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14 March 2016updated 02 Sep 2021 4:38pm

Botticelli Reimagined at the V&A: rediscovering the artist through his legacy

These works suggest Botticelli had more in common with Dolce & Gabbana or Andy Warhol than we realise.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

How can you truly see something your eyes have rested on hundreds of times before? That’s the question the V&A’s Botticelli Reimagined, “the largest Botticelli exhibition in Britain since 1930”, sets out to answer. The reimagining in its title refers to both the generations of Botticelli-inspired artwork on show and the process it hopes visitors will experience themselves: reengaging with the late fifteenth-century’s Primavera and The Birth of Venus through, not in spite of, their considerable legacies.

To attempt this, Botticelli Reimagined is organised in reverse chronology. We begin with clips from Dr No and Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, moving backwards across the twentieth century, through the Pre-Raphaelites, and finally to Botticelli’s original works, as though peeling back layers of paint concealing an original fresco.

The first room, “Global, Modern, Contemporary”, mostly contains popular visual art, set against a dark heavy background: Andy Warhol’s 1984 florescent Venus detail, René Magritte’s surreal Le bouquet tout fait (1957), which sees a figure from Primavera appear on the back of a bowler-hatted man, Rineke Dijkstra’s mid-Nineties photographs of adolescent girls on the beach. Highlights include Yin Xin’s Venus After Botticelli (2008, below), which questions western ideals of beauty by reinterpreting Venus with Asian features, the French artist ORLAN’s drastic use of plastic surgery to transform herself Botticelli’s Venus, and Cindy Sherman’s playful 1990 take on Allegoric Portrait using a prosthetic nose and false boob.

There is the odd album cover, but this is not a space that fully explores how pervasive Botticelli’s works are in our cultural subconscious. Instead, it’s mostly reserved for mainstream artists self-consciously referencing Botticelli, not popular parodies: you won’t see Miss Piggy in the half-shell or Monty Python’s madly dancing Venus. Like so many great works of art, my first introduction to The Birth of Venus was probably via The Simpsons, but you wouldn’t know that from this exhibition.

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And while it mostly restricts itself to high culture (fashion, photography, painting), this is not necessarily good culture: Dolce and Gabbana’s 1993 silk-printed dress and suit make terrifically ugly clothes out of an icon of traditional beauty. An Italian racing car wheel modelled after a brooch worn by one of the three graces in Primavera forces the viewer to confront the ways in which Botticelli has been divorced from context as a desirable brand.

The second room, “Rediscovery”, explores Botticelli’s revival amongst the Pre-Raphaelite circle during the mid-nineteenth century. Primavera’s influence is inescapable here, from the floral tapestry of William Morris’s The Orchard (1890), to the rose-patterned figures of Evelyn De Morgan’s Flora (1894) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata (1873, below). The sheer number of direct copies, from Ruskin, Degas and Moreau emphasise his sway over the period.

The abstract impression of Botticelli that builds over these two rooms is of a lone artistic genius, producing one or two outstanding works of singular, almost divine, beauty. The final room, “Botticelli in his Own Time”, deconstructs any such idea. This is partly because the V&A could not confirm such a narrative even if it wanted to: the original Primavera and The Birth of Venus remain in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, and so, as in previous rooms, their impact can only be suggested through variations. Instead, we see two large details of Venus (see below), three portraits supposedly of the legendary beauty Simonetta Vespucci, and a series of variations on one virgin and child scene.

The result is therefore somewhat anti-climactic, but more genuinely revealing about Botticelli’s process. Here is renewed emphasis on Botticelli as designer, the recipient of patronage from the powerful Medici family, and the head of an extensive workshop. The lack of signatures (the exhibit contains Botticelli’s only signed and dated painting, 1500’s The Mystic Nativity) make it hard to tell where a painting is exclusively Botticelli’s, a work overseen by him but undertaken by his disciples, or an entirely different artist mimicking his fashionable style. The 55 works contextualise Botticelli in a world of celebrity, fashion and commercial reproduction, and suggest that the artist had more in common with self-consciously desirable design houses like Dolce & Gabbana, or Andy Warhol’s deliberate repetition of iconic images, than we realise.

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