Mother of All Nudes
In this new show, Jackie Wullschlager finds the old Master works win out over the ‘shrill, fatuous’ voices of postmodern art
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 Uffzi 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, idealized “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 civilization: an icon to be deconstructed, globally across two centuries. Bond Girl Ursala 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 turn 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 strewen 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 and exaggerated slit eyes and David LaChapelle’s goddess 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 I Warhol’s silkscreen simplifying Venus to a sugarpink pinup. 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 Readymade bouquet” by Rene 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 starspangled 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, fatous postmodern voices ringing down the V&A’s labyrinthe galleries are silenced.
Vanquished by the power and sincerity of Old Master painting, the imaginatively bankrupt phantoms of concept art take flight, like the little devils scurrying away beneath the jeweled colours, verdant pastoral and giant Virgin in the foreground of Botticelli’s archaic, mesmerizing “Mystic Nativity”. In their place, quattrocento Florence, its glory and frenzy, burgeoning secular religious backlash glow vivid in some 15 paintings by Botticelli, plus a score of workshop pieces. Berlin’s humbristic, 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. Franfurt’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 Savonrola; 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-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, painting for the Medici, but the poor centaur’s head tilts so unevenly on his shoulders that its 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 Rosetti bought at an auction in 1867 for 20 euros. The pose and composition inspired his sultry depiction of Jane Morris in “The Day Dream”, commissioned in 1879 for 735 euros by collector Constantine lonides, who also acquired the Botticelli – for 315 euros – 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 euros for “Chigi Madonna”
Rossetti’s Flame-haired “La Ghirlandata” accompanied by teenage angels, Burne-Jone’s blue tinted figure fluttering through the night sky “luna” – owned by lonides’ brother then by Yves Saint Laurent – and Botticelli paraphrases ranging from Walter Crane’s (“Every generation sees the Old Masters in their own image: our Botticelli holds a mirror to global instability” ) 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 penciled eyebrows were too reminiscent of movie star Jean Harlow. Sienese forger Umberto Giunti painted the work in the 1920s. This is a show build on a post modern obstacle course about dissonance, alienation, deception, the slippery economic 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.