Fire – A Current Review of a 16th Century Painting

Image: Fire – Giuseppe Arcimboldo

The Milanese painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, was famous for his collections of outlandish portraits, often assembled not with human parts but with objects from the world of still-life, such as fruit and household items. Fire is one of a series of four separate oil-on-wood portraits that are made to represent the Four Elements. The painting embodies Arcimboldo’s unique taste for “grotesquerie” in which the head and upper-chest areas of human subjects, sometimes even royalty, were constructed with inanimate objects of varied value, metals and organic materials that formed bizarrely-diverse representations of a single thematic element.

Four years before the completion of Fire, Arcimboldo was commissioned as the court portraitist for Ferdinand I of the Habsburg House in Vienna, and it was this appointment, unwittingly, which would thrust Arcimboldo’s works, such as Fire, into a well-known and unfortunate examination of the artist’s mental stability: Would a man, in his right mind, truly seek to ridicule an Emperor with timeless works of art?

While the profiled subject in Fire does not appear to be of a real person, the painting, along with the other three paintings in the series, were nonetheless made out to Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II of Prague.

But this is all the past. Today, Fire is housed in a Viennese art museum, and if You will allow it, a mane of hair imagined as a burning brushfire may lend to the modern viewer a warm euphoria, a fragile relief, from the entirely un-comic stresses of an uncontrollable world. Let us look at this painting more closely.

Fire – Analysis of Composition

       Fire is a portrait of a young male produced in profile; the positioning of the subject, coupled with the subject dominating the frame and foreground, generously, and somewhat betrayingly, allows for the unimpeded viewing of an highly ornate and intricate “bust” assembled from provocative Fire-related items. Lurid yellow tones pierce through the dark background, and they focus the eye on a condition of extreme suffering, with an unmistakably placid facial expression.

       In earlier years, Arcimboldo followed in his father’s footsteps to design stained glass on cathedrals. In this painting, I sense an influence from the past, an invisible sunlight that enhances every effect of this head-on-fire: Something staid, like a disfigured left cheek that is made to resemble the texture of a stone, or something that captivates, like a precariously placed wax candle that centers the frame, and whose idle position so near to a mouth wrapped with wood shavings, or an eye replaced with a candle wick, multiplies our concern as the wax melts away. Arcimboldo plays expertly with the potential of dynamic action in a static portrait, and of the human agency in a moment of cruel determinism. The defiantly raised chin, which is propped up by an oil lamp that seems perfectly and inexplicably fitted to the contours of the jaw, and the glistening, bejeweled Royal collar that rests inconsiderately on a pile of dull, heavy ordnance, are there as if to exemplify that in the very public exposition of his extreme suffering, this man utilizes your gaze, and his body’s profile, to make a show of his imperious character; the kind that does not even answer to a natural element.

Double-Eagle – An Imperial Emblem

The double-eagle design in the center of the irregular, concave-sided trapezoid pendant sits prominently in the lower left corner of this portrait. Despite the gleam of the jewels that construct this collar, it is the overall glare of yellow fire that overtakes the eye. Attention is first drawn to the center of the frame, and the upper right corner of the frame, but eventually it falls to the pile of disparate objects, some of which are hollow, that replace the concrete structure of the man’s upper chest. We also notice that this “pile” of a man appears to rest on a stool, and that the weight of the collar is presumably placed in such a way that it presses down and holds the loose structure of the pile underneath.

This leads us to the double-eagle pendant. The pendant epitomizes the elegance and the poise that are traditionally ascribed to left-facing portraits. The deep-green color provides a stable elegance to a frantic scene of lurid yellow shades. In this sense, the pendant may symbolize the calm, solid rationality of the imperial Habsburg House, against a visually offensive mix of bright yellows.

       We know that Fire was placed in Emperor Maximilian II’s collection, and the double-eagle emblem on the pendant is a clear sign of deference toward the incumbent House of the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century.

       I like to think that it is preposterous that Arcimboldo’s loud and outlandish portraits would succumb to a need for deference, or a weak acknowledgment of his imperial employers. Could this be? We may never know the degree to which Arcimboldo’s portraits were influenced (tamped down) by the exigencies of his society. In a modern society, Arcimboldo’s wild brush easily outshines the symbols of old, superficial power so that Fire presents an emotional, human-centered, and strangely soothing representation of a cold, heavy, overburdened “man” slowly, steadily, melting away.       

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