists of four paintings created to represent the four seasons.

In Spring, Arcimboldo composites the abundant growth of the season in lush greenery and vibrant flora. The plants are tightly piled upon each other to form the profile figure of a man. Notice the small flower earring dangling from the ear, and the large white flower sticking out of the top of the head as if it were an embellishment or topping of his hat.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Spring, 1563, oil on oak wood, 66 x 50 cm, Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Spring, 1563, oil on oak wood, 66 x 50 cm, Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid.

The still life composite of Summer gives a cornucopia of the harvest sculpted into another man’s profile. Ripe fruits and vegetables form the neck and head of this figure while long grains make his torso and shoulders. The keen wit of the artist shows especially through the pea pods forming the man’s teeth and Arcimboldo’s own signature across the collar of grains.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Summer, 1563, oil on panel, 67 x 51 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Summer, 1563, oil on panel, 67 x 51 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

More abundance in harvest is painted in the Autumn still life forming another man’s profile, this time representing the later months of the year.  Of note in this still life are the vibrant fall colors of the leaves and the addition of the border around the frame made out of vines and blossoms. A plump pumpkin tops off this man’s extravagant headdress.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573, oil on canvas, 76 x 64 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Autumn, 1573, oil on canvas, 76 x 64 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The dreariness and bitterness in Winter is as evident as the vibrance of life is in Spring. Here a craggy tree trunk wrapped in husk forms the profile of a man. Dying branches and vines form the forest on top of the figure’s head. Notice the ingenious way Arcimboldo paints the bare branches twisting out of the figure’s chin and brow.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Winter, 1563, oil on panel, 67 x 51 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Winter, 1563, oil on panel, 67 x 51 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Another witty series of still lifes appears in Arcimboldo’s composites of the four elements. A veritable Noah’s Ark of creatures comes forth, along with more still life components in industry and craft. In Earth, Arcimboldo paints the creatures who roam the land, piled on top of each other again in the composite form of a man’s profile. His virtuoso shows through in the many incredibly rendered tusks, horns, and antlers of the animals, as well as the soft, curly tufts of the ram’s white fur.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Earth, 1566, oil on panel, private collection.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Earth, 1566, oil on panel, private collection.

The composite Air represents the animals who roam the skies. Arcimboldo paints a stack of fowl forming another man’s profile, each bird seeming to be propped up with their attention angling in different directions. Two wide eyed owls are the only ones who meet our gaze, a white one in the middle of the figure’s head, and a dark brown one at the back of the neck, hiding in the shadows behind a bright red parrot. The shoulders and torso of the figure are formed by a peacock whose covert feathers are spread into a gorgeous fan. You might be wondering why Arcimboldo includes a peacock in Air. Do peacocks actually fly? I looked it up. Yes, yes they do.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Air, 1566, oil on canvas, 74 x 56 cm, private collection.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Air, 1566, oil on canvas, 74 x 56 cm, private collection.

Arcimboldo’s most difficult still life composite might have been Fire, from the four elements series. Flames are hard to paint convincingly, yet he manages to not only make them seem real, but also paint the resulting smoke billowing above to convey a natural looking fire. Also impressive is the heat conveyed in the blazing hot coals and kindling sticks as well as the ornately painted chain of metal and pendants worn around the figure’s neck. This, paired with the multiple weapons and firearms, make the figure seem like a literal flaming warrior.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Fire, 1566, oil on panel, 67 x 51 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Fire, 1566, oil on panel, 67 x 51 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The absolute pièce de résistance in this series is Arcimboldo’s Water. This one blows me away. As in every one of Arcimboldo’s still life composites, the viewer sees the human figure’s profile on the surface, but then must do a double take to understand what is forming this figure. Here, sea creatures crawl over one another in a wet pile of sliminess. A remarkable array of textures comes through in fins, antennae, and shells. Everywhere you look there are eyeballs and tails, and the ensemble is topped off with a pearl necklace and earring, a spout of water, and a stick of shock red coral jutting out at the top. My favorite, though, is the octopus, whose tentacles splay across the figure like the tasseled shoulder patch of a soldier’s uniform.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Water, 1566, oil on panel, 67 x 51 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Click image to enlarge. Arcimboldo, Water, 1566, oil on panel, 67 x 51 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

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One comment on “A Cornucopia of Wit: Still Life and Arcimboldo

  1. Pingback: Did You Bury Your Sardine? It’s Lent People! | Blogistemology

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