WASHINGTON, DC — They have vegetables for noses, foliage for hair, and wear clothing weaved of wheat and straw. The bizarre busts that comprise Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Four Seasons paintings have captivated us since the Milanese painter, working as a portraitist for the Habsburg court, gifted the series to Emperor Maximilian II in 1563. Maximilian himself adored these faces — each constructed out of natural elements associated with one of the four seasons — and exhibited them in his Kunstkammer, in the company of other wondrous curiosities. He even requested that Arcimboldo produce more so he could send the canvases out as political gifts. You’ll find various iterations of the paintings in prominent museum collections today, but they’ve received new life in sculptural form, recreated in painted fiberglass by the artist Philip Haas on a larger-than-life scale.
Now on view at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, Haas’ The Four Seasons first cropped up at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2012 before landing at the New York Botanical Garden in 2013 and the Nelson-Atkins Museum last year. While these previous installations placed the sculptures on expansive, open lawns, they now stand 15 feet tall in a more intimate setting within the confines of Hillwood’s modest ellipse lawn, surrounded by natural foliage. Colorful maquettes of the sculptures are also on display in the estate’s main building.
Arcimboldo’s Four Seasons, of course, offers viewers only profile views of those enigmatic men, and Haas is presenting a different experience of seeing them now in the round and up close. Each of his works painstakingly replicates every detail of Arcimboldo’s original paintings in 3D, from form to color to texture. The leaves of “Winter,” for instance, which represent the hair of a man with a face like a tree trunk, cascade from his gnarled head in crisp, thin sheets that feature subtly bulging veins. In “Spring,” the plants of all varieties and sizes that make up its figure’s garment slip gracefully over one another to form a pile of greenery that seems alive, with leaves stretching towards sunlight. The integration of these many three-dimensional forms also draw attention to the care and precision required of Arcimboldo to evoke such depth in his own flat canvases. Enlarged, the figures are now also imposing — slightly terrifying, even. Although they are copies of well-known paintings, Haas’ versions introduce a different and unexpected energy to the centuries-old works.
I visited on a day when the surrounding trees were only just starting to shed their leaves; when the sculptures blended well with the verdant garden. They will witness three seasons over the course of this exhibition, installed on the grounds of the estate until next spring. While Arcimboldo framed his figures against an isolating curtain of blackness, Haas’ sculptures will have a continuously changing backdrop, now standing beneath fall’s brilliant canopies and later perhaps popping out against winter’s white blanket.
Four Seasons continues at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens (4155 Linnean Ave., Washington, DC) through March 31, 2017.