EXHIBITION REVIEW: Botticelli Reimagined

By: Deborah Nash | Date 18.03.2016
Botticelli means ‘little barrel’ and the V&A’s latest exhibition rolls down the centuries from contemporary reinterpretations to the Pre-Raphaelites to the master himself.
Walter Crane, The Renaissance of Venus (Photo: Tate)
Some works of art are so perfect it is difficult to imagine them ever being constructed: the artist choosing the poplar panel or the canvas, sketching out the composition, mixing the pigments and toiling to bring the work into existence. Sandro Botticelli’s paintings are such a case: two in particular (which cannot leave the Uffizi) ‘The Birth of Venus’ (circa 1485) and ‘Primavera’ (1477-82) seem blown into being by Zephyr.

The painting that birthed the idea for ‘Botticelli Reimagined’, the V&A’s latest show, is ‘Portrait of a lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli’ (c.1470-5) recently cleaned and restored. To see it you have first to time travel through the 21st & 20th centuries, then the 19th before arrival at your destination.

It’s a bumpy ride. It begins with contemporary responses to the Florentine master’s work. Two film excerpts play at the exhibition’s entrance showing Ursula Andress in ‘Dr. No.’ and a naked Uma Thurman as the goddess of love in ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’. This pair of celluloid Venuses is mirrored in the final room by Botticelli’s twin monumental Venus nudes.

Past the videos, you step onto a shiny black, almost liquid-looking floor that made me think of Scarlett Johansson in ‘Under the Skin’ and find yourself in a darkened room crowded with variations on the theme.

There’s environmental Venus in a world strewn with discarded waste; there’s Japanese gaming Venus adrift on a console with Easyjet logos and a Hello Kitty blowing in the wind; there’s the grab and cut-up Venus for a Dolce & Gabbana dress; there’s Venus as Asian or Venus as hermaphrodite; there’s kitschy Venus and computerized Venus; there’s Surreal Venus and there’s Warhol Venus.

The Warhol silkscreen print of the head from ‘The Birth of Venu’ is used as the poster for the exhibition. An unlikely parallel exists between the two artists for both had workshops run by assistants who helped create the work. In Warhol’s case, this was the factory, where the silkscreen process was used to eliminate the fingerprint of the artist and the notion of his skill, while in late 15th century Florence, contracts between client and artist specified what parts of a painting were to be executed by the master and which by the assistants. Two paintings in the current exhibition are signed by Botticelli (‘Mystic Nativity’ and ‘Dante sees God as a shining point of light’ – one of the drawings to Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’) 15 works are attributed to him and many are the issue of his workshop.

On the day of my visit, there were some who cantered through contemporary rooms, relieved to reach the calmer climes of the 19th century.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries the work of Sandro Botticelli slipped from public consciousness and critical appraisal and his name was unknown to the early curators at the V&A. Art historians Walter Pater and Aby Warburg re-discovered his work, and the Pre-Raphaelite painters bought and referenced the artist through their own idealized form of female beauty.

Botticelli’s contemporary, the philosopher Ficini, asserted that beauty is incorporeal. The ambience of dream is felt in the downward glance or distant gaze of his protagonists, in the billowing fluttery draperies, translucent veils, rhythmic groupings, fanciful Florentine hair styles, lifted pointed foot, dancing line. Little wonder that Dante Gabriel Rossetti, himself the son of an Italian émigré, should be so taken with them. He found his own Venus in the cupid-lipped, rippling haired and mermaid-eyed Jane Morris, wife of William.

Rossetti owned the exhibition’s mascot ‘Portrait of a lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli’. Purchased for £20, he later sold it for £315. In a letter to Jane Morris he said of the picture that if he had known how easy it was to make money by selling he would never have taken up painting.

The Pre-Raphaelites understood Botticelli’s themes and classical references in a way the contemporary artists exhibited here do not. They synthesized the pose, groupings and processions of figures, matching allegory with allegory. Morris’ tapestry ‘The Orchard’ (1890) and Burne Jones ‘The Mill: Girls Dancing to Music by a River’ (1870-82) are 19th century paeans to the Florentine master.

Others too evoke his mystery in the troubling darkness of their times. Gustave Moreau painted his Birth of Venus in 1870, the year the Franco-Prussian war, the nude sails on her shell among cascading shards and strata of light and shadow, while Simeon Solomon’s Eros tugs his cloak to him as the autumn wind and fallen leaves whirlpool around him.

One of the bewitching finds is a video clip, less than 30 seconds long, showing Isadora Duncan dancing in 1910, 400 years after Botticelli’s death. She professed to spending days in front of ‘Primavera’ seeking to understand its movement so she could ‘dance this picture and give to others this message of love’. Surrounded by gentlemen, some seated, some standing, she trips into view, chin tipped to the sun, arms outstretched, in long robe and sashes, which she adjusts as the applause comes up and a bystander takes off his hat.

Finally, down a corridor and into the pale light of the Botticelli gallery.

When I was 20 I was given an essay title to choose one Botticelli and analyse the aspect of dance in it. I decided on ‘The Mystic Nativity’ (1500) which is here. My set text at the time was Michael Baxandall’s ‘Painting and Experience in 15th century Italy’ in which he decodes both the language of the gestures in religious compositions and the significance of their groupings. He describes the flowering of religious drama in Florence, how this influenced the composition of paintings and how they were read.

Movement is at its most elegant in Botticelli: the fall of hair takes on independent life, like a river, his Venus stands with weight on left leg while an elongated serpentine arm seems to wipe away her nudity with her hair. Gestures rhyme in the raised arms of Pallas and the centaur in ‘Pallas and the Centaur’ and the lowered hands that grasp their weapons, an archer’s bow and a spear.

There is a curatorial trend to hitch work from the past to the wagon of contemporary practitioners, that somehow this will make a more powerful story that will ‘engage’ the 21st century visitor, giving it relevance. But as you leave this show, which work will resonate more: a computerized facsimile of the face of Simonetta Vespucci or the original? A blurred photograph of ORLAN’s cosmetic surgery or the furrowed grimacing head of the Centaur caught in the hand of the beautiful Pallas? Mystery and beauty will triumph. Always.


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