We fill absences. This is what we do. Nature has her way of filling up absence with stars, atoms, frogs, dirt, human beings. Human beings, though, have their own curious way of filling absence. When we lived in caves, we filled the vacuum of the unknown with fear. In ancient times, gods filled the unknown. In 16th-century Europe, the artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo filled the unknown with monsters. In the darkened rooms of the “Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy” exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., hang strange and unwholesome monster faces. The portraits lining the walls are a perversion of everything we consider to be natural and right and harmonious about the human visage. In Arcimboldo’s “composite heads,” men are made of candlesticks and gourds and fish and sticks. Arcimboldo also created invertible paintings that, when held over a mirror, show two totally different images. You might think you’re looking at a metal bowl filled with assorted vegetables, except when you hold it over a mirror — reverso! — it’s now a fat guy with thick mushroom lips and a turnip beard sporting a metal bowl for a hat. The exhibition’s signature portrait is “Vertumnus,” the Roman god of the seasons. Like Arcimboldo’s other composite portraits, Vertumnus is something of a riddle, a funny tribute to his benefactor, Emperor Rudolph II. It portrays Rudolph as Vertumnus, as the harvest itself. The face of Rudolph/Vertumnus has nothing human about it save the form — no flesh, no blood, no bones. It is composed entirely of fruits and vegetables. A long pear nose dangles over cherry lips. Root vegetables and gourds arrange a neck and chest, which are adorned with flowers, an artichoke, and a cabbage.

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