I have often thought the Mannerist style of late Renaissance art had a lot in common with the Surrealism of the 20th century. After viewing the National Gallery’s Arcimboldo exhibition, this analogy seems stronger. Arcimboldo was a Mannerist from Milan who worked for the Court of Maximilian II in Vienna, and for his son, Rudolf II, in Vienna and in Prague. It is interesting that his reputation went down for a number of years until the Surrealists of the 20th Century revived the interest in his art.

“Librarian,” 1566, could easily be mistaken for an early 20th century Surrealist painting, at first glance. Arcimboldo painted various professions. “The Jurist,” also on display at the National Gallery, is a scathing portrayal of the legal profession.

Mannerism came after the High Renaissance style of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, which had lasted only about 20 years. The idealism of their style seemed to perish as Europe descended into the wars and devastation that occurred after the Reformation began. Much of life may have seemed surreal, or like a very bad dream. In the same vein, Dadaism and Surrealism resulted from the irrationality of World War I, when a Europe that had supposedly reached a high level of civilization was torn asunder by senseless war.

Arcimboldo, the keen observer of nature, introduces the still life, a new genre
of painting. His vegetable harvest is bountiful BUT……

Mannerist artists enjoyed clever, disguised subjects. Surrealists loved to play tricks, too, often playing pranks on each other.

Arcimboldo was every bit the jokester. The Vegetable Gardener, above and below, is full of onions, carrots, mushrooms, etc., but it can be turned over. (The National Gallery uses mirrors to show the reversal. )

“The Vegetable Gardener” is one of three reversible food images in
the exhibition which uses mirrors to show the illusion.

In Arcimboldo’s world, plants, flowers and fruits metamorphose into human heads. Also there are lizards, bats and hideous creatures that make up human beings. While Surrealism had the goal to make the subconscious visible, Mannerism may have been doing much the same, accidentally, or subconsciously, but four centuries earlier.

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016