When I arrived at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris last week, the queue stretched round the corner and into the Luxembourg Gardens. It was Parisian half-term, and many of the customers were of junior school age, primed and ready to enjoy the work of a man who made portraits out of fruit and vegetables. Inside, the quiet hum of the crowd was constantly punctuated with shrill cries of surprise and sudden recognition. But many visitors took a more contemplative pleasure in the works, and this is one of the great virtues of “l’incroyable” Arcimboldo, as the posters are calling him. He compels you to look closely, at what he is doing and how he does it. For any person visiting a gallery, young or old, that is excellent discipline.

Born in 1526 in Milan, Giuseppe Arcimboldo worked at first as a decorative artist, designing stained glass windows and tapestries – a fine example of the latter from Como Cathedral is displayed here. But in 1562 Arcimboldo’s career turned dizzyingly upwards when the Emperor Ferdinand I brought him to court in Vienna and Prague, apparently to join his army of portraitists. No such work has been certainly attributed to Arcimboldo, although there are possibilities in this exhibition. One is a grand full-length of Maximilian II and his family grouped round the Emperor’s armoured helmet, plumed with a cascade of peacock feathers, like an elaborate head of hair. The rest could be by anyone, but that plume has the true Arcimboldean touch.

How and why he developed his speciality of heads composited from collections of themed objects is not known. A pre-existing tradition of such humorous designs is exemplified in a weird majolica plate from the Ashmolean, dated 1532, illustrating a human head made from tangled male genitalia. But Arcimboldo’s work was as much a spin-off from his designs for court pageantry, of which some Inigo Jones-like drawings are included here. One features a Green Man sprouting forest leaves, a perennial symbol of fertility and ancient magic, as seen, for instance, in English pub signs. Arcimboldo used similar but more integral and uncompromising tree-men to represent Winter in his “Four Seasons” canvases – figures, incidentally, that appear to be the model for Tolkein’s Treebeard in the Lord of the Rings films.

The “Seasons” were his first composites, quartets of human heads made of pertinent elements from the natural world: Spring a profusion of flowers, Summer of vegetables, Autumn of fruits and Winter a gnarled, hollow tree entwined with ivy and encrusted with fungi. Arcimboldo soon developed a complementary series, the “Four Elements”, wonderfully detailed assemblages of birds (Air), fish (Water), quadrupeds (Earth) and combustibles (Fire). These had such success that the painter went on to make emblematic portraits of real people, such as a head of books for a librarian, and a cruelly satirical portrait in which the face is made of plucked fowl, the beard a fish’s tail, the belly bulging with legal texts. The distorted chicken face is said to refer to the ravages of syphilis.

This particular portrait commission – the Emperor’s revenge on a lawyer who had failed him – helps place Arcimboldo in the cultural world of the Habsburg court. Although a very brilliant observer of nature, which makes these paintings worth careful study, he was at heart a court jester, creating elaborate visual jokes and jeux d’esprit as allegorical reflections of his master’s power. But in spite of being productions of a particular time and place, Arcimboldo’s vision is so unusual, so fanatically observed and so eccentric, that he is as satisfying today as he was then.

Not surprisingly, the Surrealists adored him. So, I found, do the children of Paris.

Arcimboldo, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, until January 13.
Tel +33 1 45 44 63 17

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