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Humanism With an Inhuman Face : THE ARCIMBOLDO EFFECT Transformations of the Face From the 16th to the 20th Century, edited by Pontus Hulten et al (Abbeville: $75; 402 pp.)

November 29, 1987|Mark C. Taylor | Taylor is Kenan Professor of Religion and director of the Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences at William College.

Wittgenstein once declared: "Suddenly I see the solution of a puzzle figure. Where previously there were branches now there is a human form." Such a solution, however, remains puzzling. What does it mean to see a human form where there were branches? Is such seeing discovery or invention? Does one who sees himself in branches affirm his unity with nature or assert his domination of nature? Does the specular relation between the human and the natural imply the humanization of nature or the naturalization of man?

In an essay entitled "One of the Difficulties of Psychoanalysis," Freud argues that man's "narcissistic illusion" has suffered three decisive blows: (1) cosmological--Copernicus' discovery of heliocentrism; (2) biological--Darwin's theory of evolution; (3) psychological--psychoanalytic theory of the unconscious. In the wake of recent developments in the social sciences, we might extend Freud's list by adding a fourth category: linguistic--structuralists' insistence that subjectivity is a function of language. Though these revolutions differ significantly, they all entail a dislocation of the human self and decentering of the human world. The consequences of the Copernican revolution, it seems, are still unfolding.

In 1563, 20 years after Copernicus published "De revolutionibus's orbium coelestium," Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) painted an extraordinary work entitled simply "Seasons." A Milanese by birth, Arcimboldo developed designs for stained-glass windows and tapestries until 1562, when he was called to Austria to serve as a portraitist in the Hapsburg court. Nothing in his early designs or portraits prepares the viewer for what bursts forth in "Seasons." This work includes four "composite heads"--one for each season. These bizarre images are comprised of plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables that are arranged so as to represent a human head. The flora and fauna in each painting are characteristic of the season represented. Each natural element is depicted with extraordinary realism. When viewed closely, the painting seems to be nothing but a cluster of different flowers and fruits. When viewed at a distance, however, the painting displays the profiles of human faces, which appear to be equally realistic. The effect of this technique is remarkable. Arcimboldo's heads fascinate by the uncanny presence and absence of the human form.

Between 1563 and 1591, Arcimboldo painted a probable 12 composite heads. The success these works enjoyed at the court is indicated by the fact that Arcimboldo's last composite head is a "portrait" of Rudolf II in which the emperor is presented as Vertumnus whose face is made up of fruits and vegetables. While there are certain precedents for this kind of painting (one thinks, for instance, of the tradition of the grotesque dating back to Roman times or of Durer's "View of the Val d'Arco"), it is clear that something new and disturbing appears in Arcimboldo's heads.

"The Arcimboldo Effect" is a lavishly illustrated book that was prepared to accompany the first exhibition of Arcimboldo's work, presented last spring in the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. The volume is divided into two parts. The first, covering the years 1500-1650, includes essays that situate Arcimboldo's work in relation to artistic, philosophical, scientific and political currents of the time. In second part, covering the years 1800-1987, writers in different disciplines examine the impact of the "Arcimboldo effect" on later artists. Special attention is given to the similarities between Arcimboldo's paintings and the work of 20th-Century surrealists. What emerges in these essays is not a unified account of Arcimboldo's work but a pastiche as varied and intriguing as the images themselves.

In one of the most informative articles in the book, Pontus Hulten examines the relationship between Arcimboldo's art and tendencies in Renaissance philosophy. According to Hulten, Arcimboldo created a "new image of man, one totally different from that envisioned by his predecessors or his contemporaries. God was the center of the medieval universe, and in the Renaissance, man and his ego were the most important. In a time of transition, . . . Arcimboldo declared that man is not separate from nature: He is a part of nature--a part of the elements and of time--and nature is a part of man. Such a metaphysical stand was revolutionary." But perhaps not as revolutionary as Hulten declares. Massimo Cacciari contends that there is a complex interplay between the philosophical presuppositions of Arcimboldo's composite heads and Florentine Neoplatonic Hermeticism. From Ficino to Bruno, Cacciari argues, there is an insistence on "the idea of a cosmic sympatheia , a cosmic weave of vincoli , of bonds, which it is up to the 'magician' to decipher and, in some measure, to instigate." For Cacciari, Arcimboldo is such a magician.

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