Art & Botany: Surreal Portraits in Fruits & Vegetables

Art & Botany: Surreal Portraits in Fruits & Vegetables

December 3, 2012
Photo by: Klaus Enrique's Vertumnus, 2010. Photo credit: Klaus Enrique (left). Giuseppe Arcimboldo's Vertumnus,1590. Photo credit: Skokloster Castle, Skokloster (right)

Photographer Klaus Enrique has revived a Renaissance classic: the surreal botanical portraits of 16th-century Milanese painter Guiseppe Arcimboldo—now, rendered through the lens, not the brush. Titled 'Arcimboldo,' Enrique's homage to the painter faithfully recreates his unusual series of portraits portraying people (Emperor Rudolf II) and concepts (the Four Seasons). How does the subject matter weather the test of time, and how does the new medium and era affect its meaning? 

When 16th century Milanese painter Guiseppe Arcimboldo exchanged human features for fruits, vegetables, and grains, it occurred to people that the artist might be insane. And what of the Emperor who commissioned Arcimboldo to paint his royal portrait with a horse chestnut as the Emperor's chin? Was he nuts too? Perhaps, says one critic. Or, suggests another, no one was crazy. Rather, Arcimboldo's work was a produce of a curious time, uniting several 16th-century obsessions: naturalism, the grotesque, and imperial order. Arcimboldo's cornucopia portraits displayed the abundance—so many exotic fruits and vegetables!—of the courts who commissioned him, their fascination with the natural world, and the simmering lure of surrealism. 

Enrique Klaus, Autumn (after Arcimboldo), 2011. Photo credit: Enrique Klaus

Four hundred years later, Klaus Enrique has dusted off the nutty painter's work and given it a new life. He remained true to Arcimboldo's blueprint in many cases, but was sometimes forced to innovate. Unable to find a pear as small and perfect as Arcimboldo painted in one portrait, Enrique photographed the nose as a small sweet potato. Did the variety of tiny pear really appear in a 16th century royal fruit bowl, or did Arcimboldo improvise? Enrique believes that, whether or not his predecessor embellished the scenes, the photographer's own modern rendition transforms Arcimboldo's work simply because of the medium. In photography, he says, there is no question of whether the subject is real or not. In that sense, Enrique hopes that his "series brings a fantasy back to life." The fruit in the still life is true to size and real—a real pear, of course, but not a real face. 

Which is where the fun begins. In both cases, the balance between abstract and recognizable is an entertaining challenge for the viewer. Enrique summarizes the appeal of his work: "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.” To appreciate the detail, see the larger images on the artist's site

A modern perspective also gives the work new meaning: rather than "From what far-off land did that gourd arrive?" we ask "Is that a hybrid or an heirloom?" Instead of "The artist is nuts," we think "The photographer must eat very healthy." 

Klaus Enrique's Summer (after Arcimboldo), 2010. Photo credit: Klaus Enrique



Klaus Enrique's Primavera (after Arcimboldo), 2010. Photo credit: Klaus Enrique (left). Guiseppe Arcimboldo's Primavera, 1563. Photo credit: Skokloster Castle, Skokloster (right)


Enrique has also designed portraits of contemporary figures: Princess Diana, 2011 (left) and Mahatma Gandhi, 2010 (right).