Guiseppe Arcimboldo is a hazy peripheral figure in art history. Enjoying noble and royal patronage he was honoured during his lifetime before completely falling out of fashion during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries only to be rediscovered by the Surrealists in the 20th. Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte and Man Ray were all admirers and Arcimboldo’s visual puns and double meanings undoubtedly influenced Dali’s infamous paranoiac-critical method. Other art historians posited Arcimboldo as the most mannered of all the Mannerists. His composite portraits certainly show the period’s taste for enigmas and riddles taken far into the hinterlands of the grotesque and the whimsically bizarre.
Vertumnus is Arcimboldo’s most famous painting, a composite portrait of his patron, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Rudolf II as Vertumnus, the Roman God of metamorphosis, the seasons, gardens and vegetable growth. The plants, flowers and fruits that form the portrait of Rudolf II are from every season and are taken to represent the perfect harmony and balance with nature that his reign would re-establish. Unfortunately events and history had other things in mind for the studious, occult inclined Rudolf II and his notably tolerant court of Prague, leading eventually to the calamity of the Thirty Year War between competing Catholic and Protestant states before engulfing the majority of European great powers.
Other notable composite portraits painted by Arcimboldo include the Four Seasons, the Four Elements and the witty The Librarian (below).
A supremely thought provoking and troubling philosophical painting by the Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte. We are presented with a meretriciously drawn image of a pipe while beneath the neat legend paradoxically informs us that Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe). It seems that before us is less a painting than another one of Magritte’s monstrously banal, and ultimately terrifying, pictorial mysteries.
The pipe drawn with such painstaking exactitude is of course just a representation of a pipe. You cannot hold in your hands, stuff it with tobacco and smoke it, which is surely what is required of a pipe for it to be a pipe. Yet we feel perplexed and somehow obscurely cheated. If it the case that ‘perception always intercedes between reality and ourselves’, then all we can know are images of the world, and images are by their very nature treacherous. All we have is the map, and as everyone knows, the map is not the territory.
Now that I am older the sound
Of the drumbeats grows louder,
Though the source becomes forever
Fainter, filtered by vague remorse,
Impossible longing for a home
That I have only visited in dreams.
I am a child again in these dreams
Attracted by the source of sound,
A woman calling me to go home:
At my silence she calls out louder
I stay still, filled with a sullen remorse
I could stand there like a stature forever.
If only we could build up bridges forever;
Break it on down like we do in dreams,
Then drop deeper without any remorse
To caverns filled with reverberating sound
Booming like my echoing heart louder
As it realises you can never go home.
For that is where the hatred lies, at home,
The source of afflictions that fester forever,
Over the years voices raised louder,
The only peace found in feverish dreams
With swirling fragments of whispered sound,
In the morning glare a cause of distinct remorse.
Though being human is cause enough for remorse,
For we are restless, searching for a lost home
And every time we speak or utter a sound
Lies the possibility of doing damage forever;
With no resolution to be found even in dreams
Drowning out soothing voices with noises louder.
The din and banging grows ever louder,
Deadening the heart with poisonous remorse,
Seeping even into the sanctuary of dreams:
So I pray for a solitary glimpse of a home
Where I can find comfort and rest forever
Show me a symbol, give me a sign or a sound
Quieter rather than louder, pointing to a reposeful home
Where I banish remorse, to which I say goodbye forever
And let wash over me dreams, that lull with a sea sound.
J.G Ballard, the genre busting English science fiction writer responsible for such novels as The Drowned World, Crash, High Rise and Empire of the Sun as well as some of the finest short stories in world literature, frequently remarked that he really wanted to be a painter in the surrealist tradition that he so loved instead of a writer.
This deep reverence and constant engagement with the visual arts can be most clearly seen in his demented and wildly perverse cult classic collage novel The Atrocity Exhibition. Referencing Ernst, Dali, Magritte, Dominguez, Matta, Bellmer, Delvaux, Tanguy as well as Pop Artists Tom Wesselman and Andy Warhol in the frequent free association tests and ‘condensed novels’ that comprise the text, The Atrocity Exhibition could easily be used as a textbook primer on surrealism and popular culture in the sixties.
In 1990 RE/Search Publications issued an expanded edition with four new stories, Ballard’s bizarre yet illuminating annotations, disturbing illustrations by the medical illustrator/graphic novelist Phoebe Gloeckner and photographs by Ana Barrado of brutalist buildings and weapon ranges. It also features a preface by the Hitman for the Apocalypse himself, William S. Burroughs.
Below are some of the many paintings mentioned in the text, some of which are very well known and others less so.
Magritte’s The Eye from 1936 presents the image of an eye and the surrounding areas of the face, painted in Magritte’s usual dry, meticulous and unsettling bland style. The painting is contained within a Victorian shadow-box that gives the illusion that the unblinking eye is staring through a peep-hole. The effect is profoundly unnerving; the object we are looking at returns our gaze and exposes us for the voyeurs that we are. Everything we see we objectify, with the exception of ourselves, of course.