Studying Art, it’s almost a rite of passage. As I began my Fine Art degree, I spent hours each evening sketching my hand to improve observation and copying crude sketches by Renaissance artists. Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, Michelangelo’s David and, of course, a Botticelli. My choice happened to be La Primavera, and a close up of Flora’s face. The V&A exhibition, Botticelli Reimagined, celebrates this practice and the influence Botticelli (and, in particular, The Birth of Venus) has had on artists.
Famously, the Renaissance is an era where Italian artists took art into their own hands. Gone were the days of flat, identical Virgin Mary’s and awkwardly-shaped Christ’s, squirming around on her lap. Suddenly perspective offered depth and life-studies informed three-dimensional forms that appeared lifelike. Botticelli was among these masters, with Birth of Venus and La Primavera considered his masterpieces. He also had the cheek to place himself in his Adoration of the Magi¸ clearly proud of his achievements. He looks down on us, dressed in his robes, clearly elevated by his stature and artistic link to the elite of Florence.
But the V&A is not the Uffizi. The gallery that holds so many of his pieces (including Birth of Venus and La Primavera in the same room; two sides to the same coin) isn’t recreated and, crucially, the V&A don’t have these particular pieces on display (though La Primavera’s companion piece, Pallas and the Centaur, from the Uffizi is on loan). Nor do they need to. Instead, they have the consequence. The evolution of art as photographers, sculptors, printers and imitators recreated Botticelli’s work and we, often oblivious, live in his debt. Jeff Koons, on Lady Gaga’s Art Pop album cover was aware of the influence. Andy Warhol, decorating the poster for the exhibition, depicts an electric pink extreme close-up of Venus’ face. Ursula Andress, emerging from the ocean in Terence Youngs’ Dr No. They hark back to Botticelli and his goddess on the shell.
Then there are those who take his work and use its iconic value to elicit meaning from their own work. Venus, goddess of love, is portrayed on a shell with her flowing hair falling behind her back and only subtly covering her. One breast is displayed while the other is covered by a loose hand. There’s no question that, though depicting beauty and love, it is also an erotic, lustful image. She’s untouchable and she boldly looks at you; she knows it. That’s why David LaChapelle’s Rebirth of Venus is the porn star version, suiting our objectified era so well. The men and women are gorgeous but, between the glossy, glam colours and the explicit model and composition, there’s a darker edge. Then there’s Yin Xin’s Venus after Botticelli, whereby the blondes locks and western ideals of beauty are replaced with Asian features; no less beautiful but lifting the lid on our definition nevertheless. Vik Muniz recreates Birth of Venus with litter; the items we’ve discarded reformed to become a masterpiece.
Dolce and Gabbana’s fashion. Cindy Sherman. Ingres. The list goes on and on. The V&A may have it mapped it out, but it is no less powerful. Art and technology always evolves. Only through recreation, imitation and adaptation, do we move forward. This exhibition is fascinating for that reason; an obsessive collection of influence and inspiration. By the time you’ve witnessed the weight of influence Botticelli has created, you see his work in the last room. Suddenly, those old masters carry more than history and their relevance can’t be restricted to a single period. Suddenly Botticelli, and his contemporaries, become immortal.
Botticelli Reimagined is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London from 5 March to 3 July.