Toyen, Le devenir de la liberté (The Future of Freedom), 1946, oil on canvas, 65 × 25 5⁄8". From “Face à Arcimboldo” (Arcimboldo Face to Face).

Toyen, Le devenir de la liberté (The Future of Freedom), 1946, oil on canvas, 65 × 25 5⁄8". From “Face à Arcimboldo” (Arcimboldo Face to Face).

“Face à Arcimboldo”

The face was material for Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526–1593). He molded it—with a singularity of style and those tiny careful brushstrokes in oil—into allegories, bouquets, and arrangements of leather-bound books. Among the many charming examples of the Hapsburg court painter’s work in “Face à Arcimboldo” (Arcimboldo Face to Face)—an exhibition conceived in a dialogue between Maurizio Cattelan and Chiara Parisi, the latter of whom is director of Centre Pompidou-Metz and cocurator of the exhibition with Anne Horvath—was a copy of his lost original, La bibliothécaire (The Librarian), ca. 1566. The thickly barbed and mustachioed face of a man made of books almost winks, so remarkably jaunty is his demeanor. Rich and seemingly alive, Arcimboldo’s paintings were well-known and imitated by contemporaries and by later generations, and were admired for their originality and resonance with the natural world.

Among the followers of Arcimboldo’s playful trompe l’oeil were the Surrealists, including Salvador Dalí and Francis Picabia. In Man Ray’s oil-on-canvas Portrait imaginaire d’Arcimboldo (Imaginary Portrait of Arcimboldo), 1953, the painting’s wood-composite frame informed the geometry and palette of the subject’s profile, as if the artist’s depiction were formed from the very material of his work. As the Surrealists realized, there’s a freedom in Arcimboldo’s methodology, embracing realism via its widening context of production, thought, and vulnerability. A narrow vertical canvas in oil, Le devenir de la liberté (The Future of Freedom), 1946, by Toyen, one of the movement’s few female members, depicted a figure made of sweet-pea pods facing the corner of a room whose walls have been painted with a trompe l’oeil sky alive with the flight of swallows. Two decades later, Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Elle—une cathédrale” (She—A Cathedral), 1966, here displayed in a photograph repainted by the artist in 1979, comes across as an answer to Toyen’s venture. Trapped by an architecture in Toyen’s work, the female figure becomes architecture herself in Saint Phalle’s piece.

The show positioned Cattelan as Arcimboldo’s contemporary counterpart. Certainly Cattelan’s social and economic position, his entwinement with the upper echelons of the art market, echo Arcimboldo’s deep immersion in the imperial courts of Vienna and Prague. Ego, 2019, Cattelan’s taxidermy crocodile, was tethered to the ceiling by a rope attached deep inside its open mouth and hung over Humberto and Fernando Campana’s Anhanguera Sofa, 2012, a couch made from yak fur and bamboo and decorated with bronze reptiles. According to Horvath, Cattelan’s piece presents one of the “ferocious and fragile” animals the Italian artist imagines emerging from a patient in psychoanalysis.

Ancient Neapolitan mosaics, made centuries before Arcimboldo’s paintings, were also presented here, connecting antiquity to the modern era and the natural world to the human. As in the sixteenth-century master’s work, vegetal motifs abounded in these antecedents, as did mythological animals: centaurs, griffins, and harpies. When Arcimboldo painted the side-profile portrait The Four Seasons: Spring, 1563, he inserted a sprig of ripe raspberry at the location of the male subject’s heart; his ear is a pale blooming peony. Here, nature is pictured as a generative force, an echo of the era’s burgeoning agricultural industry and the rising pastime of gardening—but it could also be linked to morbidity and decay.

The plague had struck just a generation earlier, and a second wave would hit Italy shortly after the artist’s death. Human flesh was shown to be just as fragile as any other living matter. The Covid-19 pandemic is a fresh reminder of this. In the museum’s atrium, Annette Messager’s installation Le désir attrapé par le masque (Desire Caught by the Mask), 2021, positioned dozens of stuffed and taxidermy animals in black netting. Some were suspended from the rafters, while others stretched out across the stone floor. Messager also included mirrors so that, she explains, by “looking at the stuffed animals, we see ourselves, and also become rabbit, cat, duck.” Nearly every one of Messager’s creatures has a face, covered with a blue surgical mask, just like our own.