“It’s not bad, but it’s better on a postcard.” That’s what Surrealist painter René Magritte had to say about Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Well, here’s hoping you agree with him because – spoiler alert – you won’t get to see the original Venus in the V&A show. The Uffizi Gallery never allows the painting to travel, perhaps unsurprising given that this is one of the most treasured and famous assets of a museum hardly lacking in Renaissance masterpieces. All the same, the absence in disappointing; it leaves the feeling of attending a party in honour of a celebrity who has failed to show up.
It’s a similar problem over at the Royal Academy, where the curator of In the Age of Giorgione, Per Rumberg, bemoaned the fact that Giorgione’s most famous painting, La Tempesta, could not leave the Accademia: “These paintings do not travel anymore” he said in a lecture earlier this month, although back in 1930 both these paintings did make it to London for the RA’s Italian art exhibition. Those were the days!
Instead, Botticelli Reimagined offers up an array of pop culture memorabilia that illustrates the far-reaching influences of the iconic painting. Lady Gaga’s ArtPop album cover, Dolce & Gabbana’s spring/summer 1993 collection, the window display of a Bulgari boutique in 2012, Ursula Andress emerging from the ocean in Dr No – all reproduce that famous image; a lady long of hair and short on clothing, emerging from the waves. The roots to this particular art historical tree in fact run even deeper, as Botticelli himself appropriated the figure from the ancient Greek statue type Venus Pudica, or Venus Ashamed.
The son of a tanner who rose to become a favourite for Medici commissions, Sandro Botticelli was “a ready fellow” according to his biographer Giorgio Vasari. His art has certainly been readily appropriated. As the ultimate symbol of idealised Western beauty, his Venus became prime fodder for subversion, with artists from Turkistan to New Mexico contrasting, challenging or unravelling the iconography in a myriad of ways. French Pop artist Alain Jacquet splices in the logo of Shell oil, metamorphosing the goddess of love into a petrol pump. Japanese painter Tomoko Nagao introduces manga and anime characters to the scene. Salvador Dali gives Venus the head of a fish, while at the hands of American photographer Joel-Peter Witkin she and her attendants are hermaphrodites. Youssef Nabil testifies to the painting’s global reach: after growing up in Cairo with a reproduction on the living room wall, he photographs himself lying asleep in front of the original at the Uffizi, wearing the traditional djellaba of his homeland.
But it’s not only Venus under the spotlight; the exhibition draws wider links to other Botticelli paintings, such as Michael Joaquin Grey’s captivating digital meditation on the 1453 portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, which uses algorithmic software to mutate two mirror image faces. The change occurs with such infinitesimal slowness that it’s virtually invisible to the eye, but stare long enough and you’ll see her features alternately grow more haggard, or more idealised.
While these are conscious riffs on Botticelli’s art, in other exhibits the references were unintentional (for example, Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra’s portrait series of girls on beaches) and even, in some cases, tenuous. We’re told that in Antonio Donghi’s Donna al Caffe, “the linearity evokes traditions of Florentine 15th century portraits like those produced by Botticelli”, yet without any context or substantiation this doesn’t seem more than an arbitrary link. I’m none the wiser whether Donghi gave two hoots about Renaissance art.
Those of more traditional artistic tastes won’t go wanting, as the second section of the exhibition is devoted to Botticelli’s 19th century “rediscovery” – an event attributed to the secularisation of religious houses in the Napoleonic Wars, causing en masse dispersal of Renaissance artworks. There are copies after The Birth of Venus from as early as 1815, hungrily snapped up by connoisseurs across Europe, and even a high-profile forgery, Madonna of the Veil, which Lord Lee of Fareham believed to be a Botticelli when he purchased it to much fanfare in 1930 (Roger Fry and the Medici Society both pronounced it a masterpiece), only to later discover the tempera panel was less than a decade old, the handiwork of Umberto Gunti.
Among the pre-Raphaelite femme-fatales and marble-like nudes of Ingres and Walter Crane, the artistic results of Victorian Botticelli-mania seem insipid and even a little pervy. All the bloodless, hairless flesh tennis and ball-shaped breasts grow fatiguing after a while. In three-dimensions, it’s a similar story: Waldemar Januszczak likened Ettore Ximenes’ bronze (female) embodiment of the Renaissance to a wet t-shirt contestant in his Sunday Times review, and he’s not far wrong. Some of the contemporary riffs on Venus in the exhibition may be heavy-handed, or indeed less beautiful, than their predecessors’ tributes, but thank goodness that later artists turned a more critical eye to the enduring popularity of an icon whose slender graceful form, flowing fair hair and wistful, modest expression offer up just the right balance seductiveness and purity to the male gaze.
The exhibition concludes with a step further back in time, to 15th century Florence. Botticelli signed and dated only a handful of paintings in his lifetime, so the majority of works here are attributed to his workshop – a fact that strikes an interesting chord with the two Andy Warhol screenprints in the exhibition.
While it was Botticelli’s paintings of secular sex symbols that captured the imagination of later artists, this room is populated with fully dressed Florentine nobles, religious subjects (in later life Botticelli was said to be a follower of firebrand preacher Savanarola) and works on paper. The latter, in fact, provides some of the most exquisite gifts in the exhibition: Botticelli was an outstanding draftsman, with an intuitive feeling for line thanks to his training as a goldsmith, and drawings such as Allegory of Abundance – a sketch from the British Museum measuring 31.7cm x 25.2cm – command more attention than far larger paintings.
Equally, Botticelli’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno are a tour de force, and a fitting finale to the exhibition. As you shiver before these monstrous visions rendered delicate as lace in faded brown ink, listening to the sonorous tones of Vittorio Gassman reciting passages from the book rumble through the galley, you may just catch yourself forgetting about the pretty girl in the scallop shell altogether.
Botticelli Reimagined is at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 3 July 2016. For more information and tickets visit the website.