Thu, Oct 11, 2007 - Page 15 News List

Parisians feast eyes on Arcimboldo

The 16th-century Italian painter assembled portraits from vegetables, fish and more. Now on display at the Musee du Luxembourg, the paintings are imbibed with magical realism that appeals to all age groups

By Michael Kimmelman  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PARIS

Vertumnus and Water.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Aside from World Cup rugby and Velib, the self-service bike-sharing program that at the moment seems to obsess le tout Paris, the most amusing cultural diversion here is the Giuseppe Arcimboldo exhibition at the Musee du Luxembourg.

Around the city, kiosks advertise fashion magazines offering advice to young women on how to flirt at Velib parking stations (with hair aptly wind-swept, feign difficulty with the automated pay system whenever a desirable man appears), and they also display colorful posters of puffy-cheeked faces made out of corn, pickles, garlic and cherries to promote Arcimboldo, the 16th-century Italian gimmick painter.

I had my doubts. But it turns out that the show's a charmer, not too shallow, admirably concise, almost chic. The glad mobs, forming polite, cheerful scrums before these stately paintings of people with vegetable faces and fish eyes seem to recognize in Arcimboldo something of the French impulse to bring order to everything.

There is a temptation to find in the show's popularity a metaphor for the general mood here. France's hyperactive president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has embarked on a campaign of economic transition and tough love. He is pushing a new French globalism in lieu of the comfortable old welfare system that has guaranteed early retirement and many other benefits, along with high unemployment, especially among disenfranchised immigrants, to whom he has done conspicuously little to endear himself.

Arcimboldo's subject was the instability of life, its changeability in a widening world. His purpose was to inspire a fresh but not always entirely comforting sense of possibility and wonderment. Mercantile conquests by 16th-century European powers, France included, uncovered new continents, from which an ear of corn, exotic and rare, could serve not just as a visual pun for a human ear but also as a political symbol of faraway places, economies, peoples - of nature itself - brought to heel.

That said, I would hazard that the general horde of visitors, a good percentage of whom seem to be strapped into strollers and under 1m tall, don't dwell on metaphorical meanings. They wait in a long line that every day snakes out the front door of the museum into the Luxembourg Gardens, where parents dragoon reluctant children from the ancient carousel and pony rides out of the autumn sunshine toward the show, girded by the assuring sight of happy families exiting it.

Mr. Fruit Face, as a friend of mine disdainfully calls him, has always been a guaranteed hit with the Transformers-age crowd. But his art is more serious and self-important than that. You can imagine him to have been the sort of initially jocular, learned dinner party companion whose arrogance makes itself known by the salad course. That he inspired thousands of appalling 20th-century Surrealists, apparently shocked at the genius of conceiving a gherkin to replace a nose, or a rose a cheek, isn't his fault.

Born in Milan in 1536, the son of a local artist, he started out painting conventional, darkling portraits. They're brittle but deft. He paid obeisance to Leonardo da Vinci via intermediaries like Bernardino Luini, who is said to have been a family friend. Commissions for stained glass and tapestries, permitting minor flights of peculiar fancy, eventually landed him in the employ of Maximilian II, in Vienna, then of Maximilian's cultivated son, Rudolf II.

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