西方藝術史上最特別之一人Giuseppe Arcimboldo(Born in Milan in 1536)之展覽 (2007 巴黎)
Arcimboldo’s Feast for the Eyes
PARIS — Aside from World Cup rugby and Vélib’, the self-service bike-sharing program that at the moment seems to obsess le tout Paris, the most amusing cultural diversion here is the Giuseppe Arcimboldo exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg.
Around the city kiosks advertise fashion magazines offering advice to young women on how to flirt at Vélib’ parking stations (with hair aptly wind-swept, feign difficulty with the automated pay system whenever a desirable man appears), and they also display colorful posters of puffy-cheeked faces made out of corn, pickles, garlic and cherries to promote Arcimboldo, the 16th-century Italian gimmick painter.
I had my doubts. But it turns out that the show’s a charmer, not too shallow, admirably concise, almost chic. The glad mobs, forming polite, cheerful scrums before these stately paintings of people with vegetable faces and fish eyes seem to recognize in Arcimboldo something of the French impulse to bring order to everything.
There is a temptation to find in the show’s popularity a metaphor for the general mood here. France’s hyperactive president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has embarked on a campaign of economic transition and tough love. He is pushing a new French globalism in lieu of the comfortable old welfare system that has guaranteed early retirement and many other benefits, along with high unemployment, especially among disenfranchised immigrants, to whom he has done conspicuously little to endear himself.
Arcimboldo’s subject was the instability of life, its changeability in a widening world, his purpose being to inspire a fresh but not always entirely comforting sense of possibility and wonderment. Mercantile conquests by 16th-century European powers, France included, uncovered new continents, from which an ear of corn, exotic and rare, could serve not just as a visual pun for a human ear but also as a political symbol of faraway places, economies, peoples — of nature itself — brought to heel.
That said, I would hazard that the general horde of visitors, a good percentage of whom seem to be strapped into strollers and under four feet tall, don’t dwell overmuch on metaphorical meanings. They wait in a long line that every day snakes out the front door of the museum into the Luxembourg Gardens, where parents dragoon reluctant children from the ancient carousel and pony rides out of the autumn sunshine toward the show, girded by the assuring sight of happy families exiting it.
Mr. Fruit Face, as a friend of mine disdainfully calls him, has always been a guaranteed hit with the Transformer-age crowd. But his art is more serious and self-important than that. You can imagine him to have been the sort of initially jocular, learned dinner party companion whose arrogance makes itself known by the salad course. That he inspired thousands of appalling 20th-century Surrealists, apparently shocked at the genius of conceiving a gherkin to replace a nose, or a rose a cheek, isn’t his fault.
Born in Milan in 1536, the son of a local artist, he started out painting conventional, darkling portraits. They’re brittle but deft. He paid obeisance to Leonardo da Vinci via intermediaries like Bernardino Luini, who is said to have been a family friend. Commissions for stained glass and tapestries, permitting minor flights of peculiar fancy, eventually landed him in the employ of Maximilian II, in Vienna, then of Maximilian’s cultivated son, Rudolf II.
There he finally cooked up his famous faces. They satisfied a taste for exoticism. This was the era of high humanist curiosity. Newly rediscovered ancient texts like Pliny’s natural history circulated among scholars and artists; in the show, watercolors of animals and fish by Arcimboldo, exacting models he adapted for parts of faces, show him to be firmly grounded in science and real observation. Global exploration and advances in fields like optics and engineering stirred Rudolf, like other enlightened patrons, to wish to possess whatever was the rarest, the finest, the strangest, the most inexplicable art and artifacts. From such cabinets of curiosities — attempts to catalog and rationalize the irrational — evolved, one day, the modern museum. This was Arcimboldo’s milieu and motivation.
Usefully, the show includes more than a few works by sculptors and decorators who also catered to a fixation on the marvelous. Coconuts, conch shells, ostrich eggs and coral, gathered from the distant corners of the earth, become goblets, bowls and hilts for swords, three-dimensional versions of his painted faces. They’re about art’s roots in mysticism and magic. Painting itself is a sleight-of-hand trick, after all: colored dirt becomes an illusion.
Along which lines Arcimboldo clearly picked up pointers from Bosch and no doubt from Persian miniaturists. A gorgeous show of classic Iranian art happens to have just opened at the Louvre, and it includes several astonishing paintings from Arcimboldo’s time: fantastical landscapes populated by wild creatures. Stare at the mountain scenes, and faces can begin to suggest themselves in the salt-taffy rock formations and trees.
All artists have their niches, and this commonplace slip of the mind became for Arcimboldo a virtual cottage industry. A bust of a bearded librarian, with a tin-man face made of books, and bookmarks for fingers, is a clever feat of virtuosity, like the “reversible” pictures he painted: right side up, they’re still lifes; upside down, portraits.
More interestingly, he also painted a three-quarter view of an old man, grossly desiccated, memorably perverse because somehow still dignified, almost courtly in his dotage, with branch stumps for a stubble, and a portrait of a German jurist, the humanist Johann Ulrich Zasius, with a plucked chicken for a head, a fish mouth and fish-tail chin. It’s scary in ways that can almost remind you of Velázquez’s portrait of Pope Innocent X, troubling the mind like a half-remembered nightmare.
So too a quartet of stiff, plain-spoken little portraits of the family of Pedro Gonzalez, whose distinction was to grow hair all over their faces, like the Wolf Man, an accident of nature akin to the Virgin Mary’s portrait appearing in a grilled-cheese sandwich.
The universe concocts such marvels, which man emulates through art and industry, hoping to best. That was Arcimboldo’s bottom-line goal, and his ambition, so frank and intellectual, gives to his prankish, often grotesque work its stylish hauteur.
Come to think of it, no wonder the French love him.