The National Gallery is a place for serious art. Its scale is immense and it houses some great works. Tourists all seem to agree on the aesthetic most appropriate for consuming Important Art. Cross your arms. Or put your hands behind your back, maybe. Chin up. Head cocked. Squint your eyes, and lean in. Exhale audibly. Perfect. Now tell me how the sculpture makes you feel. Fathers deliver half-read, half-fabricated accounts of Roman history. Their children aren’t listening, but other museum-goers might be. Clark Griswold is everywhere.
In this place of High Art, the Arcimboldo exhibit, which opened this weekend, is a welcome uncocking of heads. The sixteenth century Italian artist was among the first painters of pretty things on tables and might even be called the first surrealist. His heads are thematically composed bunches of fruits, vegetable, flowers, fish, and cured meats, somewhere between still-life, collage, and Magic Eye. His portraits have the appeal of pointillism – individual works are different “shows” when viewed at a distance – with a sense of humor and a bonus art history lesson, but only if you want one (placards say that he painted his patrons in the trappings of abundance to symbolize their dominance over the natural world).
Most notable are three reversible works. Viewed straight on, each painting is a table-top scene: a bowl of salad or a platter of suckling pig. When turned on its head, though (there were mirror-topped boxes below the paintings to spare audiences cricked necks), each painting is transformed into a grotesque human curiosity, worthy of the a Coney Island freak show or (evidently) the National Gallery’s east wing.
Crowds shuffled quickly through the exhibit. The volumes of voices were decibels higher than in other exhibits. People seemed to feel free to make throatier, more honest appraisals of how they felt about a piece, or even, how it made them feel. One friend, who regularly uses his lunch hour to wander the Gallery, leaned over to me and said that he’d never seen people smile so much in the museum. I crossed my arms, cocked my head, squinted my eyes, and looked around the room. I exhaled audibly and said that I liked the exhibit very much.