I’m at the V&A museum, in London’s Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, to sample an ‘artistic experience’ organised by both the museum and the Kensington Hotel in nearby Queen’s Gate. I anticipate a rather thrilling afternoon gazing first, at the masterpieces of Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), and the later interpretations of his work, and then adjourning to the Kensington where we shall gaze upon the model for a life drawing class, hopefully inspired by the fine lines and classical traditions which characterise Botticelli’s work, and attempting to emulate his mastery of the nude form. If not, the cocktails and canapés provided within this experience may help to soften any disappointed artistic aspirations.
It is no ordinary exhibition that has been arranged at the V&A. Rather, visitors are encouraged to explore the various re-imaginations of Botticelli’s, arguably, most famous painting ‘The Birth of Venus’ (1486), housed in Florence’s Uffizi, one of his great mythological works and created during the most prolific stage of his artwork.
I have to presume that there is a general familiarity with this image of Venus. The goddess emerges naked from the sea as an adult woman, her hands covering her modesty, and standing on a scallop shell – this having being an significant metaphor for a woman’s sexuality since classical antiquity. There are numerous interpretations as to the meaning of the painting, but it seems, on the whole, to be seen as a fantasy piece, albeit with underlying political, religious and sexual connotations.
The image is, however, all-important to any understanding of how artists have used it to re-imagine their own concepts of an artistic expression which not only pays homage to Botticelli, but also displays the changing social and cultural mores that have shaped society over the years. Of course, it is debatable as to how much of these ‘re-births’ owe credit to embedded subconscious images, or whether we should just be understanding a new slant on the old. Who knows? The exhibition is certainly thought-provoking.
My first sight is one of a huge mural – of a roller-blading girl on the boardwalk at Venice Beach in California. This is ‘Venice on the Half Shell’ by Rip Cronk, painted in 1981. She is unmistakably a parody of Venus and, just behind her, the shell lies in half on the ground. What to make of this, I wonder? Some sense of loss as to traditional perceptions of women as the feminist movement gathered pace? A play on words with Venus and Venice? Both?
Nearby are the ‘Beach Portraits’ by Rineke Dijkstra (1992), where a modern form of Venus (a girl in a bikini) adopts the same pose against the sea and with the same rather melancholy expression. Next comes the photograph by David LaChapelle (2009) in which the goddess Venus has been transformed into a tanned blonde model and is flanked by two muscle men looking, it seems, as if they are ready to party. The shell is still present but is used here as a more erotic symbol. And, then, what to think of Joel-Peter Witkin’s ‘God of Earth and Heaven’ (1988). A surrealistic photograph – designed to shock and/or titillate – and quite deliberately, I find. Venus here has been adorned with, ahem, male genitalia!
You can see what an interesting afternoon I’m having.
As I wander from room to room here at the V&A it is quite fascinating to see how much influence has apparently flowed from Botticelli’s brush into more modern artistic styles. A glass cabinet displays a trouser suit designed by Dolce & Gabbana (1993), its fabric composed of photo-printed sections from ‘The Birth of Venus’; Andy Warhol’s ‘Venus’ from 1984 brings Pop Art to an ink silkscreen which contains only his version of Venus, thus reducing Botticelli to the painter of a single iconic image; in the background, something of a tenuous link to Botticelli as Bob Dylan performs his ‘Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, purportedly based on Debussy’s composition of ‘Printemps’, which in turn was inspired by the melancholic female types to be found in the paintings.
The interpretative works of the famous are all here; Salvadore Dali’s illustrated pamphlet of the Declaration of Rights, designed for the 1939 World Fair in New York, Edgar Degas, John Ruskin, Aubrey Beardsley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Rene Magritte, William Morris, to name just a few. The most interesting aspect, to me, is the reflection of each artist’s contemporary consciousness – thus, we move through the Pre-Raphaelites to the Impressionists, Art Nouveau to Surrealism, Pop Art, the Minimalists and Conceptual Art.
Leaving the exhibition I notice yet more pictorial reference to Botticelli in the sense of marketing strategies; a Lady Gaga album cover designed by Jeff Koons, paperback covers, tourist statuettes and, in a 1960s advertising campaign, the use of the shell to promote Shell petrol. She’s had quite the ubiquitous influence, hasn’t she?
It’s a short walk from the V&A to The Kensington in Queens Gate. An area often referred to by those in the know as ‘Albertopolis’ due to the proximity of the many museums, memorials and cultural institutions named after Queen Victoria’s Consort.
The Kensington is an elegant and charming Victorian townhouse retreat seemingly far from the bustle of Knightsbridge and South Kensington. Warmth, sophistication and a cosy comfort just ooze from its every room. I meet with Daniel Shadbolt here – an artist and teacher at Chelsea’s Heatherley School of Fine Arts and The Royal Drawing School. He will guide the group through our anticipated nervous attempts to capture images of the life model.
Drinks are served – one being a quite delicious concoction of Campari and Prosecco called, unsurprisingly, The Venus Cocktail. These help to put us at our ease as the model emerges and tosses off her robe quite nonchalantly. I sense the rest of us trying to adopt a similar attitude as we perch with boards and paper ready to sketch. We all realise that we must look past the idea of not staring at her body – that is what we are here for after all!
Daniel is a patient tutor and just seems to breathe enthusiasm and encouragement into the charcoal poised between our fingers. This is a two and a half hour class, divided into 15 minute segments, and a break in the middle. No-one has drawing experience – that they have admitted anyway – but we seem to be improving as time goes on. I find myself thinking back to the classical lines of Renaissance Botticelli, and then to the ‘anything goes’ interpretations of times some 300 years later. Which way should my pencils and charcoals go? Daniel tells us to draw only what we see. I take him at his word but feel I have rather insulted our lovely model, Natasha, by my efforts.
The afternoon is over. What a wonderful experience. I have admired the works of Botticelli, gathered from museums all over the world. I have seen how changing times, popular consciousness and personal re-imagination have maintained, and re-ignited, new and innovative works of art to challenge any an enquiring mind. And then the chance to manifest my own imaginations on paper.
I leave The Kensington full of thoughts. The exhibition of Botticelli’s works, and the a priori pieces which found their way to a public forum I realise have invited debate, interest and discussion, no matter what one thinks of their individual worth.
As I descend into the tube, John Ruskin’s words echo my thoughts, “It is surely not a bad thing to make man think.”
Botticelli Reimagined is sponsored by Societe Generale and runs at the V&A from 5 March – 3 July 2016. The exhibition is organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Gemäldegalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. For more information, visit www.vam.ac.uk.
The Kensington is part of the Doyle Collection. For more information, visit www.doylecollection.com.
Headline image: Venus After Botticelli, 2008 by Yin Xin. (Private collection, courtesy Duhamel Fine Art, Paris)