Friday, 1 February 2013

Arcimboldo -- The Librarian: Gallery

Mannerism is not without its fans. Using the painting field to enforce a heavily predetermined message is something to which movie-goers and installation freaks have become habituated. The theatrically staged photo shoot is such a common feature of magazines toda that the reader is forgiven for their blasé flipping of the page. 

The hard angular lines and abstracted nature of the work known as 'The Librarian' have reminded modern viewers of Cubism, and some even claim Arcimboldo to be a Cubist ahead of his time. Whether any of the Cubists had seen 'The Librarian' or been influenced by it is open to doubt. Their objectives were very different, not to mention their objectivity. Cubists were certainly fixated with printed matter, often referencing journals, newspapers and books in their work either in paint, as in the superb painting 'The Open Book' by Juan Gris

 or by direct use of the paper materials themselves in collage. Pablo Picasso and others took cuttings from newspapers, applying them as part of the ground for their Cubist constructs, but they seem noticeably less inclined to tear up books for the same purpose. One ponders how much the ephemeral nature of the Parisian journal was in fact part of the direct subject matter of a Cubist painting. Georges Braque's 'Guitar and Sheet Music' employs paint with aesthetic precision in fact to salute paper product and its service to art.

More persuasive is the link with Surrealism, especially considering it was Salvador Dali who championed Arcimboldo's effusive and unusual paintings during the 1930s. That Arcimboldo was a Surrealist before his time is worth considering in a purely formal way: he used incongruous elements to represent his subjects. But again, we have to remember that Surrealism did this as an exploration and exposure of the unconscious, whereas this is unlikely to have been the prime purpose of Arcimboldo. He was interested in the 16th century exchange going on between Humanism and Nature. He was an allegorist, interested in mythological meanings. We live at the other end of the Surrealist experiment, in a world that is saturated with images of incongruity in art, graphic design, and advertising. For us, an image like this is more likely to inspire responses like "how cute" or "what film is that from?" than to be thought of as Surrealist.  

Despite it's presence in a Swedish gallery, 'The Librarian' continues to exert an imaginative influence over Prague artists.In his children's book 'The Three Golden Keys' the Czech writer and artist Peter Sis tells of a library where a figure literally comes out of the shelves in the form of books. He is a figure from another age, come to remind us of his world. After other magical characters also emerge from the walls, each with a golden key, we are ready for adventure. And unlike the Arcimboldo, in Sis the librarian has books open as an invitation to the reader. We can even read his eyes. 

A short promotional animated film of The Three Golden Keys introduces us to the idea of the book:

Librarians and artists in recent years have gone to slavish lengths to recreate Arcimboldo works. The nature paintings of Rudolf's Court have been copied into huge scultures like this five metre high version of 'Winter', made by Philip Haas in Washington DC.

I have yet to tumble upon a work of similar scale based on 'The Librarian', but here is a sculpture created by Wanda Bruvold in celebration of Freedom to Read Week (February 2011) at Grande Prairie Regional Library  in Alberta, Canada.

We may see Arcimboldo's 'Librarian' as closed and forbidding, and it is such a mood that informs this playful update of the concept. Here The Librarian is a construct of Kindles, DVDs, and devices of different kinds. A neat touch is the pair of dark shades that have become as common to our own public spaces as the straw boater was to the Edwardian age, or the puff sleeve to Rudolfine Prague. Like the Arcimboldo, this image elicits questions about the exact relationship between the person organising these materials and the materials themselves.  

The individual success of Arcimboldo in Western galleries since Surrealism has brought with it the inevitable paraphenalia of the Blockbuster. The sheer novelty of his paintings translates into big sales of posters, coasters, mugs to go with coasters, fridge magnets, gallery carry bags, kids' colour-in books, and your own Arcimboldo tie.

Book people with a flair for the eccentric may find it hard to go past 'The Librarian' bookends

Today we are quite used to the concept of a facial image made from objects. Popular culture has been having fun with this sort of quizzical game playing for years, helped along in the first place by the very art movements at war with sentimetal kitsch: Dada and Surrealism. There are two examples of pop culture that come immediately to mind.

My adolescent reading was a perpetual procession of books, newspapers, magazines, and comics; whatever was there to be read, and nothing has changed. One comic that is now only a teenage memory was Mad Magazine, an American cornucopia of middle class satire and exuberant boyish hi-jinx. All of the cartoonists seemed to be overgrown schoolboys in fact, and the back cover was almost invariably one of its standard features, a fold-in by the graphic maniac Al Jaffee. The Ukrainian-American graphic artist Boris Artzybasheff was producing similar work in the immediate post-war period. Here is his marvellous retro-futurist Time magazine cover (April 2, 1965) representing 'The Computer in Society'.

The other pop culture link to Arcimboldo is the pixel image, or photographic montage. When we look closely at photo images of people made from thousands of small pictures, attention is not so much on the large result as on the possible meanings in the tiny 'daubs' that make the whole. Pixel images are regarded as faddish and possibly not high art, and yet one of the most well-known creators of the photo collage in this style is the English artist David Hockney. One of these works, which Hockney calls 'joiners', deliberately quotes Cubism, pays homage in fact to Cubism. It is called 'The Desk' (1984).

I find this wistful creation a good way to close a show on Arcimboldo's 'The Librarian'. Several books are used to play out the story of 'The Desk', most prominent among them being Prescott's history of the conquest of Mexico and Peru, upper left corner. The conquest described in Prescott was happening at the time of 'The Librarian' and was due in large measure to Arcimboldo's Habsburg employers. It leaves us with the unhappy thought that not only history but art would appear to be written by the winners.  

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