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Marvelous Monstor or Monstrous Marvel? Arcimboldo


The two hot tickets for museum-goers this Fall are the Giuseppe Arcimboldo show at the Musee du Luxembourg and Gustave Courbet at the Grand Palais. Both are temporary exhibits, gathering together a considerable array from the works of two extraordinary artists. Although separated from one another chronologically by several centuries – but both artists are iconoclasts of their respective eras. Arcimboldo might be described as a 16th-century Audubon on steroids, and Courbet as a 19th-century ‘in your face’ realist.

If you’re cut short for time during your stay in Paris, be sure to make reservations – rather than standing in line for these shows. You can reserve your advance tickets, either online, or through FNAC outlets in Paris. Otherwise tickets to the Arcimboldo exhibit are 11 Euros at the door.

Just to give you an idea of how Parisians have flocked to the Arcimboldo show, here on the first Sunday of the month, rather than opt for museums that opened to the public for free today, parents have chosen to bring their kids to see a 16th century artist who made his living painting portraits in the Hapsburg court in Vienna.

So, why would kids be enamored with this artist? His portraits of his benefactors and court regulars are quite surprisingly composed of fruits, vegetables and cereals. Or in some cases, simply fish. The Luxembourg exhibit tries to recreate the ambiance at the Hapsbourg court.

According to the commentary, Arcimboldo was employed not only to be the official portrait artist, but also to organize a number of festivals and court entertainment. Yet his responsibilities overlapped into many fields including participation in the creation of a collection of ‘curiosities’. The Hapsburg court’s insatiable thirst for collecting all that was unusual in the living world, ranging from newly discovered species from the New World, ostrich eggs and unusual shells from the sea, eventually fell under the spell of Arcimboldo’s paintbrush.

Thus began that curious melding of God-made flora and fauna, with human to result in such mind-boggling, beauteous, and frightful in the same breath, works such as Flora. A woman composed of a thousands of flowers. Or would it be thousands of flowers comprised in one Flora?

The fact that Arcimboldo was able to use as his ‘models’ actual members of the Hapsburg court – such as a judge, well known for his disfigurement from a carriage accident, and ‘get away with’ capturing the actual hideous nature of such a disfigurement – without being carted off to prison is amazing on so many levels.
First, it shows the tolerance of the court, and secondly the open-mindedness of his artistic peers.

When you compare that to the lack of tolerance in 19th-century France toward Gustave Courbet, it’s cause for reflection and further study of the ‘chemistry’ that made Renaissance Europe so much more open to new ideas that later eras.

The final ‘piece de resistance’ in this show are the three ‘reversible still lifes’. What appears to be a plate of food in “Le Cuisinier” is actually (when you look at the painting in a mirror placed below the painting), the portrait of the cook.

The three comic portraits give us a clue that ‘humanism’ as it was expressed in the Hapsburg court was inextricable from humor. Just as man is inextricable from nature.
For 21st century viewers, Arcimboldo’s vision must make us wonder how a 16th century man could paint with the same freedom of expression as a contemporary artist, with the firm conviction that his work could be viewed and appreciated not only by future generations but by his contemporaries.

(Courbet, as you will read in a future post was not so lucky).

If you go to any show in Paris (until January 13, 2008), this is the one!

Musee du Luxembourg
19 Rue de Vaugirard
Metro: Odeon, St. Sulpice or Luxembourg RER Line.
Reservations: 08 92 684 694
Monday, Friday and Saturday, 10:30 am to 10 pm
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 10:30 am to 7 pm
Sunday, 9 am to 7 pm.