Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Nice Things #1 - Arcimboldo

Here’s a painting which scared the living daylights out of me when I first saw it as a small child, in a kids book called ‘Looking at Pictures with Rolf Harris’.

‘Water’ was painted in 1566 by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a former student of Leonardo da Vinci. His output as a court painter is long forgotten, his reputation now resting solely on idiosyncratic portraits like this. Against the stifling historical context of the flattering portraits, genre scenes and religious tableaux of his day, ‘Water’ stands as a true (excuse the pun) artistic red herring. There is a bizarre quality to it which hints at nightmares, hallucinations and the horror of insanity.
As a small child, it was this quality which made the image stand out. I was too scared to turn the page and look at it directly - instead I would peer nervously into the half-opened book for a second, before slamming it shut in terror. It seemed genuinely malevolent - but I loved it for that. It made me feel something.

The details we have of Arcimboldo’s life are scant, but there is no suggestion that his off-beat paintings were the product of a mental disorder – he had a long and fruitful career. It is presumed that his bizarre portraits, for which he received praise during his lifetime, were novelties intended to thrill and delight. He worked during the age of High Renaissance Mannerism where distortion of the human form was customary - and unusual, downright nutty pictures were not unheard of in this context. 

In England a notable contemporary example is the anamorphic head of Edward VI, which can only be seen ‘correctly’ when viewed from side perspective.

It wasn’t until in the 20th century that Arcimboldo’s pioneering use of the subjective double image reached a wider audience. The Surrealists, with their interest in dream imagery and the subconscious, were fascinated by his work. Nowhere is his influence more evident than in the so-called ‘paranoiac critical’ double images of Dali – where he invites our mind to see images nested in other images –such as in his canvas of the ‘Disappearing Bust of Voltaire’.

These days, weird and wonderful composite creatures and constructed heads have fully permeated our visual culture, from the coathanger heads of sculptor David Mach to the marvellous animal monster of illustrator Andrew Rae. ....But Arcimboldo’s fish faced man still packs a mighty punch.

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