Arcimboldo’s Ghosts Exhibit 2019 by Lilly Wei

Arturo Rodriguez knows what it is like to be uprooted as an adolescent and what it is like to be immersed in cultures far from the world of his childhood although the first such he encountered were all offshoots of Spanish legacies, however inflected. It was a reverse migration as he and his family traveled from the new world to the old, then back again. For Rodriguez, this transplanting occurred at a particularly impressionable age and most likely predisposed him towards traveling, initiating a lifelong curiosity about the world and its diversity and richness. It taught him to be open-minded and receptive to a multitude of different experiences and impressions, aesthetic and otherwise. It also taught him about otherness, about the human condition.

Rodriguez was born in a small town in Cuba in 1956 and went to Spain in 1971, first to the northwest of the country and a little later to Madrid. Madrid was a pivotal moment in his genesis as an artist in large part because it is the home of the Prado Museum, considered by many to be the finest museum in the world for Western European paintings.

Once he discovered it, he haunted the galleries of the Prado, intent on absorbing the magical brushwork of Velázquez and Goya, the wide-ranging palette and wildly inventive fantasies of Bosch, the beautiful, rhythmic lines and sculpture-like figures of Van der Weyden, and the ghostly, elongated forms that populated El Greco’s feverish visions. These are ongoing influences that will appear in his work throughout his career, in an array of guises, informing his practice to the present day. Rodriguez explains that his influences come from so many sources—art, film, literature, poetry as well as “raw life”–that he no longer knows precisely “what is an influence and what is not.”

Circumstances changed and he and his family re-crossed the Atlantic to settle in Miami in 1973, where Rodriguez currently lives and works. It is a city with a large Cuban American population but it is also a hub for other Caribbean and Hispanic communities as well as Americans and other peoples from around the world. His earlier years had made him not only more aware of the vastness the world and how cultures vary but he also learned how they are interconnected, entangled, and how art offers, at its heart, a common language. While he has seen many celebrated museums since then, his experience at the Prado, like first love, was headlong, an affair to remember. But other artists have been greatly admired over the years as well, exerting a powerful draw: Giorgione, Caravaggio, Géricault, Courbet, Cézanne, Matisse, Giacometti, Max Beckmann, Giorgio Morandi, Philip Guston, Francis Bacon, more; the list is long since an artist need not be aesthetically monogamous.

Around this time, Rodriguez became enamoured of jazz and the blues in addition to flamenco and traditional Cuban songs, attracted by their improvisatory nature and soulfulness that he found sympathetic. They echoed his own sense of displacement, a consequence of being young, sensitive, but even more so, exacerbated by his personal circumstances—the disruptions, the loss of home and the familiar world of his childhood. That, too, found its way into his art, all of which he said added “dimension” to it, as he forged it into a style and practice uniquely his own.

Rodriguez prefers figuration and is an accomplished representational artist. His mediums are multiple and include paint, mixed media, collage, watercolors and drawings, based on a cosmopolitan view of the world. It is a view that defines his identity as well as that of his art.

He has always painted in series. It helps him to concentrate on the ideas he is currently engaged with, as well as allowing him the scope to present those ideas in depth. Some previous series that have been of great importance in his evolution have been The School of Night (2014-2017), Caravaggio Project (2008-2014), Arrivals and Departures (2009-2010); The Human Comedy (2006), and Ghost Archipelago (1999-2000). “When a series ends,” he said, “I leave it and begin another series that is completely different…There is always a stylistic trajectory in the paintings, but the approaches change as I paint them since I do not follow any formula.” It is risky, he admits, and sometimes he fails but he also succeeds—brilliantly.

In his latest works, the Arcimboldo Series, he has discovered yet “a new vision and new way of seeing reality.” In some ways, he conjures André Malraux’s prescient idea of a museum without walls (le musée imaginaire), the assembling of images that foreshadows the digital age. Malraux, a French novelist, theorist, provocateur, member of the Resistance, France’s Minister of Cultural Affairs, and passionate conservator and archivist of images, freed art from the confines of a museum through reproductions. Malraux posits the existence of art objects across cultures and chronology as a simultaneous phenomenon, a condition well-suited to today’s age of instant image retrieval, the importing of images across multiple platforms and the rapidity and ease of their access.

Rodriguez takes that liberation of images in other directions, merging it with the improvised and appropriated in a kind of collaboration. Here, he invests his figuration with borrowings from other images, overtly so, creating not only a visually compelling hybrid, but also one that represents a dense and layered history of art that is personal, idiosyncratic. As curators and art institutions explore exhibitions that juxtapose and create relationships between objects in a non-linear, simultaneous sequence, chronological presentation is no longer paramount. It has become increasingly popular to traverse time periods, geographies and genres, emphasizing the optical, content and its relationship to the present, not the chronological and historical.

Looking at a recent picture of Rodriguez’s studio, you can see a wall pinned with images of art that have inspired him. In essence, it is his own museum without walls, something many artists have put together, each revelatory. The wall in this photo of his studio is tacked with reproductions of paintings by the French Romantic painter Géricault; the Post-impressionist Cézanne; the Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Sharaku who depicted images of the floating world; and a picture by the American photographer Diane Arbus. Significantly, he focuses on one, two or perhaps three works that have profound meaning for him, not on the artist’s entire oeuvre, highlighting how singular these references are to him.

The photos on the wall might be thought of as part of the tradition of representing artists’ studios in which paintings, models, animals, props and other clues to the artistic process and materials are disclosed. One prime example of the genre is Courbet’s renowned puzzler, The Artist’s Studio, a real allegory of seven years of my artistic and moral life (1855), a tribute to and document of the site where painting and production commonly takes place.

The Arcimboldo Series is a remarkable set of paintings that he has worked on for the past few years. It is named after the Italian 16th century Mannerist painter Arcimboldo, beloved for his clever, sardonic but also jovial portraits composed entirely of vegetables, fruits, flowers, fish and other comestibles that Rodriguez extrapolates from and gives his own surreal spin to. He also slips in other references, such as fragments of Mondrian’s primary colored grids, or the body and stance of Cézanne’s Bather, or Diane Arbus’ Child with Toy Hand Grenade, and so much more. It’s a visual treasure hunt to find them and identify the sources, challenging and engaging the viewer. The compositions also are full of perceptual anomalies—for instance, the figures are often accompanied by shadows that are independent of them in form, not at all conforming to the expected configuration. Or there will be a shadow of a man running, out of scale—the shift in scale within a single painting another disconcerting tactic—cast on the ground, but no positive form connected to its insubstantiality, as seen in Arcimboldo, Mondrian, Sharaku, Arbus Ghost (2017) and many other works. Some are amusingly satiric, such as figures with watermelons for heads, as a direct riff on Arcimboldo, to which he adds succulent papayas, buttery avocados and chili peppers for local flavor, as well as carrots that represent noses and other body parts, as evidenced in the abovementioned painting.

These paintings are a composite of the impressionistic, expressionistic and surreal, his lively brush strokes animating the various scenes, executed with bravura, assurance and, at times, a delicacy that is like tenderness. In Arcimboldo, Courbet, Cézanne, Arbus, Mondrian Ghost of The Pilgrim (2018), the protagonist seems to be a nomad, a seeker, a solitary figure—a description of the kind of lives many artists choose. In his backpack, as if to indicate it is part of his protagonist’s kit, his magical arsenal, a painting peeps out, a Mondrian. Perhaps it refers to the ideologies of modernism, asserting that it is still the foundation for much of today’s art. The landscape, in this painting, seems barely there and in flux, underscoring an existential sense of the world in both its manmade and natural aspects. Arcimboldo, Mondrian, Cézanne Ghost, H.C. Brenson (2017) depicts another vegetable-headed figure, partly replicating The Bather, a similar, rather menacing shadow lingering on the ground here as well, reminiscent of De Chirico’s disquieting, attenuated silhouettes. In fact, Rodriguez’s shadows insert their own subversive narratives into the work. It is a subtext that often contends with what is pictured in the foreground, acting as its darker spirit, making the painting even more mysterious. Arbus, Arcimboldo Ghost (2016-17) is based on the photographer’s famous image Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962 (1962), a recurrent image in this series. Rodriguez loosely copies the pose and figure of the boy but what you remember will be the differences between their works. While evoking Arbus’ highly developed instinct for the odd, the peculiar, Rodriguez adds to it his version of the disparate and the alien. What could be odder than his seemingly arbitrary application of two saturated red circles to the picture? But of course they are intentional. The boldest color in the composition and transfixing, the smaller dot depicts the boy’s pupil, transforming him into a being possessed by a prankish, if not malevolent, spirit.

Among the best—and newest—are Arcimboldo’s Ghosts or the Encounter (2018) and Arcimboldo, Cézanne, Géricault, Sharaku, Courbet, Mondrian, Uccello Ghosts or The Encounter II (2018, presenting the exquisitely limned grouping of figures who are part of Rodriguez’ stock company, his own distinctive, stylized ensemble of commedia dell’ arte-like characters. His troupe is presented as a comédie humaine, the stories complex, ironic, imaginative, and enigmatic, making up much of this cycle’s provocative charm.

Appearing again and again in this series, with variations, the protagonists are part human, part chimera, the overall mood of these two paintings more subdued than others but with an air of expectancy, as if waiting for something, someone—or they might be on the verge of vanishing, the space they occupy undifferentiated, a medley of brushstrokes. But who or what are they waiting for? Perhaps it is the artist, like Shakespeare’s magnificent sorcerer Prospero in The Tempest—to tie together all the histories, all the references they stand for. For without him or her, they would disappear.

He often claims “everything in art has been done.” But he then qualifies that, adding that there is a little “open space” left for individual artists to find their own creative realm. “I try to paint and reinterpret art history or, more specifically, certain paintings and artists that are important to me. They become a different reality to me and they give me great pleasure and pain. I carve these small niches for myself with hard work and sincerity, and hope to leave a record of the times we live in.”


By Lilly Wei
Critic, journalist, independent curator.
Former board member of Art in General, and is a fellow of the CUE Foundation.
MA in art history from Columbia University, New York.