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Confounding Faces

Giuseppe Arcimboldo
National Gallery

Franz Xaver Messerschmidt
Neue Galerie

When artists of earlier eras become subjects of renewed interest, you can be sure that big changes are in the air. All too often relegated to specialized studies in the history of taste, such shifts in an artist’s fortunes are among our most reliable guides to current attitudes and values, a look into the dark glass of the past that can also function as a mirror in which we see reflected some aspect of ourselves. There is certainly as much to be learned about the present as about the past from two small and beautifully focused museum shows in recent months, one at the National Gallery in Washington devoted to the sixteenth-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the other at the Neue Galerie in New York devoted to the eighteenth-century German sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.

While the revival of interest in both these artists began a century ago, the impact that Arcimboldo and Messerschmidt are now having, among artists and art historians, is on a scale unknown a generation earlier. Both Arcimboldo and Messerschmidt are in many respects confounding personalities, connoisseurs of strangeness and disquietude, administrators of shocks and surprises who were in search of a form that almost by definition violated the norm. Are they just what we need in our seen-it-all-done-it-all era? Or are they merely the latest sideshow at the funhouse that the art world has become?

Even many people who do not recognize Arcimboldo’s or Messerschmidt’s names will recognize some of their work. Arcimboldo is the man who concocted human heads out of various pieces of the animal, vegetal, and mineral worlds, creating allegories of the Four Seasons and the Four Elements in which, for example, Air is represented by a head composed entirely of birds. Messerschmidt is famous for sculpted heads, almost invariably male subjects, who grimace or purse their lips or otherwise tense their facial muscles in such an exaggerated manner as to turn their faces into grotesques.

The revival of interest in Arcimboldo dates back to the Surrealists in the first half of the twentieth century. In the catalogue of the legendary “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition, held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936, the very first reproduction is of Arcimboldo’s composite head of Summer, the face constructed of fruits and vegetables and the clothing of ears of wheat. Messerschmidt’s return to favor dates to fin-de-siècle Vienna, where his work was of interest in academic and literary circles eager to explore extreme psychic states, and could have been known to Egon Schiele. Some of the most famous writing on Messerschmidt is by Ernst Kris, born in Vienna in 1900, who was a student of Freud’s as well as an art historian, and began his work on Messerschmidt in the early 1930s, well before he was forced to flee Hitler’s Europe.

A generation ago, Arcimboldo and Messerschmidt, who in their different ways reject any comfortable sense of reality, were prophets of modernity’s dissent from all naturalistic norms. Some might have even imagined that they pointed the way toward abstraction and its own anti-naturalistic norms. But the status of Arcimboldo and Messerschmidt is now changed, as modern has given way to a hundred versions of postmodern and any conception of artistic norms, always a shaky proposition, is more or less defunct. Last summer a young curator I know told me that the Messerschmidt show at the Neue Galerie was the one museum exhibition this season he was really looking forward to. The exhibition was certainly a significant event, suggesting as it did that in the art world extreme idiosyncrasy has become the new normal.

Messerschmidt’s leering, squinting, and howling faces are works of scrupulous elegance, a classicizing naturalism fired by some strange personal energy. They are marvels, but I sometimes wonder if too much can be made of them. Similar questions can be raised about Arcimboldo’s heads. Art historians have a great deal to tell us about the circumstances out of which this work arose, about what the artists might actually have had in mind. But I think there is also a question as to what we have in mind when we look at the work of these artists. How are Arcimboldo and Messerschmidt being understood—or misunderstood—in our postmodern times?


Like many works in the history of art that strike us as extraordinarily strange, the paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo are very much a natural outgrowth of the time and the place of their creation, the Hapsburg court of the sixteenth century, where Arcimboldo worked, first in Vienna and later in Prague, as court painter and portraitist to Maximilian II and then to his son Rudolf II. Arcimboldo was born in Milan in 1526, the son of a painter. Like his father, he was employed in the workshop of Milan Cathedral, where he did designs for stained glass windows, frescoes, banners, and so forth. The presence of works and copies of works by Leonardo in Milan apparently had a deep impact on Arcimboldo, on his close naturalistic studies of plants and animals and on his fantastical compositions. In addition to the paintings that would bring him enduring fame, he was involved, as so many artists were, in designs for pageants and entertainments of all kinds. He returned from Prague to Italy in 1587 and continued to work for Rudolf II until his death in 1593.

Intellectual life in the courtly world where Arcimboldo flourished has exerted a considerable fascination in recent years, and Arcimboldo, who practiced the art of poetry as well as the art of painting, cannot be understood outside of an age when the lines dividing knowledge into disciplines and categories were not yet clearly drawn. Art, science, mathematics, theology, philosophy, poetry, and magic had radically different relationships than they do today, and these were reflected in the princely collections of the time, the Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer, where man-made and natural objects were gathered together in ways that have been closely studied by scholars of late. The National Gallery show—its full title was “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy”—aimed to evoke this range of associations by including, in addition to more than a dozen paintings by Arcimboldo, drawings of botanical and zoological subjects and sculpture and ceramics that reflected the fantastical courtly taste of the time.

This small exhibition, beautifully enclosed in what amounted to a single large room in Washington, was a scaled-down version of the Arcimboldo retrospective mounted at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna in 2007-2008. The Washington event was organized by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, with support at the National Gallery from David Alan Brown and Gretchen Hirschauer. Perhaps this is Arcimboldo’s American moment. A contributor to the European catalogue, the American art historian Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, who has been writing on Arcimboldo for thirty-five years, has just published a book in which he attempts to achieve “a more complete understanding of the origins, character, and impact of Arcimboldo’s composite paintings in relation to the artist’s life, oeuvre, and situation in the history of art and culture.” Kaufmann’s Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting is a book about the seriousness of the artist’s playfulness, about the moral order that animates his grand games.

Kaufmann’s fine book takes us deep into the double drama of Arcimboldo’s composite heads. There is a strong inclination to interpret these strange contraptions—with ears, eyes, and noses made of flowers, fruits, vegetables, and even animals—as triumphs of courtly wit, as self-reflexive allegorical caprices, and in that sense among the crowning achievements of the late Renaissance style that has come to be known as Mannerism. John Shearman once referred to Mannerism as the “stylish style.” It is difficult to think of anything more stylish than Arcimboldo’s Spring, the head of a genial young person made entirely of flowers.

Kaufmann certainly does not deny Arcimboldo’s glorious artifice. Indeed, he explicates it with considerable finesse. But he insists that as much as Arcimboldo was drawn to allegory and fantasy, he was also drawn to the natural world. What Kaufmann sees in this enigmatic Italian artist who spent much of his life at the Hapsburg court is a man besotted with wonders of many kinds—of the imagination and the intellect, but of the natural world as well. We know, from Arcimboldo’s many sharp-focus drawings of animals and flowers of all sorts, that he approached living things with a scientist’s cool yet ardent exactitude. Kaufmann believes that nature, for Arcimboldo, was much more than the raw material from which his fantasy visions were composed. Nature was always set in a dynamic relationship with fantasy: in his imagination, the rival possibilities were always the natural day and the fantastical night.

What Kaufmann brings into high relief is the earthy richness of Arcimboldo’s composite heads, something sensuous and tactile and even reassuringly mundane that leavens the arctic cool that is an aspect of Mannerist taste. Arcimboldo is not all labyrinthine arabesques, quicksilver transformations, brittle allegorical strategies, and extreme stylizations of the human figure, although he was absolutely a Mannerist in his fondness for such things. Visitors to the National Gallery show who studied Arcimboldo’s allegories of the seasons in the forms of composite heads would have almost inevitably felt the surprising humanity of these puzzle-like inventions. In Winter, you cannot help but find intellectual pleasure in working out precisely how Arcimboldo has managed to turn a gnarled piece of wood into an old man’s head, but at the same time you find yourself registering feelings of distress and even dismay as you consider how aptly the aging bark and broken branches evoke the man’s decaying features. In Spring, a head composed of flowers and young leaves, there is again some of the pleasure of working out an equation in which certain flowers are equated with certain features, while at the same time you respond immediately, intuitively, to the naturalistic power of the flowers themselves, to the sense of lips and cheeks that are literally this fragrant. Perhaps Arcimboldo’s great subject is not so much the split between nature and culture as our desire to bridge that gap, to make nature and culture one.

A number of Arcimboldo’s composite heads have their own backstories. Some are caricatures of particular people, such as The Jurist, with a hideous face composed of a chicken, a hatchling, and a fish mouth and tail. This represents Ulrich Zasius, a lawyer at court, and may allude to his questionable professional ethics, or to his gluttony, or to the disfigurement of his face due to an accident. The Librarian, which may depict Wolfgang Lazius, a learned collector who was in charge of the emperor’s Kunstkammer and library, is a man entirely composed of books and the paraphernalia of the study, his fingers slips of vellum sticking out of the pages of a vellum volume. The metaphor is so boldly stated as to break through metaphor’s speculative spirit to a charming and incontrovertible truth, for what is a man who is obsessed with books if not a man made of books?

Kaufmann gives loving attention to a portrait of Rudolf II, the second Hapsburg monarch for whom Arcimboldo worked, who is represented as Vertumnus, the god of the seasons. The painting’s reception was accompanied by a collection of poems, including two by Arcimboldo himself, and according to Kaufmann the selection of fruits in the painting closely follows those mentioned in a poem by the Roman writer Propertius. The viewer’s gathering recognition of the face of Rudolf II in what at first appears to be a pile of fruit and a swag of flowers is engineered, according to Kaufmann, as a magic trick, a wondrous joke. But there is a seriousness to the joke, too—Kaufmann speaks of “serious jokes”—because the picture is a meditation on the idea that “the macrocosm of nature, particularized by the personification of an element or season, may also be paralleled by the microcosm of man.” Later in his book Kaufmann looks at the painting another way, arguing that it is a demonstration of the artist’s own dominion, for as Arcimboldo himself announces in one of his poems, “the artist’s creation of a form of man made out of natural elements in art competes with the creation of man by nature itself.”

There is a push toward painting as a form of philosophizing in Arcimboldo. But as Kaufmann argues in his final chapters, there is also a push toward the rapture of the quotidian in his still lifes, which are among the earliest—if not indeed the very earliest—still lifes in Italian art. They are curious still lifes, of course: they have been called invertible still lifes, because the image that when hung one way is a basket or a bowl of fruit turns out, when hung upside down (or is it right side up?), to be yet another composite head. What especially interests Kaufmann is the particularity that Arcimboldo brings to his observations of each piece of fruit, the artist’s eye that lovingly adumbrates nature’s bruises and imperfections. The comedy of the invertible image, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t face, gives way, when the painting is still-life-side-up, to matters of representation that are tackled in a plainspoken and sometimes even a poetic way.

While Arcimboldo’s relationship to the growing significance of still life in the decades after his death is a complex subject, he surely has a place in the early history of what would become a totally absorbing genre for some of the greatest European artists. The enigma of still-life painting is how matter-of-fact materials yield such an abundance of significance. There is certainly no piece of fruit in Arcimboldo’s work that has the force of one of Chardin’s cherries or Cézanne’s apples; but Arcimboldo’s handling of paint, which can at times be merely perfunctory, does occasionally achieve a forthright intensity. And in his invertible still lifes, where an arrangement of fruit contains a mystery, a physiognomy, a mental life, we may glimpse one of the very first expressions, however crude, of the meaningfulness of still life. That the origins of this supremely quotidian genre are buried in the playful metaphysics of courtly life may count as one of the most unexpected twists in the entire history of European art.

We read faces, and perhaps we initially attempt to read Arcimboldo’s faces much as we read any other faces. But here the grammar and the rhetoric of physiognomy are confounded. We are confronted with a radical exteriority, the face as an elaborate decorative caprice, and Arcimboldo has made so much more that we feel compelled to search his grand façades for clues to some mysterious interiority. The pictures raise a host of questions about faces, about what they can and cannot tell us. These questions of recognition and cognition have been widely discussed of late. The conversation has been stimulated in part by the interest that Oliver Sacks has taken in prosopagnosia, or face blindness, the inability to recognize faces, from which Sacks himself suffers, as does his sometime interlocutor on these matters, Chuck Close. And some would say that Close brings us around to Arcimboldo, for he, too, has made a career of painting faces that are in a sense composites—of fingerprints or of brilliantly colored lozenges of paint.

It goes without saying that the centrality of the face to our experience is fundamental. And if aesthetics is a factor that must be taken into account when analyzing the face, so too are biology, physiology, psychology, social science, philosophy, and morality. It is a fantastic brew, no question about it. If among artists it is Arcimboldo who acts as the convivial impresario, the master of the games when it comes to facing up to what a face is, then it is Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, the late eighteenth-century sculptor, who approaches these confounding questions as a tortured ascetic, a monkish solitary. He is burdened with an interiority so extreme that it registers on the face as an eruption—a cold violence, a catharsis without release.

The series for which Messerschmidt is best known contains more than sixty sculpted heads, generally referred to as “character heads,” created in the 1770s and early 1780s. They were the central focus of the exhibition at the Neue Galerie, “Franz Xaver Messerschmidt 1736-1783: From Neoclassicism to Expressionism,” a collaboration with the Louvre that was in New York in the fall and is now in Paris. The exhibition was organized by Guilhem Scherf, curator of sculpture at the Louvre, who edited the catalogue with the Messerschmidt scholar Maria Pötzl-Malikova. Messerschmidt was born in the Swabian Mountains in 1736 and, like Arcimboldo, spent his early years in a courtly world, also in Vienna, working for Empress Maria Theresa with great skill in a late Baroque style, a version of Baroque that embodies some of the quicksilver quality of the rococo without ever quite losing what might be called a Renaissance gravitas.


The work that excites interest today was done in a somber, stern, Neo-classical manner that Messerschmidt began to develop in Rome in 1765, and that he took with him into what was eventually a fairly monastic isolation. The character heads, the most famous of which are of bald men and are generally a little smaller than life size, present us with faces contorted into weird smiles, howls, grimaces, and frowns. Although there is a famous account, from a travel book by a writer named Friedrich Nicolai, of a visit to Messerschmidt in 1781 when he was working on his peculiar busts, it is no easy matter to link Messerschmidt’s heads to the wider cultural and intellectual environment in which he became an artist and lived most of his life. What is certain is that Messerschmidt’s neoclassicism owes much to ancient Roman portraiture, and perhaps even more to the interest in that ancient work that was developing mostly among English artists, especially Joseph Nollekens, whom Messerschmidt may have known in Rome.

Messerschmidt’s career went less and less well as he moved deeper into his thirties. He is said to have had hallucinations, and a professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, to which he had been entitled, was withdrawn because of what was reported to be his hostility and his occasional mental confusion. In 1775 he left Vienna for good, and from then until his death in 1783 it is a story of progressive retreat, until his last couple of years in a nearly bare house near Bratislava, where a brother lived. It was during his later years that he concentrated on his character heads, manycast in a tin-lead alloy that gives them the gray sobriety of certain Egyptian statues. There is something of the somber elegance of Old Kingdom Egyptian sculpture in these heads, in their measured articulation of planes and their clear cutting from one plane to another: the only image hanging in Messerschmidt’s studio when Friedrich Nicolai visited was a drawing of an Egyptian statue. I am reminded also of Japanese theatrical masks, with their hyperbolic expressions and succinct, incisive, almost graphic sculptural force.

Messerschmidt’s heads are nowadays exhibited with titles, but those were given posthumously, and although one can see why a certain bust is called The Difficult Secret or The Ill-Humored Man or Grief Locked Up Inside, it is surely best to think of them as untitled, their emotions more fraught for never being defined. All the muscular activity here pivots between eyes and mouth, the extreme opening or shutting of orifices triggering compressions and expansions of forehead, cheek, and neck. An Arch-Rascal presses his head downward, pursing his lips and shutting his eyes. The Yawner has eyes practically shut tight and a mouth open so wide that we can see into his throat. Afflicted with Constipation reveals open, empty eyes and lips reduced to a strange, flat band that seems to close the mouth forever. This rendering of the lips as a band, one of the most disquieting elements in Messerschmidt’s work, reappears in a number of works, including The Ill-Humored Man and Grief Locked Up Inside, as if the closed mouth had become for Messerschmidt a locked box, a problem to which there was quite simply no solution.

Faces are always shaped by feelings, but in Messerschmidt’s art emotions have not so much shaped the face as defaced it. The impulse behind the heads remains an enigma, but not entirely. Nicolai’s account of his visit to Messerschmidt in 1781 reveals a man whose nights were wracked by what he described as demons. Messerschmidt explained to Nicolai that he did not understand why he was tormented by these spirits, since he was a chaste man. He wondered if the trouble was that he knew so much about proportions and the human figure. Perhaps it was the Spirit of Proportion that was tormenting him. He explained to Nicolai that he must press further into his researches, which involved pushing and pinching his body and contorting his face into various peculiar shapes. If only he could probe deeply enough into the mysteries of physiognomy, perhaps he could triumph over the Spirit of Proportion.

When Nicolai describes the artist staring in a mirror as he makes violent expressions, we feel confirmed in our suspicion that the heads are self-portraits. Yet it is not clear that this is so, at least not always. And if the experience of constipation, of responding to an unpleasant smell, of being deep in thought, of wildly laughing, are Messerschmidt’s own experiences, there remains the question of why he would render them so cruelly. True, there can be a geometric elegance in the way the deep lines around a distorted mouth or a violently wrenched neck suggest a calligraphy of pain or horror or sorrow. And the patterns of creases and wrinkles that Messerschmidt incises into his heads can have a rhetorical eloquence—a stylization of pain, occult symbols on a monument to his suffering. In the most radical cases, the physiognomy becomes not hyper-realistic but antirealist. The mouths that are presented as blank bands turn the face into a prison, with the mouth as a door shut tight or even bricked up. In what are known as the beak heads, where the mouth is obliterated in favor of a protuberance that is some combination of lips and outstretched tongue, the head becomes something else altogether—a gargoyle or a grotesque, a chimerical creature best suited to spit water from the heights of a medieval cathedral.

Messerschmidt’s heads have inspired some tremendously discerning commentary. To juxtapose Ernst Kris’s essay on Messerschmidt as a psychotic artist, which appeared in various versions beginning in the 1930s, with the chapter on the artist in Rudolf and Margot Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn, from 1963, is to discover a particularly exciting intellectual dispute, with both parties displaying extraordinary clarity and erudition and arriving at almost violently antithetical conclusions. For Kris, the heads necessitate a sexual interpretation. Kris surveys the grimaces, the tightly clenched mouths, the protruding-beak orifices, and interprets them in the light of Nicolai’s eyewitness report and psychoanalytic theory. He finds a conflict of phallic and “passive feminine” elements, culminating in works that can be conceived “as direct illustration of fellatio,” with “the features of the human head ... distorted or stretched in order to combine or include both male and female sexual organs.”

However one may initially react to this line of reasoning, it certainly helps to explain the mysterious band mouths, which Kris interprets “as a girdle—as the girdle of chastity.” Kris’s interpretation is far more subtle than a brief summary can suggest, and includes many sensitive observations about the range of Messerschmidt’s work. That the band mouths signify some desire to block or to foreclose seems indisputable, whether or not one characterizes this in the sexual terms of a chastity belt. And even readers with little or no patience for the psychoanalytic interpretation of art will be moved when Kris observes that “Messerschmidt’s practice leads us to the assumption that we may view grimaces as the autoplastic ancestors of masks.”

Rudolf and Margot Wittkower approach Kris with enormous respect. They acknowledge the delicacy of his arthistorical sense. But the thrust of their book is that artistic behavior is more a function of the moment in which the artist lives than a reflection of some timeless impulse or inner necessity, and against Kris they find that “the tracing of the monotonous pattern of subconscious urges obscures more than it clarifies historical situations.” The Wittkowers remind us that the one book that Nicolai noticed in Messerschmidt’s home was an old Italian manual about proportions, and they want to emphasize the possibility that the distortions in Messerschmidt’s heads are mostly related to ideas about human proportion, about physiognomy and its norms, a great subject from the Renaissance onward. They also suggest that Messerschmidt’s strange visages might be related to the imagery in religious or occult tracts of the time. As for the artist’s self-described chastity, they argue that it could suggest his involvement in certain occult sects—they mention the Rosicrucians specifically—that “laid great store by the exercise of continence and regarded it as a prerequisite for attaining insight and cognition.”

To read the Wittkowers after Kris is to experience the pleasure of true intellectual discourse: the paired essays would make a terrific case study in a course on art historical methodology. And the Wittkowers, although skeptics about the unconscious, have enough humor to admit the difficulty of projecting sunny reasonableness onto Messerschmidt’s dark images. After all is said and done, he “may have been, and probably was, as mad as a hatter,” they admit. The charge of madness, as the Wittkowers see it, is the easy out, though in the case of Messerschmidt they acknowledge that it must be considered.

As for Arcimboldo, whom the Surrealists saw as among the first to ground art in a private fantasy world, the Wittkowers, in the brief pages they devote to him in Born Under Saturn, are intent on viewing his work as a logical outgrowth of a courtly world, exactly what one would expect to find “among the curios and rarities in the cabinets of European courts.” They reject the idea of him as a Surrealist “avant la lettre.” But there may be something circular about their own reasoning. They believe that there are personality types among artists of particular times, and argue that Arcimboldo’s personality is that of the sixteenth-century court painter, not the twentieth-century easel painter, each of which has its particular “ideas, convictions, traditions, reactions, and idiosyncrasies in common.” While there is something entirely admirable in the Wittkowers’ critique of the psychoanalytic search for some key to the “artistic personality,” they may underestimate the power of the unconscious. Are they so sure that the deep psychosexual impulses of Leonardo and Michelangelo have nothing to do with the formation of the style of the Late Renaissance?


When one haslocated the artist in his own time, or at least done so as securely as the evidence allows, there remains the question of the power that artists of other eras exert on us, and the extent to which certain problems, perceptions, and impulses recur in the history of art. When I think about Arcimboldo and Messerschmidt and the composed or transformed head, I find my thoughts turning to Picasso. There is surely something of Arcimboldo’s composite heads in the penis noses of Picasso’s painted and sculpted portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter and in the two toy cars that construct the head in the Baboon and Young. And issues familiar from Messerschmidt are surely raised in the contortions of Picasso’s portraits of Dora Maar, the great cycle of which Weeping Woman in the Tate is only the most famous. Kaufmann’s idea of serious play in Arcimboldo may be a tool relevant to the analysis of Picasso’s images of Marie-Thérèse Walter. As for the wild convolutions of Dora Maar’s face as seen in Picasso’s portraits, could it be that some of Kris’s insights are germane? Maar was a highly complex figure, an artist in her own right whose photograph of an armadillo fetus is now a classic of monstrous Surrealist imagery, a deeply neurotic (if not indeed psychotic) personality. The trajectory of her life after Picasso left her, which involved a gradual retreat from the world, deep religious attachments, and perhaps celibacy, is not entirely unlike that of Messerschmidt’s.


There is much to be said about the echoes of Arcimboldo’s and Messerschmidt’s achievements in the work of artists of other eras. But there is also something more general at stake here, namely what Arcimboldo and Messerschmidt and their current reputations have to tell us about the status of norms, standards, models, and conventions in our understanding of art. There is no question that whatever Arcimboldo’s composite heads or Messerschmidt’s character heads or Picasso’s sculpted busts of Marie-Thérèse Walter meant to their creators or their early audiences, they were all understood as violations of a norm, a standard, a model, a convention. The nature of those violations was inevitably comprehended dialectically. That complex principle was first announced by Leonardo in the late fifteenth century, when he found himself obsessed with two types of faces: a handsome young man and a man so distorted by age that his face was hardly human. They were, in his imagination, not so much the norm and the violation of the norm as the ideal and the violation of the ideal.

We still understand Arcimboldo’s or Messerschmidt’s grotesques in relation to a physiognomical standard. We know what a face is supposed to look like, more or less, and we know that these faces do not look like that. In short, we understand the character of these images dialectically. Nobody expects to encounter an Arcimboldo face or a Messerschmidt face as they walk along the street after leaving the museum. We know that the museum is not the street, and that these are paintings and sculptures rather than actual faces. But there is a complication, a big complication. In the art museums of our day, where norms, standards, models, and conventions have widely been called into question—sometimes for good reason—the dialectical force that gives Arcimboldo’s or Messerschmidt’s or Picasso’s violations their particular piquancy may be lost, or at least misplaced. Messerschmidt’s heads may strike us not so much as demonic as merely weird. The grotesque becomes just another option, just another character in a graphic novel.

The Arcimboldo and Messerschmidt exhibitions arrived on the East Coast at a time when grotesqueries of one variety or another are a staple in contemporary art—in work by Ron Mueck, Glenn Brown, Marc Quinn, Charles Ray, Takashi Murakami, Paul McCarthy, Jeff Koons, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin, George Condo, and many others. In some instances, the new work involves direct allusions to these figures from art history. In other cases, contemporary artists are just grooving on the zeitgeist. What is bewildering, at least for me, in most of what I would call the New Grotesque is a total lack of direction when it comes to showing us what is significant about the creation of a grotesque face. I do not think the artists are necessarily unaware of their precursors. Some of these artists have cracked open the art history books. But they regard the grotesque undialectically, even antidialectically. I would not go so far as to say that they regard the grotesque as the new norm. But their grotesque is unmoored: it is not a style or an idea, but more like an attitude or an impression. The New Grotesque is something to be presented with a shrug, the way bystanders at an accident, when interviewed by reporters, invariably describe what they saw as “surreal.” If everything that is deemed newsworthy turns out to be surreal, then surreal is merely the new real.

Arcimboldo in Washington and Messerschmidt in New York could feel almost too familiar. Our tendency to see them through modern eyes robs them of some of their own truth. And the tendency to encompass just about anything seen in a museum with a post-Duchampian “whatever” will further turn familiarity into banality. Beyond that, I wonder how familiar Arcimboldo and Messerschmidt ever wanted to be. Arcimboldo’s painting was an art aimed at the tastes of a tiny elite, which cultivated certain bizarre effects, but only in relation to a highly developed concept of beauty. As for Messerschmidt, mad as he probably was, he was also an exacting craftsman who in the midst of creating wild fantasy heads found time to sculpt at least one deeply sensitive and altogether sober Neoclassical portrait. Arcimboldo’s and Messerschmidt’s achievements were grounded in principles of difference and distinction. Flash forward to our world, where we are all one, and the grotesque becomes another version of kitsch. Whatever Arcimboldo’s and Messerschmidt’s work may be, it is not kitsch.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic. This article ran in the February 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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