Sunday, 19 June 2016

Walking backwards to Florence

The V&A's Botticelli Reimagined exhibition begins with brief excerpts from Terence Young's 1962 Dr No and Terry Gilliam's 1980 Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Both films contain nods to Florentine Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli's Venus and it's a cute way to begin a backwards journey to 15th century Tuscany and the era of Botticelli himself.

The slightly self-satisfied conceit is that it's a show about what has been done to Botticelli since his death in 1510 as much as it is one about what he did in his lifetime.

Botticelli's a good artist to do this with as, unlike Raphael and Michelangelo for example, he was pretty much forgotten for 300 years before the Pre-Raphaelites began the process of reinstating him to the canon.

So we start with modern riffs on his style. A rather boring Bill Viola installation inspired by his Story of Nastagio degli Onesti, a Jeff Koons album cover for Lady Gaga's Artpop, and a Dolce & Gabbana trouser suit utilising the Birth of Venus.

There are car wheels, coins, Rineke Dijkstra beach photos, and Tomoko Nagao's parody with its pointed digs at consumer culture.

David Lachapelle's Rebirth of Venus isn't shy about repositioning Venus's shell for maximum erotic mileage and even Warhol adapted Botticelli to his own ends. His legacy was nothing if not versatile.

If Lachapelle doesn't do it for you see how you feel about Joel Peter-Witkin's God of Earth & Heaven, Los Angeles. Yes, that's a dick.

Yin Xin made Venus Asian. Cindy Sherman donned false nose and lactating breasts. Alain Jacquet incorporated the Shell logo and Robert Rauschenberg's tribute was more figurative than we'd expect from the artist.

Bob Dylan's Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands plays as you take in ORLAN's striptease, Edward Baird's seaside surrealism, Wadsworthian, Venus, and Magritte's Ready Made Bouquet.

Magritte, with tongue possibly firmly planted in cheek, said he preferred the postcard to the actual painting. Dali gave Venus a fish head. Of course he did.

The soundtrack to the rooms devoted the Pre-Raphaelite rediscovery comes courtesy of Debussy whose Printemps was inspired by Botticelli's Primavera.

Alongside the many copies and book illustrations by the likes of Aubrey Beardsley, Gustave Moreau, John Ruskin, Ingres, and Degas we can see film of Isadora Duncan dancing. Inspired, she claimed, by days (days!) spent in the Uffizi staring at Primavera.

The paintings include Walter Crane's gauzy Renaissance of Venus (1877), Dante Gabriel Rossetti's earnest Day Dream (1880), Ingres' classicist La Source (1820-1856 - it took him 36 years?), and Edward Burne-Jones' watery Luna (1872-1875).

A William Morris tapestry and an Ettore Ximenes sculpture usher you to the final third of the show. Renaissance Florence itself. One for the purists.

Botticelli was the son of a modest tanner. Many of his commissions were for the 'powerful' Medici family. After the Dominican friar Savonarola (imagine a Tuscan Da'esh, slightly less obsessed with death) and his rampant religious revivalism gained ascendancy in Florence Botticelli revised his style. Coward. This possibly contributed to the loss of his reputation.

Few works are definitively attributed to him but there's some in the V&A. Portrait of  Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli (1470-1475) was owned by megafan Rossetti. Burne-Jones had The Annunciation with Raphael & Tobias. Prince Johann II of Liechtenstein gave The Virgin and Child with Two Angels (circa 1490) to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna for study purposes. Good lad. The tondo (Italian translation:round) form is always satisfying. Let's hope the Viennese students appreciated it.

The only signed and dated work is 1500's Mystic Nativity. It dates from the Savonarola era and includes cryptic references probably alluding to the religious upheavals of the time and the expulsion of the Medici from Florence.

If you can read Latin you can read Vasari's thoughts on Botticelli. If you can understand Italian you can listen to Dante's Divine Comedy. I can do neither so best to exit with his mythological masterpiece Pallas and the Centaur and, after all those fake Venuses, the real thing. The Botticelli Venus. She's got it. Yeah, baby, she's got it.

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