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Forgive the old bus analogy but: you wait decades for a decent exhibition of the early Renaissance’s dreamiest purveyor of mythological scenes, Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), then two come along at once. However, this coincidence isn’t due to a curatorial cock-up. Two London galleries are showcasing different aspects of the mysterious Florentine master, with wildly different results.
Concentrating on his tiny, teeming drawings for Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, the Courtauld Gallery does one thing incredibly well. At the V&A, meanwhile, they’re dishing up a sweeping survey of sexy Botticelli-influenced art and design via Dolce & Gabbana, Gaga, Warhol and countless Victorian acolytes before, finally, showing the biggest haul of Botticelli masterpieces we’ve seen since the 1930s. Call it trying to do way too much, but ‘Botticelli Reimagined’ isn’t quite the car (or bus) crash I had feared.
In fact, the show has the best opening you’ll see all year. ‘Hello’ you hear as you enter the darkened space. Look up and, hello, there’s Uma Thurman emerging from a motorised clamshell to open-jawed amazement from the rest of the cast of Terry Gilliam’s dotty 1988 fantasy ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’. Almost as camp is the subsequent loop from ‘Dr No’, in which Sean Connery’s Bond awakes on a beach to find Ursula Andress’s Honey Rider walking out of the spume. She clasps a pair of oversized conch shells; he releases his grip on his Walther PPK.
Botticelli himself would probably have enjoyed the scene – he wasn’t above a bit of pictorial innuendo. If you don’t get the specific references, though, this isn’t the ideal place to try and find them. Botticelli’s most famous works – ‘Primavera’, 1482, a frieze-like painting of nymphs, and ‘Birth of Venus’, 1486, with its sad-eyed mythological beauty emerging from a sea shell – leave the Uffizi Gallery in Florence about as often as the ‘Mona Lisa’ leaves the Louvre in Paris (ie never).
Yet, the V&A neatly sidesteps the issue by wondering aloud how works – seen in the flesh by relatively few of us – have seeped into our consciousness nonetheless. Unusually for art characterised by its flat, decorative quality, Botticelli’s paintings inspire heartfelt and often hearty reactions. They’re immoderately pretty paintings of pretty people, men as well as women; not just flattering depictions of his Medici paymasters but buff gods , tousle-haired pagan goddesses and salon-ready Madonnas (sometimes they seem almost interchangeable). They’re also paintings that, full of hidden stories and other ambiguities, are designed to play mind games. Are they carnal? Devout? Both? Botticelli even did the fifteenth-century equivalent of Photoshopping – inventing the perfect women in paintings such as ‘Ideal Portrait of a Lady (Simonetta Vespucci)’ (1475). She looks a bit like Kate Winslet.
Because Botticelli’s art is so open to interpretation, it’s been possible to project anything anyone could want on to it for the past 500 years. Here, for example, you get the softcore kitsch of David LaChapelle’s ‘Rebirth of Venus’ (2009), and the consumerist, computer-inspired painting ‘Botticelli – Birth of Venus with Baci, Esselunga, Barilla, PSP and Easyjet’ (2012) by Tomoko Nagao, and the endless procession of Bill Viola’s mesmerising video ‘The Path’ (2002). All are indebted to Botticelli. Each says something very different about his art and its legacy; about its eroticism, its brand identity and its solemnity.
The show is a procession from darkness to light. The first galleries are all black walls and shiny black floors like a mid-’80s Sloane Street boutique. You then enter a gallery dedicated to Botticelli’s rediscovery in the nineteenth century by the likes of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Strategically positioned gaps in the walls give both a glimpse of what’s to come and relief from the suffocating saccharine atmosphere of countless simpering Victorian redheads doing their best purse-lipped damsel impression.
It’s in the final, bright white rooms that Botticelli at last steps into the spotlight. But don’t expect complete illumination. Botticelli will always be a mystery; his enigma is part of his fame. For a start, there’s the fact that he signed just two works in his lifetime, and employed a crack team of assistants to keep up with demand for the Botticelli brand (eat your heart out, Warhol) so that deciphering the hand of the master becomes part of the game. A claustrophobic hang encourages you to compare and contrast similar compositions. You’d call it cheek by jowl, if jowls were permitted in Botticelli’s perfect world.
But the proximity of the works in the latter stages of the show also brings into focus problems with pacing early on. Do we need quite so much space dedicated to French plastic surgery obsessive Orlan having her butt cheeks grafted on to her septum, or wherever, because she quotes Botticelli and comments on contemporary beauty? Do two Warhols say more than one? Is it worth including a duff Dufy just because he’s copying the ‘Birth of Venus’. Ordinarily you wouldn’t mind quite so much. But this is Botticelli. And who knows when the next show will come along?