Wednesday, March 27, 2019

SearchResearch Challenge (3/27/19): What are paintings of things that are NOT the things they depict?

LOTS to talk about this week... 

Before we get to the SearchResearch Challenge, I want to tell you two things quickly: 

First... My article on “The Skills of Online Search and Research: Why research skills matter more than ever in the age of the search engine”  JUST appeared in the online Scientific American (March 26, 2019).  It won't tell you (the regular SRS reader) anything particularly new, but it will come as a bit of surprise to non-SRS folks.  Send the link to your friends, and if they're interested, remind them how to sign up for our SearchResearch group (just visit the Google Group sign-up page and click on the blue button that says "Apply to Join Group" and they'll get the once-weekly emails from SRS).  

(This has been a goal of mine for a couple of years.  Hurrah!  Achievement unlocked!)  

Second... I got the galleys of my book last week and have been busy marking it up in prep for publishing.  This is the last step before sending it out for printing.  Another hurrah!  My publisher (MIT Press) also made an Amazon ordering entry for The Joy of Search, although it's just a stub at this point.  Still, it's an encouraging sign.

That's the news for the moment.  Now, back to our regularly scheduled program... 

Last week's Challenge turned out to be incredibly hard (at least for me, in Palo Alto, California). 

It was easy to figure out who picked up the trash and recycling, and it was easy to figure out where it goes, but it's incredibly hard to figure out where the plastic goes AFTER it hits the recycling center.  

So far I've spent about 16 hours on this one... but once I get the answer, I'll post it here with full details about WHY it was so hard and the details of my research process.  (Teaser:  Lots of people don't want to talk about what's really happening to the plastics!)  

Since last week was so tricky, this week will be much easier, and mostly for fun!  


I've seen paintings like this ever since I took Art History as an undergraduate.  You know what they are--paintings of things that are NOT the things they depict.  As you can see in the examples below, the skulls are made of cats or flowers, and the portraits are made-up of fruits, flowers, and vegetables.  

The Research Question for this week is this: 

What are these kind of paintings called?  (As you know, if you have a specific term for something, it's a lot simpler to search for information.)  Is there a specific term?  
In the spirit of our recent direction on getting "the rest of the story," can you figure out WHY these paintings became popular?  Or can you find artists who are famous for making these "paintings of not-the-thing"?   

Can you figure this out?   Let us know how your research goes! 

 (I'm hoping this Challenge is pure fun.  Enjoy!) 

Search on! 


  1. Hello, Dr. Russell! Congratulations for the publication on Scientific American and also for the next step in getting your book. Do you know if there will be also a Kindle and Ebook version?

    About this Challenge:

    1. Started searching [ paintings made with other images] [painting with different meanings] and other similar. And then, tried to look the images names. With that searched [ faces made with plants] and [pinturas caras hechas con plantas]

    Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Wikipedia in Spanish. Also visited English version " A esta técnica y tópico pictóricos se les llamaron "cabezas compuestas"." On English version says, "The Arcimboldo Effect...'double meaning' paintings"

    [técnica pintura cabezas compuestas]

    Arcimboldo: el pintor de las “cabezas compuestas”
    "...Pintor ilusionista del manierismo, así como poeta y filósofo, se hizo famoso sobre todo por las sorprendentes “cabezas compuestas” de frutas y flores, “que concentran múltiples puntos de vista..." Site also mentions, history and where was used before

    Calificado como surrealista, atesoraba grandes conocimientos de botánica...“padre del surrealismo”

    [Giuseppe Arcimboldo técnica] suggested by Google also changed técnica by techniques and found:

    GIUSEPPE ARCIMBOLDO org site and other interesting links that need to visit

    1. This time started with [ GIUSEPPE ARCIMBOLDO painting style]


      Was an Italian Mannerist painter...His paintings have been cited as precursors to Surrealism and were highly prized by Salvador Dalí and other members of the movement... Reversible image or "Arcimboldo palindrome"...
      Historians have speculated over possible precursors (such as the ceramicist Francesco Urbini) to Arcimboldo's unique style of so-called teste composte ("composite head") painting...

      ["Arcimboldo palindrome"]

      " Composite and reversible heads" Arcimboldo palindrome seems to say that everything can take on a different meaning. Arcimboldo's reversible heads allow for a dual interpretation when turned upside-down, delighting the viewer with their metamorphosis. Viewed in one direction, the picture shows a still-life, turned upside-down, the forms alchemically come to life to produce a face.

      With [composite heads Arcimboldo]

      Similarly, some of his Composite Heads embody another literary device: the palindrome."...after increased exposure in major museums like the Louvre and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., his peculiar portfolio has gained prominence and popularity..."

      Smithsonian mag The first known composite heads were presented to Maximilian on New Year’s Day 1569. One set of paintings was called The Four Seasons, and the other—which included Earth, Water, Fire and Air—The Four Elements.

      *Hapsburg family later connected to Mexico's History

      Google Art: Giuseppe Arcimboldo

    2. Searching [Arcimboldo unknown facts

      Wikipedia: Mannerism Some artists: Tintoretto, El Greco, Giuseppe Arcimboldo ( still life composition.) Also Literature, Music and Architecture

  2. Even though none of it was news to me, your article might be useful ammunition for helping communicate some issues to my colleagues. I work in a high school (which is years 7-12 in Australia) and my job is to find online resources for students, and to teach them how to research. But my biggest uphill battle is getting staff to understand that a) the internet isn't a school textbook, b) not everything online is credible, useful or accessible, c) the answers aren't all easily available online (especially when you're a 13 year old or a poor reader) and d) students usually don't have the skills, general knowledge or research experience to find good information online.

    1. Kate are you a school librarian? Anne and I work in a high school grades (9-12) in NJ as school librarians.

    2. More or less, yes, although I'm not called that. I don't manage the physical collection though, my role only deals with online information and research.

  3. Felicitations on both the SciAm article and the book. Proudly preordered. :)

  4. Deb and Anne here. Did search- portraits made using vegetable pictures- may not have been the most elegant search but because our Britannica Database is linked to our google accounts here at school it brought up as the first search result an article in Britannica about Giuseppe Arcimboldo sounds like he was the first person we know of who did this kind of artwork. In the article it mentioned the term double image. Tried looking this up thinking this may be the term that was needed. Didn't seem to bring results we were looking for so went back and searched for Giuseppe Arcimboldo thinking an article about him might bring up the correct term Found this article- which used the term composite heads which seemed to be used for this type of art.

  5. Arcimboldo'w work was popular because it was pertinent to the time containing puns, allegories and jokes which people could identify with. Later audiences lost those meanings. This from the Britannica article. But then many of the surrealists "rediscovered" his work- Picasso, Dali and others. This picture of a camel is a very early example of composite art -

  6. I found this one confusing as I've 3 answers and I'm not really happy i've got the definitive answer for the technical name.

    I started by using the vegetable pictures which are well known (and pasting them - so via Bing Images rather than Google images). That immediately brought up Giuseppe Arcimboldo - and a search using his surname gave the Arcimboldo Effect with, for example a book called Arcimboldo Effect: Transformations of the Face from the 16th to the 20th Century. This would seem to be the answer. However I also came across a couple of references to Arcimboldoesque as a description - also referring to this style of art. (E.g. searching for Arcimboldo Effect -Giuseppe - to remove references to the artist who made this popular).

    The third possible answer was in a blog post at on a search for the arcimboldo effect. This included "Arcimboldo (1527-1593) is considered the original Hidden Face Artist, and everything he did, and many things he inspired are fascinating." So I then looked up Hidden Face Art and the Wikipedia page linked to stated " Many of these images are hidden faces or hidden skulls."

    So the answer is "Arcimboldo Effect" - with the adjective describing such art as Arcimboldoesque. An alternative name is Hidden Face Art - although this just restricts the art to faces.

    Lots of artists have played with this sort of art - apart from Arcimboldo there is Philip Haas, Klaus Enrique Gerdes and others named on the site and some great more recent examples at

    As for the reasons for this style becoming popular, I think this quote from the answer: "A majority of scholars hold to the view, however, that given the Renaissance fascination with riddles, puzzles, and the bizarre (see, for example, the grotesque heads of Leonardo da Vinci), Arcimboldo, far from being mentally imbalanced, catered to the taste of his times."

  7. …it seemed time for number 11…
    …after 15 hours of staring at morphing paintings…
    meow bloomin' skull