Botticelli Reimagined at the V&A
Sandro Botticelli, the great master of the Florentine Renaissance, painted some of the best-known artworks in the world today. Mention The Birth of Venus and Botticelli’s image of the nude goddess standing on a shell will come to most people’s minds, even if they haven’t actually seen the original painting. Botticelli Reimagined takes this ubiquity as its starting point. The result is an innovative and far-reaching exhibition that explores the influence of Botticelli’s iconic artworks from the 15th century to the present day.
Botticelli’s works have been subject to a myriad of reproductions and appropriations, often as items for the tourist trade. Fascinatingly, these appropriations are not condemned but rather celebrated both by the contemporary artists on show in Botticelli Reimagined and by the exhibition itself.
In the opening room, which explores modern and contemporary works that draw directly on the Birth of Venus, a cheap plaster statuette is exhibited alongside David LaChapelle’s supremely camp photographic work Rebirth of Venus and a dress, covered with printed reproductions of Botticelli’s painting, by Dolce and Gabbana. Many of the works on show look distinctly tacky, but this is part both of their charm and of their ability to question popular culture and clichéd forms of representation.
Unusually, the exhibition works backwards and presents the viewer with the most recent artworks first. The second part of the display looks at Botticelli’s reception by the Pre-Raphaelite artists, who were responsible for a resurgence of interest in the artist in the late 19th century.
There are some fantastic classic Pre-Raphaelite works on show, and it is also refreshing to see several pieces by female artists in evidence. Particularly interesting is the video footage of a performance by Isadora Duncan in 1910, a dancer who studied the Primavera in an attempt to recreate the movements frozen in Botticelli’s depiction.
Finally, the viewer is led through to a bright space containing more than 50 works by Botticelli himself, which incidentally constitutes the largest exhibition of his paintings and drawings ever held in the UK. Having been guided through 500 years of artworks influenced by the painter, coming face-to-face with his actual works comes as something of a surprise. An unknown Botticelli is presented here, and it suddenly becomes clear that the international fame of his best-known works has clouded the picture of his career as a whole.
The Botticelli of these paintings is an artist who wears a variety of guises: he is the creator of tender Virgin and Child compositions, the director of an workshop churning out prolific numbers of mid-quality works to his designs, and also a highly skilled draughtsman.
This exhibition keeps its best until last. Before leaving the show, the viewer is presented with the masterpiece Pallas and the Centaur (on exceptional loan from the Uffizi) and two stunningly simple depictions of Venus on black backgrounds. It is his unerring search for this ideal of female beauty that has made his iconic paintings the starting point for infinite reproductions, explorations and appropriations over the last two centuries.
Botticelli Reimagined is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 5th March until 3rd July 2016, for further information visit here.