Botticelli Reimagined – the Artist and His Legacy
Botticelli Reimagined at the V&A is the story of shifting cycles of taste, ideology led re-appropriations and the power of populist fashion.
The story is told backwards from the familiar deconstructions of contemporary post-modernism, through the 19th century rediscoveries, and triumphantly back to the master himself. Whatever else this exhibition is, it is also the largest exhibition of Botticelli paintings and drawings ever held in the UK – and essential viewing for that reason alone.
Although hugely famous in his lifetime, Botticelli was largely forgotten for more than 300 years until his work was progressively rediscovered in the 19th century. The succeeding generation of artists including Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo were to overshadow the master with their technical innovations in naturalism. Botticelli’s figures looked rather flat, stiff and naive in comparison. This triumvirate was held up as the exemplars of art, until finally challenged by a new spirit in art in the mid 19th century. The Pre-Raphaelites were particularly instrumental in promoting Botticelli and the early Renaissance over Raphael.
Of course the ideological attractions of the more primitive style of the early renaissance, continue to appeal to modern artists in much the same way as they did to their 19th century forebears. But this hardly explains why Botticelli is still so popular today, which may be mostly owed to the enduring power of one painting – the ‘Birth of Venus’. It is perhaps the exceptionally ethereal and timeless beauty and surrealism of the Venus nude – one of the first nudes in post classical Western painting – that may really explain why this painting in particular is still so embedded in the popular imagination.
The primary aim of the exhibition is to explore the variety of ways artists and designers from the Pre-Raphaelites to the present have responded to the artistic legacy of Botticelli. Including painting, fashion, film, drawing, photography, tapestry, sculpture and print, the exhibition also features works by artists as diverse as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, René Magritte, Elsa Schiaparelli, Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman.
Here are some of the highlights of the exhibition.
David LaChapelle, Rebirth of Venus, 2009
The work of American photographer, filmmaker and video artist David LaChapelle often contains references to Old Master paintings. The Photographer – famous for his hyperreal style – retired from fashion photography to focus on an art that is often political and always controversial. In his vividly colourful version of The Birth of Venus, the goddess is transformed into a blonde model. Flanked by two muscle men, her modesty is concealed by a shell held by the figure on the left. Whereas Botticelli’s goddess of beauty alights from her shell like an immaculate apparition, LaChapelle uses the shell as an ironic and frankly erotic device. The image appears to comment on today’s celebrity, youth, beauty, sex obsessed and consumer-driven culture.
Dolce & Gabbana, Venus Dress: Look 15, Spring/ Summer 1993
Dolce & Gabbana’s 1993 Spring/Summer collection was inspired by the ‘hippy’ or ‘gypsy’ look of the 1970s. This loose, flowing dress incorporates layers of photo-printed sections of the goddess in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus as a pattern. By fragmenting and reconstructing an image that has come to embody a universal ideal, the designers addressed issues of mass culture, femininity, and the ongoing search for a new canon of beauty. The enduring impact of this dress became apparent when the pop star Lady Gaga wore it while promoting her album Artpop in 2013.
Yin Xin, Venus, after Botticelli, 2008
The hallmark of Paris based Chinese artist Yin Xin’s work is the addition of Chinese characteristics to traditional Western paintings. He is especially interested in reappropriating canonical works, such as the Botticelli’s universally celebrated The Birth of Venus. Here, he depicts Venus reduced to head and shoulders in order to emphasise her transformed features. Venus’ distinctive wind blown blonde hair is rendered black, and her eyes are now unmistakably Asian. Xin’s work combines Western and Eastern elements to reveal how our perception of artistic value is determined by our cultural context.
Even during Botticelli’s lifetime, his contemporary, Antonio Billi, acknowledged that he painted ‘the most beautiful naked women’. These monumental nudes, among the earliest such figures in Renaissance painting, were inspired by classical statues of the Venus Pudica – Venus covering her nakedness. Botticelli included this image in his multi-figure composition, but also used it as an autonomous figure, as here. Its statue-like character helps to explain its enduring adaptability in other visual contexts, and consequent universal popularity today.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, La Ghirlandata, 1873
Described by Rossetti as ‘the greenest picture in the world’, this is one of several three-quarter-length paintings of beautiful women making music made between 1865 and 1877. La Ghirlandata was painted at Kelmscott Manor, the country house of William Morris, whose eleven-year-old daughter May posed for the angel heads at top right and left. These closely flank the central figure like the paired angels and saints in a Botticelli workshop tondo of the Virgin and Child acquired by the National Gallery in 1855 and also included in the exhibition.
Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli, c.1470–5
This painting was purchased in 1867 by the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who believed the sitter was the model for the figure of Venus in Botticelli’s Primavera. Inspired by this and a poem in Dante’s Vita Nuova, Rossetti painted a beautiful young woman at half- length, titled The woman at the window. A key work in the Victorian rediscovery of Botticelli, this picture entered the V&A’s collection in 1901. After over a century of speculation, a recent scientific investigation confirmed that the reddish-blonde hair of Smeralda is by Botticelli, and not a later intervention by Rossetti, famed for his red-headed models. Recent cleaning has removed an obscuring yellowed varnish to reveal the luminescent colours Botticelli intended.
Sandro Botticelli, The Virgin and Child with Two Angels, , c.1490
This elaborate composition demonstrates Botticelli’s intensive and continually renewed engagement with the tondo, a Florentine devotional format intended for domestic display. The high quality of this work suggests that it is a faithful autograph copy of a lost original.
Sandro Botticelli, Allegory of Abundance or Autumn, c.1480–5
This drawing is unique among Botticelli’s graphic works and is one of the most beautiful drawings of the 15th century. This delicate image of feminine beauty clad in loose floating drapery and with a dancing gait resembles three graceful nymphs by the artist: Flora and Venus from Primavera and the nude figure in The Birth of Venus. Also reminiscent of the armed goddess in Pallas and the Centaur, the drawing may be intermediate in date between it and Primavera.
This tapestry depicts a row of allegorical women representing the four seasons, from winter on the left to spring on the right, among bluebells, tulips, daisies, pansies, daffodils, primroses and carnations before an orange and an apple tree, a grape vine, and myrtle and pear trees. Their scrolling banner bears the text of William Morris’s poem ‘The Orchard’, which he composed for the tapestry, celebrating the return of spring. This subject and the tall, elegant figures are reminiscent of Botticelli’s Primavera.
Sandro Botticelli is recognised as one of the greatest artists of all time. His celebrated images are firmly embedded in public consciousness and his influence permeates art, design, fashion and film.
The Botticelli Reimagined exhibition is organised by the V&A and the Gemäldegalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. A version of the exhibition opened first in Berlin from 24 September 2015 – 24 January 2016. Covering 500 years of art history and including over 50 great works by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), making it the largest exhibition of Botticelli paintings and drawings ever held in the UK. The V&A exhibition is co-curated by Mark Evans, Senior Paintings Curator at the V&A, and Ana Debenedetti, Curator of Paintings at the V&A.
Botticelli Reimagined is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, to July 3 2016
by Mark Evans and Stefan Weppelmann
published V & A Publications, RRP £40
To accompany the exhibition, the V&A has published Botticelli Reimagined. Botticelli, more than any other Old Master, inspired and continues to inspire modern and contemporary art. This book traces the fascinating history of these shifting appropriations and re-evaluations right up to the present, and is the first to present the artist’s work in the context of these modern reinterpretations.
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