John Bezold

‘Permaculture, Potagers, & Portraiture: Reimagining Paintings by Arcimboldo’


Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593) was a sixteenth-century Italian artist whose innovative and fantastically imaginative work in portraiture, continues to inspire artists to this day. He is best known for the artworks that he created under the patronage of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor (1552-1612), at his court in Prague, in today’s Czech Republic.1 This was the age of the ‘kunstkamer’—rooms created to house treasures of ‘curiosities’, amassed in the early days of global exploration by the then-sea-faring countries of Europe.2 Shells, paintings, skeletons, minerals, and gemstones, along with sculptures and even coral relics, were organized as a collection of ‘curious objects’ to behold. This was a time before art museums and any real attempt to categorize art collections in ways that would be familiar to museums and their curators today.3 According to the historian Suzanna Ivanič, Rudolph’s was, ‘located in Prague’s castle district, on top of the hill above the Vltava river, protected from floods by its position, and closed from public view, [and was] the most extensive kunstkammer collection of the early modern period.'4 Arcimboldo was thus incredibly well positioned at the court of his patron, Rudolph II, whose interest in artwork extended beyond only aesthetic appreciation,5 to its ability to project novel ideas, and so too, his own power.6

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus, 1591, oil on panel, 70x 58 cm., Skoklosters Slott, Håbo

Arcimboldo’s oeuvre is celebrated for his series of paintings that date from his time at Rudolph’s court, which portray humans—and sometimes, fantastically imaginative creatures—composed of many various fruits and vegetables, and other elements from nature, such as twigs and flowers. The most famous of these is Vertumnus, of 1591, which found its way to Sweden during the plundering of Prague,7 which took place during the Thirty Years War—and was itself, part of the Eighty Years War between Spain and the Dutch Republic. These peculiar paintings—with their seemingly unrivaled creative flair, at least by his immediate contemporaries—have been a source of fascination for their viewers during subsequent centuries, since their creation. They have been widely exhibited, especially in the past 50 years, which has spurred a series of catalouges and other such investigations by scholars and historians into their provenance, creation, and eternal intrigue. The most recent of these, Arcimboldo Face to Face, was held at the Centre Pompidou Metz in France, from 29 May-22 November 2021—which placed the artist’s works in a dialogue with about 150 other artists from the sixteenth century to today, including Cindy Sherman (1954), among others.8

The most recent reinterpretation of his work has been created by a collective of artists based in France. ‘Portraits Potagers’ is a generative collection of 1.111 artworks minting on the Tezos blockchain that utilize its technology, to bring the ideas spearheaded by Arcimboldo into the 2020s. The project was created by a trio-team consisting of Wladimir Peltzer (b. 1994), who created the illustrations; Diane Rottner (b. 1994), who brought the works to life with color; and Pablo Hernández Muñoz (b. 1993), who oversaw the coding and technical aspects of the project, bringing it into web3. Wladimir and Diane live and work in the Vosges Mountains in France, where they tend to a patch of land, on which they are utilizing the principles of permaculture; a philosophy, and set of ideas and actions that enable the flourishing of natural environments in ways that are self-sufficient, and natural.9 It is a conscious approach to human interactions with the land of the Earth, bringing together permanent agricultural and permanent culture—hence the term permaculture. And for some, it’s a life philosophy. Utilizing Tezos in one of the most interesting ways I’ve come across yet; the proceeds from ‘Portraits Potagers’ go toward sustaining the land they tend to, using the principles of permaculture. Amazed by the historical origins of their inspiration, and the application of its proceeds from the Tezos community, I spoke with Wladimir about the ideas behind their art-infused NFT project.

Generative work from the series ‘Portrait Potagers’

Could you discuss your backgrounds and any areas or specializations that you may have studied? How did you find your way to permaculture and what is your interest in it?

Of course! Diane studied scientific illustration at the Ecole Estienne in Paris and completed a master’s degree in journalism at Paris-Diderot University, and I completed an undergraduate degree in cognitive neurosciences, and later, I began a master’s degree in neuroscience—though I decided to stop studying after a semester, to focus on scientific illustration. As a teenager, I wanted to become a cartoonist. I took out my old sketchbooks and got to work creating my new future, living on my savings. A few months later, I had my first contracts and began to work as an artist. At that time Diane, and I wanted a simpler life. We had lived our entire lives in big cities like Paris and Marseille—which we still love for many reasons (museums, architecture, cinema, animation, friends, etc.). But we needed space, nature, and a way to measure our impact on this planet. Our parents were very aware of the anthropic origin of global warming, the collapse of biodiversity, and the vast problem of soil degradation. We have grown up with these problems and issues in our minds.

After a few years of working, we decided to move to a small village in the Vosges Mountains to buy a plot of land partly invaded by Japanese Knotweed, and try to improve its soil, enhance local biodiversity, and design resilient agriculture. We studied all the scientific literature we could find, to have a grasp on what to do and how to do it—and we bought a very helpful book, in that regard: Agriculture biologique, une approche scientifique. That publication really helped us learn why soils are so important (and I also recommend another book that popularizes what soils are made of, and describes the role of microorganisms that inhabits it and biogeochemical cycles associated with it: L’origine du monde, by Marc-André Sélosse, who is a French biologist).

You refer to it yourselves on your website as ‘scientific illustrators’. Do you (either or even both) have a background working in illustration or was it taken up for this project? If you do have illustration backgrounds could you describe your prior work?

Yes—we have been illustrators for a few years, and our major clients are universities, institutes, researchers, and publishers. Diane currently works with the Institute Mines-Telecom—which is a research institute for tech and engineering—to help the general public to grasp abstract technical notions. She illustrated the scientific aspects of two books: Tolkien et les sciences and Le trône de fer et les sciences. As for myself, I work with the Institut de l’Océan in Paris, on a project whose aim is to link great animal migrations to ocean currents flow (think prehistoric Rhinoceros, European eels, etc.), while a previous project, for instance, consisted of illustrating a veterinarian research paper.

Can you explain in your own words, what permaculture is and means?

Permaculture—as we understand it—is a rich concept with different utilizations, and its roots have to do with David Holmgren (1955-) and Bill Mollisson’s (1928-2016) work; two Australian biologists.10 In a practical and restricted sense, it is an attempt to synthesize connexions between agriculture, landscape architecture, and ecology through one objective: sustainable and self-sufficient agriculture based on the beneficial interplay of local plants and animals. It is a way of observing natural ecosystems, learning from them, and developing techniques to grow food and produce resources while enhancing local biodiversity, and improving the soil with the least physical energy use.

Generative work from the series ‘Portrait Potagers’

In a broader sense of the word, it reflects an ethical art de vivre based on simple but meaningful principles whose aim is to lead to a sustainable culture/society. In other words, the production of equitably distributed resources through the holistic design of resilient systems. It requires harmonious interrelationships between humans, plants, animals, and their physical environment. To get to this ethical ideal, scientific investigation and empirical experimentation are welcome on all sides. The topic is an incredible opportunity for botanists, biogeochemists, market gardeners, biologists, but also anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers—even artists!—to work together and better understand how human communities could settle sustainably with the objective of life-flourishing systems conception, and their protection.

Could you explain how your own views on permaculture have developed over time? Is it only a practice in self-sustainability for you both? Or is it a full-on way of life?

As a first step, our main interest relies on the methodological aspects related to soil and local biodiversity protection and improvement, and organic fruit and vegetable growth. But in the long run, we really would love to generate local excitement and social bonding around permaculture’s key concepts. It would be an opportunity to explore social and ecological solutions in a practical, measurable way.

I understand that your plot of land is in the Vosges Mountains. Could you describe the land where you are working to implement the traits and ethos of permaculture—what does it feel like; smell like; how does the sunlight fall onto the land; these types of characteristics…

Village in the Vosges Mountains, near the gardens of Wladimir Peltzer and Diane Rottner in Haut-Rhin, Grand Est, France.

Our plot of land is nested in the Vosges, in a small village near a lake in the middle of mixed coniferous and deciduous forests (with emblematic species consisting of spruce, fir, larch, oaks, maple, birch, plum, chestnut, hornbeam, beech, and red berries bushes, etc). Which means it’s biodiversity-rich and has acidic soil. This is a constraint we have to deal with by selecting local, well-adapted vegetable breeds. This is a dream come true for us: the nature here is as wild as you can expect; deers come to nap near the river on the east side of our property; birds of all kinds breed in the big coniferous trees and life seems to express itself in all its forms (butterflies, bees, dragonflies, spiders, salamanders, frogs, hedgehogs, etc.). We live in a region where the sun is shining several times a day, thankfully! As a consequence, the main local smell is what we call ‘petrichor’. This is the earthy scent after a light rain, due to aerosols produced by soil microorganisms like streptomycetes (the most commonly exhaled is Geosmin). This regular supply of water combined with the well-drained loamy nature of our soil makes it easy to grow… pretty much anything (provided that the constraint of acidity is managed)!

Arcimboldo’s work, while humorous to our eyes today, connotated wealth and rarity of items during early modern Europe. Can you talk about your favorite flora and fauna that grows on the plot of that that you are using the proceeds of project to sustain?

The fruits and vegetables we were going to grow on our land came to mind quite quickly. The first finished fruit was, of course, the apple! Then we drew grapes, pears, leeks, squash, raspberries, and blueberries that we were planting at the time, celery root, carrots, and radishes. It is also funny to note that we had the idea to introduce some wild species in the portraits by observing them appearing here in the autumn or spring; local mushrooms (morel, blue foot, oyster), and wild plants (yellow lamier, dandelion), for instance. To add a bit of diversity and universality to our portraits, we then chose more exotic species (such as pomegranate, karela, reishi, chilies, lemon caviar) but also things present in nearly all kitchens (orange, grapefruit, banana, lemon, peach, etc.); some flowers (rose and borage in particular); and some aromatic herbs, allowed us to vary the shapes and textures. The same principle was applied to the animals. We started with ‘allied’ species that we often met in the garden: bees, frogs, great tit, dragonflies, praying mantis, ants, etc. Then, caught up in this fun game that we had created, we introduced the chameleon—to add a touch of the absurd!

Generative work from the series ‘Portrait Potagers’

It’s really an ingenious way to reimagine his paintings and fold their own concept into your recent NFT art project, which is entitled ‘Portraits Potagers’. Could you explain the process behind creating each of the 1.111 artworks you created for the project?

Yes, of course! The first step was for me to draw a male face with rather specific proportions, and first use that as a guide. Then I had to design each and every fruit and vegetable using line-art drawings (with pen and ink), while thinking about where they should appear and/or, overlap, on the face. In the third stage, Diane colorized all the drawings with Procreate and sent them back to me to correctly position them in Photoshop. That’s where our coder Pablo comes in! He made a huge file to generate some of the possible combinations of fruit and vegetable arrangements, and eventually, we got all the way up to 1.111 portraits, in total!

Tezos is obviously the cleanest and most energy-efficient of the many blockchains that exist today. Beyond that, why mint on Tezos? And what in your opinion makes the Tezos chain the most receptive to a project like this? I ask because people are obviously not minting your works to flip them, much like many projects minted on Ethereum in 2021/early-2022. Do you find Tezos’ community to be more receptive to artists?

We first looked online at the different eco-responsible blockchains. Among them was Tezos, which was known to be artists-friendly. Tezos also had a huge plus, which was that the transactions were guaranteed to be fast and cheap. This meant we could list our portraits from the project, at the same price as a basket of fruits and vegetables—which is quite low. We want it to be accessible to anyone; not only rich collectors.

Generative work from the series ‘Portrait Potagers’

On that note; are you both artists, permaculturalists, or both? How do you define your work, and is this the first NFT project that you’ve created? Or are there prior ones?

This is indeed our first NFT project. We define ourselves mainly as illustrators with permaculture as a hobby… for now? We don’t know just yet. Permaculture as a daily activity is quite new to us and I think we need to fully dive in before knowing where this will lead us and change how we define our work and lives.

Behind the obvious reason of having various levels of rarity and diversity of imagery; could you talk about how you came up with the idea—which is rather funny and charming—of having animals and garden and kitchen tools in the second and third tiers of works?

Yes—a very good question! As we promote a way of growing food as ethically as possible, we wanted this to also be reflected in our portraits. The first level contains only fruits and vegetables and it is a great starting point for new art collectors. But the journey towards respectful and responsible agriculture will invariably attract small animals. When you see them in a vegetable garden, you know you are on the right track. And that’s a second ethical step, symbolically taken through the second rarity choice. Moreover, if you only use manual tools to design and create a permaculture project, one greatly reduces the risk of damaging land. It is a way of encouraging individuals to start gardening by themselves if they have a plot of land or a small home garden.

The idea is obviously not to engage in a fight against conventional technology but to give up the tools we know to be harmful. I believe that we as humans need to sit and think about what needs to be done, and created, to better grow our resources, while regenerating our living ecosystems. In the meantime, any person in good health can use a shovel, a grelinette, or a garden hand hoe and experience the joys of being outside on a beautiful patch of land, working a garden. That’s the idea, with the third level, which is why it includes such objects as rakes and hoes, and other land-working tools.

Lastly, many people often misunderstand the concept of permaculture as simply meaning ‘organic’—which of course is a result of food derived from land tended to, using principles of permaculture. Why, in your own opinion, is permaculture not better known in society? And what, in your view, are some of the biggest ideas, and simplest actions that people can implement into their own life, even if they, for instance, live in cities?

This question is a hard one. As a first approximation, I would say that there are two trends… those who think of permaculture as a synonym of organic agriculture, and those who misunderstood it as something that has to do with outsiders or originals, or confuse it with the biodynamic principles—whose key concepts rely on esoteric bases. Neither of these two tendencies offers a satisfactory definition of what permaculture seems to be. If we had to resume the essence of permaculture—as we understand it—as a way of life and a method to grow natural resources in an ethical manner, we would quote its three core principles (that can be understood as objectives): care of the earth (through environmental compliance); care of humans (by supporting each other, working in close collaboration); and fair-share (acknowledging that the earth’s resources are finite). As for the simplest actions to implement into our own life, this is very basic but still meaningful I think: limit your energy consumption; favor local food production; experiment with growing your own food; avoid wasting food, as much as possible; reduce meat consumption; try engaging in local biodiversity initiatives; and take time to breathe!

  1. For a general view of the artist and his work see: Liana De Girolami Cheney, Arcimboldo (New York City: Parkstone Press, 2013). Sylvia Ferino-Pagden. (ed.), Arcimboldo: 1526-1593 (Milan: Skira, 2007). Sandra Forty, Arcimboldo (Surrey: Cobham, 2011). Giancarlo Maiorino, The Portrait of Eccentricity: Arcimboldo and the Mannerist Grotesque (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991). Roland Barthes, Arcimboldo (Milan: Franco Maria Ricci Editore, 1978).
  2. Horst Bredekamp, Antikensehnsucht und Maschinenglauben. Die Geschichte der Kunstkammer und die Zukunft der Kunstgeschichte (Berlin: Wagenbach, 2000).
  3. Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), 255-302. Koenraad Jonckheere, Antwerp Art after Iconoclasm: Experiments in Decorum 1566-1585 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).
  4. Suzanna Ivanič, ‘Religious Materiality in the Kunstkammer of Rudolf II’, in Religious Materiality in the Early Modern World, eds. Andrew Morrall, Mary Laven, and Suzanna Ivanič (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press: 2020).
  5. Paul Oskar Kristeller, ‘The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics’ Part I, Journal of the History of Ideas 12, no. 4 (Oct. 1951), 496-527. Paul Oskar Kristeller, ‘The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics’ Part 2, Journal of the History of Ideas 13, no. 1 (Jan. 1952), 17-46. See also: Esther Pasztory, Thinking with Things (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005).
  6. Karel van Mander, Het schilderboeck waer in voor eerst de leerlustighe iueght den grondt der edel vry schilderkonst in verscheyden deelen Wort voorghedraghen (Haarlem, 1604).
  7. John Bezold, ‘Review of: Van de Velde & Son: Marine Painters’, Oud Holland Reviews, November 2022.
  8. For the catalouge, see: Chiara Parisio (ed.), Face à Arcimboldo (Metz: Centre Pompidou-Metz, 2021). Other major exhibitions have been: ‘The Empire of Imagination and Science of Rudolf II’, Bunkamura Museum, Tokyo, 6 January-11 March 2018. ‘Arcimboldo: Wiederentdeckt’, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 21 July 2014-15 February 2015. ‘Arcimboldo, 1526–1593: Nature and Fantasy’, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 19 September 2010-9 January 2011.
  9. For more on the background and philosophical thinking behind permaculture, see: Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1990). John Bezold, ‘It is in the Garden that Wonders Are Revealed: Interview with Leoni Woldt-Wallisser’, in Laboratory for Visionary Architecture: What If (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2022). 112-123.
  10. Their most well-known book on the subject remains: Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlement (Winters: International Tree Crop Institute USA, 1981). See also: Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future (Washington D.C.: Island Press, 1990).