Michaeline: Exercise Your Whimsy Muscles

I just got back from a trip to Tokyo, and one of the highlights was an Arcimboldo exhibition at the National Museum of Western Art . Arcimboldo was a 16th century artist famous for making portraits of Hapsburgs out of vegetables, animals and various household items. If you want to talk about whimsy, this guy made a career out of whimsy!

Rudolph II portrait made up of fruits, vegetables and flowers. Very green and fresh.

Hapsburg emperor Rudolph II as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons. Click on the photo in order to see the amazing detailed work. Check out the ear of corn! (Image via Wikimedia Commons)


But at the same time, he was very serious about his humor. You can see that his fruits and veggies and animals are all very anatomically correct, almost like botanical illustrations. And putting them together to make recognizable faces took a special eye for composition as well as a lot of hard work, I should imagine.

Arcimboldo was also a multi-media artist. Not only did he create portraits, he designed costumes for festivals and according to this Smithsonian Magazine online article, he also wrote poetry and invented a harpsichord-like instrument.

I look at his famous works, and I can’t help but laugh . . . then wonder at the marvelousness of the execution. Thought, skill and scholarship, all synthesized into an accessible package. I love it!

Less whimsical but interesting all the same is the theory that Michelangelo hid anatomical studies of the brain in the Sistine Chapel – the Voicebox of God does look an awful lot like the human brainstem. This Scientific American guest blog expands on the theory.  I think the evidence is convincing – Michelangelo knew how to draw throats. Why would he put such a funny-looking one on God unless he was trying to say something? But on the other hand, from a very modern perspective, I read this as saying that the Voice of God is a construct of our brains. I’m almost certain that wasn’t what Michelangelo was trying to say, but once art is out of the artist’s hands, it’s enhanced and sometimes twisted by the viewer’s perspective. That’s the nature of art.

And what hidden messages am I trying to convey in this blog post? I guess the same old message I’ve conveyed many times: follow your muses, your Girls in the Basement. Let them out to have a good exercise session of their whimsy muscles, and then take a look at what resulted a few days later. You may be surprised at what you find.

(And everyone should get a gander at Arcimboldo’s work. Here’s a gallery of dozens of his paintings and sketches. http://www.giuseppe-arcimboldo.org/the-complete-works.html)

A portrait of a librarian made up of large and small books, a feather duster, a library curtain and various other accoutrements.

The nature of the materials makes this librarian to the Hapsburg look very modern and cubist. Check out the beard — it’s a duster for keeping books clean. #bookgoals. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Exercise Your Whimsy Muscles

  1. Those images are fantastic, Michaeline. I love the idea of composing portraits out of objects. – whimsy indeed. Sounds like we all have been refreshing our creativity through artworks this summer. Wonder where it will lead us?

    In the meantime. Off to check out the Sistine Chapel to take a closer look at the Voicebox of God.

    • If I think about it from a certain angle, a book presents one face, but each individual scene or even paragraph is also a complete entity in itself. It’s like those pictures made up of little pictures that have become so popular lately. (-: A kind of proto-pointillism, only with veggies instead of dots?

      LOL, anyway, I’m excited to see where all this creativity leads us all, too!

  2. The complete works are fabulous–thanks for the link! My favorites are the ones where the objects reflect the sitter’s occupation–the librarian above, and the admiral made of fish, and the pots-and-pans cook.

    It was no surprise to see the fine quality of Arcimboldo’s more traditional compositions–I’m sure it’s easier to experiment if you build on solid foundations.

    • I think you are right — craft, plus that special spark.

      I didn’t post one of my favorites, which was a kind of trick art piece. Viewed from one angle, it’s a still-life of veggies in a basket, but if you turn the picture upside-down, you get a typical Arcimboldo portrait of the gardener.

  3. The paintings are incredible—whimsical, as you say, but I find them grotesque, too, all warty and lumpy and sticking out in places. Such an interesting concept. He carries the idea of a “series” to a very great extent! I wonder what he thought of his subjects in real life?

    • At least three places in the exhibit, they mentioned that Arcimboldo wasn’t just making good-natured funny pictures, but that the pictures were sharp commentary and parody. I’m taking that with a grain of salt! I think the link I included said that The Librarian was really about people who collect books rather than read them, but it offered no quotes or anything. I think it was simply the case that Arcimboldo decided it would be really cool to make a picture of the librarian out of books. And guess what? He was right!

      I do wonder about one picture I saw, though. It was of a woman who was mostly made out of avian images. Was Arcimboldo somehow suggesting that she might have been bird-witted? She wasn’t a gardener or a servant — IIRC, she was part of the royal family itself. Well, maybe if the whole court thought she was a little bird-brained, and she didn’t recognize the visual pun . . . .

      Some of the portraits work better than others. Some are just stunning in thumbnails as people, and then when you click, they turn into a collection of veggies. Just amazing. Others seem to be more caught up with the individual images, and make less-than-realistic portraits. Well, you can’t win them all, I guess!

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