The Botticelli Reimagined Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
In the grand hall of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London sits a giant clam shell, occupied at any time by a tourist attempting to affect that pose: weight on one leg, hip pushed into an alluring curve, a hand raised over a breast, the other clutching an imaginary rope of salt-encrusted hair over their modesty.
Such is the enduring popular appeal of Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) most famous painting, Birth of Venus, whose endlessly appropriated image forms the core of the V&A’s current show, Botticelli Reimagined (until July 3). Exploring the 15th-century Florentine painter’s influence on later artists, the exhibition fits into a trend for examining the legacy of an artist on those that followed: see the National Gallery’s current Eugene Delacroix exhibition or the Royal Academy’s Rubens show last year. It’s a good formula: the brand name artist draws crowds, but skirts the difficulty of populating an entire show with their work and helps to excite a contemporary focused audience.
Co-curators Mark Evans and Ana Debenedetti have chosen to open the V&A show with a comely, all but naked Uma Thurman in a clam shell in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), playing on loop with Ursula Andress, playing with her conch shell as she emerges from the waters in the famous scene in Dr No. In both, men look on and slather, Sean Connery watching Andress from the undergrowth like Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s peeping Tom.
It sets the fetishistic tone of this back-to-front exhibition, at least until the final room where Botticelli’s own work is finally shown. The three sections funnel the viewer from the broadest and most recent interpretations of Botticelli down to the kernel of his own work. First, Global, Modern, Contemporary of 20th and 21st-century works. Then Rediscovery showing how Botticelli, forgotten for 300 years, was rediscovered with a vengeance in the 19th-century as the Pre-Raphaelite's poster boy. Finally, Botticelli in his Own Time, a stark white cube housing works by the man himself and his workshop. They certainly make you wait for him, and the final room feels somehow disconnected from the lengthy appetiser.
Although The Birth of Venus (1482), along with Botticelli’s (arguably better) Primavera, is not allowed to leave Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, her appropriated image permeates the first room. Throughout the past century, she crops up across almost every medium; photography, paint, video, fashion, performance. Venus was a gift to Pop artists and, of course, here is Warhol casting her as a Renaissance Marilyn in his ubiquitous prints, and Dolce & Gabanna prove you can make a hideous dress and trouser suit with fragments of the painting.
Some tributes verge on ironic farce - David LaChapelle’s blonde model Venus, attended by too glittered up muscle men, a case in point. With so much gawping, it’s unsurprising that Venus was also seized upon by feminist artists and a corner devoted to the feminist take provides relief at peak-fetish, notably French performance artist Orlan undergoing plastic surgery to change her chin to resemble Venus’.
Room two is sheer adulation, drawing on the V&A’s healthy stock of 19th-century studies and Pre-Raphaelite works. Botticelli’s poetic compositions and wistful women provided the Brotherhood with their ideal Renaissance hero, as illustrated by this room of wan beauties set to a soundtrack of Debussy. Here are Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s adoring studies of Jane Morris for La Donna della Finestra, and Jane appears as Spring in The Day Dream, commissioned by Constantine Ionides for £735 - over twice the price of the Botticelli portrait he also bought from Rossetti. This work was initially called Vanna Primavera and, if room one is all about Venus, the second meditates on Primavera, most noticeably in William Morris’s tapestry, The Orchard, a medieval fantasy of four women representing the seasons.
Rossetti, John Ruskin and Edward Burne-Jones all owned works by Botticelli and three confront you as you enter the final room, the main event. Centre stage is the only signed and dated painting by Botticelli, The Mystic Nativity (1500), and, a personal highlight form the Uffuzi, Pallas toying with the hair of her centaur (1482).
Botticelli’s drawings end the show on an high; his exquisitely delicate Allegory of Abundance - arguably the best thing here - showcases his skill as a draughtsman, while his depictions of Dante’s Divine Comedy provide the chance to see Botticelli indulging in the unlovely. Venus bookends the show and you exit two full-length depictions of Venus, in the same pose but stripped of narrative of the Birth of Venus, watch you depart.
Botticelli may be unashamedly pretty, but it’s a cold eye that doesn’t yield to his grace. Even if his paintings’ surface beauty prohibits you from finding meaningful depth, the man certainly knew how to create a rhythmic composition. Just don’t try whipping out the pencil to see how he does it - deeply ironic in a show about his influence, because the V&A have once again banned sketching in this show, in the interests of image rights. A sour note in this ambitious show.
Botticelli Reimagined, sponsored by Societe Generale, at the V&A until 3 July 2016. www.vam.ac.uk/botticelli
Written by Anna Brady, Contributor to Arteviste.com