The universal influence of Botticelli's universal idea of beauty endures still, as this new exhibition reveals

By Susan Jenkins

The Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) is enjoying a revival in fortunes this spring with two exhibitions, at the V&A and The Courtauld Gallery respectively. Famous for painting blonde nymphs, Botticelli was much admired in his day for pictures such as Primavera and the even more celebrated The Birth of Venus. Although neither of these paintings has travelled from the Uffizi in Florence to the V&A, visitors can admire some 55 works by the artist in the museum’s recently opened exhibition, ‘Botticelli Reimagined’.

Contemporaries of Botticelli noted that he painted ‘the most beautiful naked women’ and that ‘every craftsman at the present day stands in a marvel’, particularly his exquisite illustrations for the epic poem by Dante, the Divine Comedy (written in about 1307–21). Despite this acclaim, Botticelli’s star waned and he was forgotten until Britain’s Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood ‘rediscovered’ him in the 19th century. This rediscovery and Botticelli’s continuing artistic influence lie at the heart of the V&A show.

Mark Evans, co-curator in collaboration with the Gemälde-galerie-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, explains that the exhib-ition was inspired by discoveries made during conservation work on the V&A’s Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli, which formerly belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

6.-The-Virgin-and-Child-with-Two-Angels-c.1490-by-Sandro-Botticelli-c-Gemäldegalerie-der-Bildenden-Künste-Vienna_100pcDr Evans is delighted to have assembled the largest Botticelli exhibition in Britain since 1930 and the artist’s first retrospective in the UK. He describes the show’s three sections ‘Global, Modern, Contemporary, ‘Rediscovery’ and ‘Botticelli in his own Time’ as an attempt to offer an appreciation of the artist, ‘not as an isolated Old Master, but as part of a continuum culminating in the world of today’.

‘Botticelli Reimagined’ will immediately strike regular visitors to the V&A as a different kind of Old Master exhibition. It opens with arresting film sequences of Ursula Andress as the memorable Honey Ryder emerging from the sea holding a shell in Dr No (1962) and Uma Thurman as Venus in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), recalling Botticelli’s famous The Birth of Venus.

The first section examines his continuing influence on contemporary artists and designers who make explicit references to his paintings in their work. The enduring popularity of Botticelli’s universal ideal of beauty is demonstrated in David LaChapelle’s large-format photograph, Rebirth of Venus (2009) and Andy Warhol’s silkscreen print Details of Renaissance Paintings (Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1482) (1984), which both quote directly from the The Birth of Venus.

The same applies to Dolce & Gabbana’s Venus Dress: Look 15 and Trouser Suit: Look 13 (Spring/Summer 1993), which use printed sections from Botticelli’s great painting in their collaged fabric design. The artist’s influence can also be seen in photographer Cindy Sherman’s work, for instance in her untitled #225 (History Portrait after Botticelli’s Allegorical Portrait of a Lady) of 1990.

‘Rediscovery’, the second part of the exhibition, is beautifully hung on powder-blue walls with musical accompaniment from Claude Debussy’s orchestral work Printemps, which was written in 1887 and inspired by a copy of Botticelli’s Primavera. This section is dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelites who enthusiastically studied and collected the artist’s work.

Foremost among these was Dante Gabriel Rossetti, owner of Botticelli’s Portrait of Smeralda Bandinelli (now in the V&A’s collection), which inspired his paintings, such as La Donna della Finestra. Rossetti’s friend William Morris was also influenced by Botticelli, as evidenced in Morris & Co’s tapestry The Orchard (1890). Designed by Morris and John Henry Dearle and woven at the Merton Abbey tapestry workshops, it depicts four elegant female figures of the seasons that recall the artist’s celebrated painting Primavera.

Closest to Dr Evans’s heart is the final section, ‘Botticelli in his own Time’. This is a densely hung treasure trove of masterpieces by Botticelli and his workshop, displayed in a pristine ‘white cube’ space of pure-white walls and floors. For Dr Evans, the major masterpiece in the exhibition is the artist’s only signed and dated painting, Mystic Nativity of 1501, lent by the National Gallery. In truth, the number of outstanding works of art exceptionally gathered in one place is almost overwhelming.

Among these are The Virgin and Child with an Angel (1470s), known as the Chigi Madonna; an ent-ire wall of tondi (round paintings), notably The Virgin and Child with Two Angels (about 1490) and Botti-
celli’s portraits of the recently murdered Giuliano de’Medici (1478) and of his lover, Simonetta Vespucci, whose Ideal Portrait of a Lady (about 1475–85) depicts her as an idealisation of virtuous beauty. In addition, the absolute highlight of the show is unquestionably Botticelli’s exquisite Pallas and the Centaur (about 1482), generously lent by the Uffizi.

‘Botticelli in his own Time’ also contains a small selection of the artist’s exquisite illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, made in pen and brown ink over metal-point on vellum and dating from about 1480–95. (Thirty more of these rarely exhibited drawings are on view in the Courtauld Gallery’s complementary show ‘Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection’.)

‘Botticelli Reimagined’ concludes, as it began, with images of monumental blonde nudes, two paintings of Venus by Botticelli and his workshop of the 1490s, reminding us of the artist’s most enduring masterpiece, The Birth of Venus. This absorbing assemblage of 150 works from around the world has something for everyone.

It’s filled with a fascinating mixture of fashion, film, photography, sculpture and print, a powerful miscellany of objects that reinforces the continuing importance of the Old Masters in inspiring artists today. Through its exploration of the enduring influence of Botticelli across the fields of art, design, fashion and film, the exhibition trumpets the seminal importance of artists of the past.

‘Botticelli Reimagined’, sponsored by Societe Generale, is at the V&A, London SW7, until July 3 (020–7942 2000; www.vam.ac.uk/Botticelli). ‘Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection’ is at the Courtauld Gallery, London WC2, until May 15 (020–7848 2526; http://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery)

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