Victoria & Albert Museum
Until 3 July 2016
Botticelli wasn’t always famous and after his death in 1510 remained forgotten until rediscovered in the nineteenth century. Yet there can’t be many people who are not stirred by seeing a quality reproduction of his The Birth of Venus or Primavera – the original paintings can never leave the Uffizi Gallery in Florence — and the fact that his Venus appears on the Italian 10 cent coin is just one testimony to the artist’s fame. The exhibition at the V&A celebrates and explores the various ways in which artists and designers have responded to Botticelli: painting, fashion, film, drawing, photography, tapestry, sculpture and print – it’s all here but is it cute or just kitsch?
The art critic F. G. Stephens said of a Burne-Jones painting (Evening, 1870) that imitates the fluttering drapery of Botticelli’s languid and melancholy figures that it was ‘grand poetry expressed in bad grammar’ and one is tempted to say the same about much of what is on display in this exhibition. Chinese artist Yin Xin, like the designer of the 10c cent coin, reduces Venus to head and shoulders but he makes her hair black rather than blonde and renders her eyes exaggeratedly Asian. The American artist David LaChapelle turns Venus into a gaudy blonde model flanked by two muscle men, all in gloriously shameless colour. Andy Warhol’s silkscreen transforms the face and flowing hair of Venus into …well…an Andy Warhol.
Botticelli is also reimagined in the V&A’s shop where you can buy a lot more than just postcards, mounted prints and posters of Botticelli’s work. There are floral headbands, Venus on tote bags, woven clamshell clutches, Venus bath towels and a Primavera-inspired necklace using the design of the sawgrass plant in bronze and accented with freshwater seed pearls.
What saves all this from pure tackiness is the luminous quality of Botticelli’s own artwork and the intoxicating memories of it that we carry around in our heads. And while you can’t view his two iconic works you can gaze with wonder on his only signed and dated painting The Mystic Nativity, three portraits are probably his own work and, brought to London for the first time from the Uffizi, his beautiful and poignant Pallas and the Centaur. Pallas holds the hair of the half-man, half-horse creature and gazes with sad sympathy; she feels for his predicament, trapped as we all are between the human and the animal.
The plight of the centaur is not what we usually love Botticelli for; on the contrary it’s the mesmerizing way he elevates the form of the female, imbuing it with a linear harmony that makes it holy but not religious, rhapsodic but not erotic. He was one of the earliest painters of secular nudes since pagan times and the next best thing to seeing Primavera and The Birth of Venus is Pallas by the side of the centaur and his stand-alone Venus in London’s V&A. And while you’re there, clock the Venus dress from Dolce & Gabbana’s 1993 Spring/Summer collection, worn by Lady Gaga while promoting her album Artpop in 2013.