What does a Bond girl have to do with a Botticelli? Quite a lot, actually. This is what I realise at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s ‘Botticelli Reimagined’ exhibition, almost as soon as I walk through the door. A large screen is playing a scene from the 1964 Bond film Dr. No, in which Ursula Andress (as the dubiously named ‘Honey Ryder’) emerges from the sea, in the little white number that is now one of the most famous bikinis of all time. Why on earth are we looking at this? Where is the obligatory timeline of Sandro Botticelli’s life, giving us the overview of his developing career, and leading us towards the paintings recognised as the works of one of the greatest Renaissance painters of all time?
It shouldn’t be that unusual to find a reference to a blockbuster film in an art exhibition. We know that popular culture and ‘high’ art aren’t incompatible – that’s what Pop Art was all about, after all. But that’s Pop Art. This is an exhibition about the Renaissance, and Botticelli’s influence on other artists since that time – even if one of them was the ultimate Pop Artist, Andy Warhol – so why not begin at the beginning? Though Honey Ryder does look quite a bit like the Birth of Venus (1482-1485), it feels unusual that she is our mediating guide (along with Uma Thurman, shown on the same screen as Venus in the 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) through this trajectory. There is something to be said for the fact Honey Ryder belonged to a moment in history often referred to as the ‘birth of the sexual revolution’ – but isn’t this quite a tenuous link to Venus’ titular birth?
Even more surprising, however, is the fact that no original Botticelli works appear until over halfway through the show. The likes of Warhol and Elsa Schiaparelli, to William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, all make appearances early on, but there is no sign of the two paintings appropriated the most– that is, The Birth of Venus and Primavera (c.1482) – in the flesh. Of course, this is partly because borrowing the originals is nigh on impossible, but also partly, I suspect, a deliberate choice.
The thing is, ‘Botticelli Reimagined’ isn’t about looking at Botticelli’s influence in the way we have come to expect. ‘Influence’ is a tricky word, implying the filtering down of one genius’ inspiration until it reaches us, the masses. Perhaps the curator’s choice to reject this approach feels unusual to me because I’m so used to exhibitions that embrace it that I have accepted it as inevitable. But I am pleasantly surprised that the V&A have chosen to turn this myth on its head, and look at it this way: Botticelli isn’t really famous because he was one of the best painters who ever lived; he is famous because his work has been appropriated and reproduced so many times. The Birth of Venus can never leave the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (if you were hoping to see it in London, I’m sorry to disappoint you) because this is a site of pilgrimage. And the reason most people flock to see it is not just because it is a good painting, it’s also because it is a familiar one.
Very few people ever see the original of a famous painting first, and that’s what this show reflects. My first memory of seeing the Birth of Venus is from the unlikely source of a children’s book by Anthony Browne, called Willy’s Pictures, in which gorillas recreate famous paintings (the whole thing was, I now believe, a rather formative experience for little me, the future art historian). We all approach the painting with our own associations and expectations, precisely because we have seen it in a book, or in a Shell advert, or on a designer dress, or even just on Google images.
This is not to say Botticelli was not a great painter, just that he was not one of a kind. He was trained as an apprentice to Fra’Filippo Lippi, and both artists’ linear styles bear close resemblance to one another, yet Lippi is far less known. He must have had other apprentices, too, and Botticelli would later have his own workshop; so it would be a complete falsity, let alone exaggeration, to say that nobody could paint in the same way. And even if that were true, why is it that Primavera and Venus are so much more famous than the numerous other paintings in his oeuvre (many can be seen in this show, by the way), some of which even use the same models? The V&A deals with these questions well, examining how Botticelli had actually been in danger of fading out of cultural memory until he was re-branded in the nineteenth century, appropriated by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts movement; for they favoured his simple, linear style for its aesthetic potential as ‘art for art’s sake’.
Though Botticelli’s authorship is important, I don’t believe that it is merely down to him or his ‘genius’. Instead, I think of his legacy as a collective construction of the popular imagination, in the same way the Renaissance is. Art History has traditionally positioned the Renaissance as the re-emergence (‘Renaissance’ meaning ‘rebirth’) of classical ideals, which had been corrupted by the Gothic medieval style, but these days it is generally accepted that this is a rather simplistic narrative. Firstly, it is not as if there was ever a Renaissance Committee of all the greats, who decided they were going to Save Art. From the fourteenth century onwards, the excavation of previously lost classical texts and sculptures certainly did work upon the imaginations of artists, but in many different ways, and over the course of many centuries. Secondly, the ideals of the ancient world were not interpreted through the original pagan lens that invented them, but reworked to reflect Christian morals.
The Birth of Venus is often used as a metaphor for the Renaissance itself – but even the ancient Roman figure of Venus is a corruption of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, further complicating the idea of originality. And the Pre-Raphaelites didn’t seem to think there was a gulf between Gothic art and Botticelli, as they were able to reconcile the two (though of course they rejected any later Renaissance art, after Raphael’s time).
‘Botticelli Reimagined’ therefore poses an interesting question – centuries from now, will art historians look back at the 20th and 21st centuries as a ‘Renaissance of the Renaissance’? Looking at the works selected for this exhibition, at first it seems an easy narrative to construct. All these artists have referenced the Renaissance artist Botticelli, therefore it must be part of a wider movement that is influenced by the work of past geniuses, who in turn were influenced by the genius of the ancients. Abstract art was all just a bad dream, like medieval art, because look, here is a return to classical figuration. But look closer, and of course this is not the case. Look closer, and you will see that there is not just one, linear narrative when it comes to Sandro Botticelli – or indeed any artist. We are asked to consider not only how other artists have reimagined Botticelli, but how we might reimagine the reductive concept of a ‘genius’ altogether. The exhibition highlights one Magritte quote, which supposes that a postcard of the Primavera is better than the original. Whether or not you agree with that, it goes to show that it would be a great shame to reduce Botticelli to just one story. He was only one man, but as a construct, he has appeared in many different guises, reborn again and again – even, however improbably, as a Bond girl.
‘Botticelli Reimagined‘ is showing at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, London SW7 2RL; until 3rd July, 2016; open Daily 10AM – 5:4PM (Friday until 10PM); Admission: £15; concessions available; members go FREE