The Arcimboldo Effect
Art Monthly, June 1987, p. 14

Yet another attempt to provide a provenance for Modernist painting has been made with “The Arcimboldo Effect” exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Restored and funded by the Agnelli (FIAT) fortune, the Palazzo Grassi is establishing itself as a major exhibiting gallery, following its Futurism show last year.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1537-1593) was a Milanese painter who moved to Vienna and Praque, and is remembered for portraits where the components of the face are made up from fruit, vegetables, birds, fish or books. Alfred Barr claimed him as a precursor for Surrealism. The 1987 exhibition would like to turn him into the forefather of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism as well.

The Venice exhibition is a broke-back affair. On the first floor is a splendid display of Arcimboldo’s works, similar visual puzzles by this contemporaries, as well as volumes about magic. The catalogue essays made a persuasive case for reading Arcimboldo’s use of non-human elements in portrait-making as philosophical and political statements, and not just as a tiresomely clever device.

On the second floor, there is a survey of twentieth-century art form Magritte and Bunuel to Pollock and Warhol, linked back to an idea of Leonardo’s. There are also works influenced by the revival of interest in Arcimboldo, including a Time magazine cover. The commercial items document the ways in which high art has been used as fodder for the mass media. What is not convincing is the attempt to turn Arcimboldo’s remaking of the natural world into a source for Modernism. This ahistorical step denies the careful analysis provided of Arcimboldo’s place within the metaphysics of his age, and precludes a parallel explanation for Modernism, That the curators sensed this weakness is apparent in the exhibition’s subtitle, which refers only to changing images of the face.

One juxtaposition is visually convincing: Picasso’s portrait of Kahnweiler next to Arcimboldo’s image of a librarian. The faceted planes in the former are matched by the open pages of the book that is the nose of the latter. If nothing were known about Picasso we could accept his Cubist portrait as a reworking of The Librarian. The safest conclusion is that even pictorial similarities are less than adequate evidence for art historical interpretation,

One further hazard in trying to overload Arcimboldo with the glories of Modernism is that the exhibition is in danger of losing sight of what Arcimboldo did achieve. Although accepting that there was an alchemistic element in his faces, it is also helpful to see him as part of the then recently revived tradition of the Grotesque, y which is meant the mingling of disparate elements such as were found in the Roman grottoes about 1500, and which Michaelangelo used for his decoration. The otherwise excellent catalogue never mentions the Grotesque and thereby loses one way of connecting Arcimboldo with Modernism. This loss is keenly felt in a city which hosts so much of what Ruskin, in The Stones of Venice, called the noble grotesque.