Victoria & Albert Museum, London
By submerging Botticelli and his Venus in the trashy pool of pop and tourist culture they have inspired, this landmark show elevates them both
A dolce and Gabbana dress covered with prints of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, a clip of Uma Thurman emerging from a shell in The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, graffiti art, Bulgari, a golden Italian racing car wheel that quotes a Botticelli brooch. I have wandered into some wonderland suspended between beauty and kitsch, where the Renaissance has morphed into trashy pop culture.
One version of The Birth of Venus, by Vik Muniz, is literally made of trash, an assemblage of junk shaped into Botticelli’s classical composition, as if it had taken shape in the street. It is glorious. Truthfully, I have never seen an exhibition that so courageously captures what is magical about Italian Renaissance art. The magic and the mystery is precisely the ability to persist in this mad mix of modern reproduction, imitation, quotation and – let’s be clear – degradation, yet still come out on top. The world’s most beautiful and timeless works of art are also its biggest cliches and most absurd cultural phenomena.
Go to Florence, the city that pervades this V&A exhibition like a half-remembered dream, and you’ll find Botticelli keyrings, bags, statuettes, notebooks and kitchen aprons galore. Some of that souvenir bric-a-brac makes it into this show, as does Tomoko Nagao’s hyperpop digital image, in which EasyJet planes pay homage to Venus in an apotheosis of tourism. The wonderful and strange thing is that, in among the crowds at the Uffizi, real, profound experiences are had. Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil even got the Florentine gallery to let him stay after hours. He lies, apparently asleep, in front of Botticelli’s Primavera, a weary pilgrim dreaming of Flora and the Three Graces.
Museums are hypocritical. They are happy to sell the tourist tat, but when it comes to curating Renaissance art, they affect a remote scholarly dignity. Never before have I seen an exhibition of a great Renaissance artist that actually embraces the tackiness of souvenirs and pop remakes. This is a landmark event. It shows other museums how to reimagine Renaissance art for 21st century audiences: put Venus in the gutter and let her beauty shine through all the more poignantly.
Here is René Magritte’s painting of Botticelli’s Flora projected on to the back of a bowler-hatted man, there Scottish surrealist Edward Baird’s portrait of his girlfriend posing as Venus on Montrose Beach in 1934. Across the gallery, a hermaphrodite Venus poses among junkies in a photograph by Joel-Peter Witkin. Bob Dylan is singing Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands and Orlan is having cosmetic surgery to look like a living Botticelli. Then it all gets much, much weirder.
If modern culture is still intoxicated by Botticelli, this is because we are the heirs of the Victorians, who rediscovered him and made his melancholy beauties iconic. From contemporary art, the exhibition rewinds to the age of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who owned a Botticelli portrait and imitated it in his luscious paintings of Jane Morris. Meanwhile, her husband William Morris was creating a tapestry inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera that put a socialist spin on its mythic women as they promise a new “spring” for the world.
Sexual fantasies blossom darkly as Victorian symbolists portray naked women seduced by serpents and bathing in sultry pools. These artists went to Florence in search of taboo sex and found it, of all places, in Botticelli’s art. It was these 19th-century dreamers who corrupted Botticelli, even as they adored him. So it is a shock to move back another few centuries in time and come smack up against the man himself, Sandro Botticelli, who lived and worked in Florence between about 1445 and 1510.
Botticelli was not the sensualist we imagine him to be. A lot of his works here are religious. They include a startlingly energetic large scale painting of the Pentecost, owned by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, only recognised as Botticelli’s work this century, and an absolutely ravishing Virgin and Child with Two Angels from Vienna. He signs himself as Alessandro on his Mystic Nativity, which bears a prophecy of the end of days and the coming of the New Jerusalem, written in Greek above a rapturous ring of ascending angels.
This artist we know as a painter of pagan gods became a follower of the preacher Girolamo Savonarola, who briefly turned Florence into a theocracy. The most fearsome of Botticelli’s apocalyptic paintings imagines Florence itself in flames, as a woman hugs the cross. She is beautiful. So are the angels in the Mystic Nativity. Even when he was using art to preach the end of the world, Botticelli cannot help dwelling on his singular vision of female beauty. Even his angels look like pagan goddesses or nymphs.
In a series of paintings often said to be portraits of the legendary Florentine beauty Simonetta Vespucci, adored by Botticelli’s patrons Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, the painter explores the possibilities of the female face and, even more so, hair. In these beguiling pictures, it runs like a golden river and flows like frozen honey. Botticelli’s women are marvellous. But are they erotic? There is a spirituality that makes them truly godlike and pure.
In his great painting Pallas and the Centaur, lent by the Uffizi and one of its knockout masterpieces, the goddess of wisdom holds a centaur by the hair. She has a firm grip on the half-man, half-horse creature, easily disciplining its bestial nature. The centaur is the most realistic in all art. But what is really eerie is the face of Pallas: she looks right past the base, fleshly beast into space. Her eyes are on higher things. Botticelli and his fellow intellectuals at the Medici court were fans of Plato. According to their neo-Platonic ideas, a love of beauty transcends carnal desire. It can become a vision of the divine.
Today we don’t go in for such fancy ideas about love. So why do we still keep looking at Botticelli? Andy Warhol, that secretly religious man who worked in Catholic soup kitchens incognito, has the answer. Warhol’s versions of Botticelli’s Venus hugely enlarges her face and leave you drowning in her gaze. It is not a sensual gaze, but a rhapsodic apprehension of the power of love. Warhol understood the sadness and profanity and holiness in all of us, diving for pearls in an ocean of trash. But Botticelli saw it best of all.
- Botticelli Reimagined is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London from 5 March to 3 July.
by Jonathan Jones
source: The Guardian