The road back to Botticelli is a long, winding, picaresque one — both through art history, which ignored him for centuries after his death in 1510, and through the Victoria and Albert Museum’s problematic new show Botticelli Reimagined.
In the early 19th century, visitors to the Uffizi rarely glanced at the “Birth of Venus”, and Botticelli’s name was unknown. From Berlin and Turin, the V&A has borrowed a pair of elongated, monumental nudes, repeats of the harmoniously linear, idealised “Birth of Venus” figure impossibly posed on her shell, which is among the earliest instances of the nude in post-antiquity European painting. Bathed in light, these nudes’ languorous elegance, supreme statuesque presence, magnificently gilded hair and absolute painterly originality — looking back to no visual formulae except Greek sculpture — demonstrate why Botticelli was acclaimed in his lifetime as a painter of “the most beautiful naked women”.
They also explain why, once the Victorians rediscovered Botticelli — Bernard Berenson called him “the greatest artist of linear design that Europe ever had” — “The Birth of Venus” entered public consciousness to embody the values of post-classical secular civilisation: an icon to be deconstructed, globally, across the next two centuries. Bond Girl Ursula Andress rises from the sea in a white bikini in Dr No in 1962; Lady Gaga posed naked with an open clam for her song “Venus” in 2013.
So the fashionable theme of cultural appropriation must have looked persuasive in planning Botticelli Reimagined. But in a tacky installation — galleries by turns all black or white, with shiny floors, clumsy partitions, cramped vistas — the show unfolds without grace or sensitivity. Vik Muniz’s junk-Venus rising out of a sea strewn with detritus and Tomoko Nagao’s cartoon consumer-goddess standing on a games console in a sky crowded with budget aircraft are the opening exhibits. Yin Xin’s Chinese Venus with black hair and exaggerated slit eyes and David LaChapelle’s gaudy tinsel-heeled nude with genital-like pink-and-gold seashell in the photographic tableau “Rebirth of Venus” follow: among numerous 21st-century ironies tracing their lineage to Pop Art.
The show’s poster image is Warhol’s silkscreen simplifying Venus to a sugar-pink pin-up. From Warhol we time-travel through feminism (Valie Export as a Madonna cradling a hoover in protest at women as “child-bearing domestic appliances”), Surrealism (a “Primavera” copy on an overcoat in “The Ready-Made Bouquet” by René Magritte, who thought the Uffizi original “not bad but better on a postcard”), then Pre-Raphaelite sentiment, to arrive at last, not a moment too soon, at a dozen Madonnas by Botticelli and his studio.
The curatorial point is about Renaissance branding, but at first sight of the Accademia’s still, ethereal “Madonna del Mare”, the young mother in star-spangled mantle serene before a seascape, and Boston’s “Chigi Madonna”, its delicate veils of colour uniting the pyramid of rapt Virgin, silvery garlanded angel and plump baby with an exquisite landscape through a casement, the shrill, fatuous postmodern voices ringing down the V&A’s labyrinthine galleries are silenced.
Vanquished by the power and sincerity of Old Master painting, the imaginatively bankrupt phantoms of conceptual art take flight, like the little devils scurrying away beneath the jewelled colours, verdant pastoral and giant Virgin in the foreground of Botticelli’s archaic, mesmerising “Mystic Nativity”. In their place, quattrocento Florence, its glory and frenzy, burgeoning secular sophistication and fanatical religious backlash glow vivid in some 15 paintings by Botticelli, plus a score of workshop pieces. Berlin’s hubristic, drooping-eyed, murdered “Giuliano de’ Medici” in radiant red tunic is set for heaven, his raven curls and waxy complexion bright against a pale blue sky beyond an open window. Frankfurt’s portrait “Simonetta Vespucci”, decked with osprey feathers and golden plaits running into a braided dress, hinting that to loosen the hair would be to unbutton the dress, is at once chaste and erotic, an emblem of complex sexual attitudes and expectations.
There is an intense Dominican saint from St Petersburg who might be a portrait of the turbulent ascetic preacher Savonarola; Harvard’s “Mystic Crucifixion”, with Mary Magdalene flung in despair around the cross, perhaps painted in response to Savonarola’s execution; and from the Uffizi the limpid masterpiece “Pallas and the Centaur”, the larger-than-life-size copper-tressed goddess grasping a raging hybrid creature by a shock of hair. It is a humanist allegory of wisdom triumphing over brutality, peace over war, painted for the Medici, but the poor centaur’s head tilts so unevenly on his shoulders that it is about to topple, and it is impossible not to recall the biblical tale of beheaded Holofernes and self-righteous Judith.
Every generation sees the Old Masters in their own image: our Botticelli holds up a mirror to global instability, a world caught between violence and hope, fundamentalism and the promise of freedom. He is patron saint, too, of an art of artifice, refusing wholeheartedly to embrace Renaissance naturalism, retaining Gothic elegance and ornament — especially in “Mystic Nativity” — for spiritual truth.
Botticelli Reimagined was conceived around the V&A’s sole Botticelli, the early, austere portrait of auburn-curled, pensive Smeralda Bandinelli, which Rossetti bought at auction in 1867 for £20. The pose and composition inspired his sultry depiction of Jane Morris in “The Day Dream”, commissioned in 1879 for £735 by collector Constantine Ionides, who also acquired the Botticelli — for £315 — from Rossetti, and bequeathed both to the museum. The prices reveal the beginning of the rise in Botticelli’s reputation, soon transformed internationally through Pre-Raphaelite infatuation: in 1899 Isabella Stewart Gardner paid £13,000 for the “Chigi Madonna”.
Rossetti’s flame-haired “La Ghirlandata” accompanied by teenage angels, Burne-Jones’s blue-tinted figure fluttering through the night sky “Luna” — owned by Ionides’ brother, then by Yves Saint Laurent — and Botticelli paraphrases ranging from Walter Crane’s acrid green “The Renaissance of Venus”, a winsome nude among seagulls, to Simeon Solomon’s homoerotic Zephyr with red feathers “Love in Autumn”, are among a host of homages in the rather dispiriting Victorian and early 20th-century gallery here.
The highlight is a glorious, still-appealing fake: “Madonna of the Veil”, hailed as a masterpiece when it was bequeathed to the Courtauld in 1947 — until Kenneth Clark noticed that the rosebud lips and pencilled eyebrows were too reminiscent of movie star Jean Harlow. Sienese forger Umberto Giunti painted the work in the 1920s.
This is a show built on a postmodern obstacle course about dissonance, alienation, deception, the slippery economics of taste. It is far from the perfect way to see Botticelli, but it is the best way to see Botticelli in Britain now, and therefore essential viewing.
‘Botticelli Reimagined’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, to July 3, vam.ac.uk
Photographs: Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; David LaChapelle/Creative Exchange Agency/Studio LaChapelle; Duhamel Fine Art, Paris; V&A Museum, London; Scala, Florence/Heritage Images