Klaus Enrique – The Arcimboldo Series
I had been working on a photography series in which different parts of the human anatomy are presented in the context of hundreds of different organic elements of the same kind: A human eye surrounded by thousands of dried leaves. One of the leaves happened to be aligned thus that it look like the nose that belonged to that eye. The image was spooky, but also a little contrived. It appeared as if the leaf had been deliberately placed there to look like a face. That night I wrote in my notepad, “make face with dried leaves”
Before I begin work on a new project, I always research what has been done on that subject by other artists. It didn’t take long before I came across the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. This was an immediate disappointment to me. As with so many of my ideas, someone, somewhere had already thought about it (in this case more than 400 years ago) and had executed the idea magnificently. “Oh well…” I thought, and with that I abandoned the project.
But the idea kept stirring in my head. A long time ago I heard someone quote Alfred de Musset: “Perfection does not exist” If perfection existed, improving upon it would be impossible. Thus art is like science. Indeed, to me art is pushing the boundaries of our understanding. It is the act of creating something novel. It is breaking a world record. It is discovery.
My research confirmed that Arcimboldo had not been the first artist to create a composite head. Anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics to living and non-living things), Pareidolia (perceiving things where none exist) and the cognitive processes of face perception are probably as old as mankind itself. None of this, however, takes away from the greatness of Aretino, or da Vinci, or Arcimboldo. But equally, neither of them has ownership over those concepts.
“Knowledge is Power” Sir Francis Bacon
Knowledge gave me the freedom to create my own series, which in homage, I named “Arcimboldo”. But knowing that other people before and after him have done similar work was not reason enough for me to create my own body of work. For me the reason came first of all from my original moment of Pareidolia. I saw a face where no face existed. The reality was simply hundreds of leaves randomly arranged over a human eye. Yet my mind was telling me that a face was there. A pear, an apple and a berry come together in synergy creating a portrait in my mind. Magritte famously said “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, equally I could say “This is not a face”, yet our powers of abstraction, a power that is uniquely human, allow us to see that face.
Arcimboldo used painting as his medium. Philip Haas has used sculpture to recreate one of his works, Bernard Pras has worked with photography. Even before I was aware of Arcimboldo’s work I thought that photography was the right medium for this series. Painting has the inalienable ability to create a fantasy completely removed from reality. Photography arguably lacks that trait, but in return it provides a picture of reality that the most consummate photorealist can hardly match. This series brings a fantasy back to life.
I can imagine one day in the future, distant or not, when an artist will use genetic engineering to create a living plant that looks exactly like Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus. It will be an arresting sight. Would that be the perfect Arcimboldo? Perfection does not exist. There is always room for improvement.