Detail from La Ghirlandata 1873 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti © Guildhall Art Gallery 2015 Photo: Scala, Florence/Heritage Images

Transcending the Boundaries of Art

11th March 2016

A new exhibition at the V&A looks at the art of Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli and how it has been ‘reimagined’ by everyone from the Pre-Raphaelites and Andy Warhol, to Lady Gaga. Jack Watkins went to see how the Old Master shaped up...

The name Botticelli transcends the boundaries of art. Many people will have a faint idea that he once painted a picture of the goddess Venus, while even those who couldn’t tell you a thing about him have a vague notion that he’s something to do with paintings. A bit like the Beatles, you need have no interest in his field to feel his presence. And the notion of Botticelli as the purveyor of something light and ethereal has been something of a design motif over the decades, even if it has rather left the paintings of the Renaissance artist himself somehow languishing in the dark.

The new V&A exhibition reflects upon this idea, showing how Botticelli has become part of our collective visual memory, his images constantly repackaged or reused. You can see how The Birth of Venus was accommodated within the pop art of Andy Warhol, and the way his Details of Renaissance Paintings (Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1482) utilised the face and flowing hair of Botticelli’s icon, for instance. Elsa Schiaparelli’s elegant 1930s evening dresses contained ornamental foliage inspired by Botticelli’s Pallas and The Centaur. More recently, Dolce and Gabbana went the whole hog, with entire dress designs made up of photo-printed images of Venus’s face and body.

One of the present day’s most unashamedly commercial artists Jeff Koons used the Venus motif when he designed the cover for the Lady Gaga album Artpop. We are even shown how Botticelli’s imagery penetrated the world of film. As you enter the exhibition, there’s a clip from the first James Bond movie, Doctor No, replaying the moment when Sean Connery watches Ursula Andress emerges from the ocean carrying a couple of conch shells.

The exhibition also has a tiny extract of video footage, the only surviving example of the dancing of Isadora Duncan, from around 1910. She later recalled sitting for days in front of Botticelli’s Primavera in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, trying to understand the movement depicted within it.

Arguably the most interesting of all the ‘reimaginings’ is Rene Magritte’s The Ready-Made Bouquet. Magritte described the work as “Primavera by Botticelli on a man with a bowler hat seen from behind.” It’s funny and clever, yet when Magritte saw the Botticelli original he remarked: “It’s not bad, but it’s better on a postcard.” There was a time when Botticelli wouldn’t even have got that much praise. For there are two other parts to this exhibition, the biggest on the artist to be held in Britain since 1930. There is the work of the man himself, with fifty original pieces in the last rooms of the show. And before that, the story of his rediscovery, because for all the accolades that have been heaped on him in more recent times, until the late 19th century, he was just a disregarded relic of a bygone age.

Sandro Botticelli was born in Florence in 1445. He had an exemplary artistic training with a couple of early Italian masters, entering the workshop of Filippo Lippi, aged 19, and spending time in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio, where Leonardo Da Vinci was also a pupil. Here, though, lay the root of the future decline of his reputation. Whereas Leonardo deepened his interest in the study of anatomy and physiognomy, Sandro went in the opposite direction, showing less interest in the accurate representation of human form and space, and more in imaginative, dream-like compositions.

So while Botticelli for a time during his life achieved huge fame, working for the pope on the Sistine Chapel, for instance, some while before Michelangelo arrived on the scene, he eventually came to be seen as old-fashioned. Where Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo were rated for their realism and accurate treatment of the human form, Botticelli’s figures came to be seen as rather archaic. In fact, there are a lot of early Renaissance artists who are regarded this way. In the National Gallery, some of my favourite rooms are those dedicated to that period, with works by the likes of Duccio, Lorenzo Monaco and Sassetta. They look primitive in terms of their grasp of perspective, but the colour is so vibrant and pure.

So walking into the last rooms of this exhibition I knew what to expect. There is a preponderance of religious paintings and a sense of the chaste which defies easy description. Botticelli is highly stylised, the perspectives are flattened, and the rocks and other backdrops can look a bit cardboardish. Many of the works on show here are attributions rather than certainties, but The Annunciation, with its slender columns, bright colour and minimal tonality is typical of Botticelli’s delicate charm. It’s easy to see why such an artist appealed to the 20th century eye, with its desire to pare back to the essentials, to cut out the fluff and unnecessary detail.

Apart from representations of Venus, and examples of the artist’s exemplary standards of drawing – some of the most beautiful, it is argued, of the 15th century – there is also a painting of Giulio de’Medici, possibly painted to commemorate his murder. Another famous work on view is the Mystic Nativity, from the artist’s later period when, influenced by the visionary preacher Savonarola, his work became increasingly charged with nervous anxiety. As Savonarola fell from favour, eventually to be burnt at the stake by the Florentine mob which had once so forcibly backed him, so too did Botticelli, and his last days were lived in poverty.

In the 19th century, as religious houses dispersed their collections in the wake of the secularisation of the Napoleonic Wars, Botticelli’s pictures came onto the market once again. Art appreciation was moving on, too, as more writers urged that paintings should be judged on their own terms rather than on the theoretical values of the classical past. The flowing lines of Botticelli, the clinging, fluttering drapery, and the air of melancholic beauty, became valued once more. The Coronation of the Virgin, with St Anthony Abbot, St John the Baptist and St Francis, a typically stagey altarpiece, seen in this exhibition, was once owned by Edward Burne-Jones. He was one of several Pre-Raphaelites who adored Botticelli. Then, when Pallas and The Centaur was rediscovered in 1895 by an English art dealer, it was said to have done more to win recognition of Botticelli’s merits than any amount of John Ruskin’s ardent championing.

The Pre-Raphaelite room here almost vapourises, so ethereal is the beauty on view; one section of wall, containing pairs of works by Burne-Jones and Rossetti is particularly outstanding. Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata is also here, and a couple of good ones by Evelyn De Morgan. What struck me though was this: there’s a richness about the Pre-Raphaelite works, and a worldliness about the more recent Botticelli reworkings, Lady Gaga, most obviously, being far too knowing. The Botticelli rooms though, are like walking round a chapel. There’s a feeling of simplicity and spirituality. The message of the mystic old master from all those centuries ago still reigns supreme.

‘Botticelli Reimagined’ is at the V&A until 3 July

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