Arcimboldo Lives

Exploring Queens, New York this weekend, I chanced across two artists at opposite ends of the borough who, in outward appearances, couldn't be more different in artistic style, yet both claim an affinity for the remarkable Sixteenth Century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The coincidence was too much; I just had to share.*

Arcimboldo is best known for his creations of portaits composed entirely of objects. Often, these items are fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other natural elements, but animals, books, tools, and a myriad of other devices can also be found in his work. Creatively arranged, these objects form the likeness of a man or woman. The portraits are amazing.


The Librarian (1566) and Vortumnus (Summer) (1591)

I've been enthralled with Arcimboldo's work for some time now, but not too many people are aware of the artist, unfortunately. Imagine my surprise, then, when outside the Queens Museum of Art I come across artist David Wilson selling his similarly themed work. Wilson deems his aesthetic "anthropomorphic perception," i.e., the ability to see and reproduce human forms in non-human objects.

One of Wilson's specialties is to re-imagine classic work, such as those by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Raphael. He is prolific in doing so with the Mona Lisa, but what caught my attention is his take on Velázquez's "The Rokeby Venus" (1647-51). Check out the original and Wilson's version, "Afrodite on a Picasso Plate":

In Wilson's version, Velázquez's original seduction is maintained through the clever positioning of recognizable fruits and vegetables (and peanuts for feet). Two sets of bananas mirror a pair of hands, as if the serving was about to be devoured by an unseen person (or god? or the hands of the angel?). The focal point of Wilson's painting is not a mirror reflection, but the stone figurehead of Aphrodite, whose African features flips both Velázquez's and our general interpretation of the goddess of beauty.

Have a look around Wilson's website - you'll be amazed by the tricks he plays with the human form. It is worth taking note of Wilson's ability to recreate the human face and expression by use of windows and doors and the objects seen through them. The technique is both functional (variety in shapes and objects) and poetic (for we often use windows and doors as metaphors for looking into our minds and souls). Here are two typical examples of Wilson's technique:


David Wilson's Anthropomorphosis and Attributes of Dominique Kubuli

In both of these portraits, there is not a single, human element, and yet the arrangement of a multiplicity of animate and inanimate objects suggest otherwise. Through the door on the left and the window on the right, passing cars, flowers, sailboats, and mountains create the illusion of contemplative women. The effect is hynotic.


A couple of hours later, I landed in the basement of Local Project, a (tiny) new gallery cheek-by-jowl with the world famous 5 Pointz graffiti museum. There I toured the exhibition "Short Order" and ran into one of the artists, the upbeat and chipper Tim Kellen. I can't say that Kellen's work speaks to me, but I was zipping through his blog later in the evening and was stopped short, strangely enough, by a portrait of the cellist Zoe Keating, modeled after ... you guessed it ... Arcimboldo.

Kellen's portrait is reminiscent of Arcimboldo's "Spring" (1573) (of which Arcimboldo did a couple of variations):

And now that I think about it... the work of Brazilian artist Vik Muniz also echoes the style of Arcimboldo. Muniz has used a variety of inanimate objects - garbage, sugar, spaghetti , peanut butter - to recreate the human form. See, for instance, Muniz's remarkable portrait of a garbage picker (2009) in Brazil, made of thousands of pieces of garbage plucked from a sprawling landfill. I can't find the dimensions of the work, but it is many feet tall and wide. The garbage was laid out on the floor and then photographed from above:

Arcimboldo, thankfully, lives on...

*As if these references to the obscure Arcimboldo weren't enough! Just six hours after this post went up, I happened to be watching an episode of Seinfeld ("The Letter," 1992), the famous episode in which Kramer sits for a portrait. At the end of the episode, the collectors who bought the piece invite Kramer to dinner where, in the background hanging on the wall, are two Arcimboldo portraits(!). Here is a screenshot taken with a smartphone:

Shaun Randol founded The Mantle in 2009. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. You can email him at shaun [at] Shaun is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. He is also a Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the PEN American Center.