Sandro Botticelli was the creator of complex allegories: it’s no wonder that his Birth of Venus, like Michelangelo’s David, has been reinterpreted and re-presented in every possible form by artists down the centuries. With its latest exhibition, “Botticelli Reimagined”, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London strives to mix modern interpretations of the Florentine painter’s acclaimed masterpieces with original works mostly on loan from the Staatliche Museen in Berlin. My opinion: they made a bit of a mess.
To begin with, the big plastic “selfie” shell in front of the information desk at the entrance of the museum, although much appreciated by Japanese visitors, is not exactly a stylish introduction to the exhibition. This one opens in a kind of dark cave, which articulates in darker spaces where the Birth of Venus is re-dressed, re-shaped and re-skinned in paintings, pictures and movie clips. From Ursula Andress emerging from the waves in Dr. No to Uma Thurman displayed in the shell in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the Asiatic feature by Yin Xin, the close up by Andy Warhol, the camouflage in the Shell petrol pumps and the occasional striptease by Orlan, Botticelli’s Venus complies with efforts made by desperate pretenders to “modernize” her beauty.
Among these various “Venus in the gutter” interpretations, René Magritte distances himself with his Ready Made Bouquet. When the Belgium surrealist artist first saw Botticelli’s Primavera, his words were, “It’s not bad, but it’s better on a postcard”. So he produced a superimposed Flora on a man with a bowler hat seen from behind, possibly implying what he had in mind while walking in the woods. Austrian artist Valie Export has tampered with the mighty Madonna of the Pomegranate, including in her photo montage a picture of herself cradling a vacuum cleaner instead of Jesus, emphasizing the social pressure on women through the ages. In Tomoko Nagao’s paraphrasing the Venus comes back as an updated advertisement: she stands on a gaming console floating in a sea of Italian consumer goods while the sky is crowded with EasyJet planes.
This is Botticelli reimagined (and meddled with) so far: like it or not, the exhibition could have ended here. Instead, to elevate the exhibition to a higher classical standard and to show paintings by British artists, the Rediscovery section is a well-lit hall where Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and the like illustrate the impact of Botticelli’s art on Pre-Raphaelite circles during the mid-nineteenth century. These interpretations that are sometimes mangled, stressed or too sophisticated for comparison introduce the next section, Botticelli in his Own Time, which crams together original works thronged with a multitude of paintings from Botticelli’s workshop, especially sacred tondi: the section is crowded and confusing. Simonetta Vespucci, the greatest beauty of her age in Renaissance Florence and the idealized muse of Botticelli, would perhaps have been worthy of a room all to herself. Then there’s what, I believe, should have been the highlight of the exhibition: the magnificent Pallas and the Centaur, travelling to London for the first time from the Uffizi.
This is an exhibition of missed opportunities. The ambitious project to showcase Botticelli’s real masterpieces alongside the creativity they have inspired instead appears as potpourri of images lacking the poetic, philosophical and political messages contained within the sublime of Botticelli’s art.
Cromwell Road, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Until July 3, 2016