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Arcimboldo Exhibition in Milan: Painting and the Food World
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Arcimboldo Exhibition in Milan: Painting and the Food World

FDL visited the Arcimboldo exhibition in Milan, Italy. Here's an interview with the italian art historian Philippe Daverio

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The curators at the Louvre maintain that the public’s interest for the Four Seasons by Arcimboldo is second only to the Mona Lisa. Previous exhibitions of the artists work (in Washington D.C. and Vienna) were a resounding success and now the works have finally arrived at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, the 16th Century painter’s birthplace.

Arcimboldo is of particular interest to FDL because of his multiple references to the food world. After the “discovery” of America, starting from the early 1500s, many never-before seen species of flora and fauna began arriving in Europe: exotic fish, plants, birds and flowers began appearing in the royal palaces, evoking the wonder and marvel of visitors to the courts.

These curious rarities were immediately documented by commissioned illustrators and their images began to circulate among Europe’s natural scientists and the aristocracy’s passionate collectors.

Arcimboldo’s technique and genius consists of breaking down a subject into single parts, often substituting the real elements with those taken from the natural world and then re-composing them into a sort of poetic puzzle or mosaic. This alchemistic-artistic mutation of materials evokes the practice of cooking, which transforms single ingredients into a final dish. A dish that can, on the rare and felicitous occasion, become a work of art.

While Arcimboldo’s choice of depicting natural elements was grounded in his scientific, rather than culinary, interest. His penchant for the burlesque and witty, his sense of irony and his love of paradox, his sense of play when it came to ingredients and food and his way of being whimsical and inventive, are all qualities that connect us to Arcimboldo even today. To better understand this maestro, FDL turns to the art historian Philippe Daverio.

Among intellectuals, there are contrasting opinions regarding Arcimboldo: there are those who consider him to be a wizard of illusion (André Pieyre de Mandiargues), those who consider his paintings refined (Roland Barthes), and those who judge him to be a mediocre artist (Pierre Rosenberg). And what does Philippe Daverio think about Arcimboldo?

When judging Arcimboldo, one must distinguish between different criteria. I don’t find him to be particularly ingenious as an artist, in the sense that he didn’t invent a genre. He is, however, an artistic phenomenon. Like Andy Warhol or Magritte, he should be considered an iconic inventor, a work of art in and of himself.

Why did he use fruit and vegetables as well as other natural elements so often in his work?

Arcimboldo’s desire was to use his paintings to express the complexity of nature, while celebrating the sumptuous magnificence of the banquets presented in the royal courts of Prague and the House of Habsburg. From the mid-1500s, there was a perceptible shift in terms of eating habits, meals became more complex and there was an explosion of culinary arts in the courts.

Along with being an art expert, you’re also a cultivated gourmand. What images do Arcimboldo’s paintings evoke in your mind? Let’s begin with the complex Water, with more than sixty species of fish, reptiles and mammals depicted in this fantastical head.

It’s a particular painting, one that also represents novelty with regards to food: just a hundred years earlier, the most common fish in Europe was the herring. In the collective imagination, fish was associated with the days of abstinence from meat as dictated by the Catholic church, but with Arcimboldo it became an exultation of the sea, which, after the New World was discovered, became a source of inexhaustible wealth.

With regards to the paintings Vertumnus and Spring, the canonical expert and friend of Arcimboldo, Comanini, compared Arcimboldo’s work with that of a bee. A bee carefully chooses the flowers from which to suck the nectar, and then transforms it into honey – and Arcimboldo selects which flowers and plants to bring to life, which ones to mix together in order to create a work of art.

Spring doesn’t arouse any edible images for me, but it reminds me of some Flemish paintings, the Habsburg’s mania for flowers that were used in the paintings and tapestries in the first half of the 1500s. And Vertumnus is definitely a naturalist exercise, but it also serves to underline the dietary sumptuousness of the Prague courts. It’s no accident that everything represented in the painting is edible.

The practice of criticism as an intellectual exercise can be applied to many fields. What are the commonalities between an art critic and a food critic?

There are shared commonalities, but the roots are different: painting, which is the most representative form of artistic expression, is typically masculine, while the realm of cooking – especially in the domestic context – is typically feminine. There’s an evident mental association between a sauce and paint colour, for example. A sauce is never completely finished, it’s in stable and mutable – just like a work of art. There exists a moment of completion for both, when it’s time to share them with the public, but never a moment of perfection. Only its creator knows when that time has come.

Palazzo Reale, Milan, Italy
Until 22 May 2011
Arcimboldo exposition

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