By JEFFREY GREGGS [New Criterion] – I was fourteen years old when I first encountered the composite heads of the Milanese mannerist Giuseppe Arcimboldo at the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. After passing what seemed like an eternity in galleries populated by religious scenes and unfamiliar margraves, coming across Arcimboldo’s anthropomorphic amalgamations of objects, vegetables, and animals was a welcome delight. “Weird!” and “cool!” was my verdict then, and it stayed that way—precisely that way—for many years: a witty, queer, and talented crowd pleaser, I thought, and that’s about it.
For at least three centuries, the critical response to Arcimboldo has been of much the same tenor. Though he found a few champions among the Surrealists, his paintings have been admired mostly as clever oddities, products of a courtly taste for the fantastic in the Age of Exploration. The art historian Charles Sterling labeled one of the heads a “scherzo, worthy of adorning a cabinet of curiosity” but not (he implied) the temple walls. A few recent exhibitions, however, have touched off a reconsideration of the artist’s work, starting in 1987 with “The Arcimboldo Effect” at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. His first solo retrospective, “Arcimboldo,” opened to great fanfare in 2007 at the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris and is now on view in truncated form as “Arcimboldo, 1527–1593: Nature and Fantasy” at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C.