In Prague, he began to introduce an additional degree of complexity in the design of his composite heads. His invertible still lifes—The Vegetable Gardener and Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit (both c. 1590)—resemble either a face or an innocuous bowl of produce, depending on which way the canvas was turned.
Taken together, this modest body of work comprises the bulk of Arcimboldo’s legacy. “The reputation of the Milanese painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo is based entirely on a dozen or so bizarre pictures showing portrait-like heads made up of animals, plants, or inanimate objects,” a former director of the Warburg Institute once scoffed. “In an age of great painters he was hardly more than a competent journeyman. His drawings are dull, his inventions for tournaments and pageants not very different from those of other impresarios of court festivals throughout Europe.”
Nonetheless, Arcimboldo is not without his defenders. Where some see cheap stunts, Princeton University professor Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann sees sardonic wit. “The composite heads are no doubt whimsical jokes and sight gags,” Kaufmann, author of Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting, told Artsy. “But they are more than that. By regarding the works as primarily whimsical, we miss the paradox that they can be something more, and bear some kind of meaning or allusion as well as being funny.”