BOTTICELLI revalued, reimagined, restored, re-used, revealed, rediscovered. The possibilities are endless. The inclusion of the big name is now all-important and an increasing trend for galleries and exhibitions.
If the names of Monet and Matisse had not been included, I doubt whether many would have happened in on the bourgeois horticultural painting, predominantly French and Spanish, recently on show at the Royal Academy. Sorolla and Rusiñol offered the more interesting canvases, and there was a staggering work by Caillebotte, but their work appeared largely to be ignored at my several visits.
The Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf presented “El Greco and the Moderns” in the summer of 2012 with some 40 paintings by the Master from Toledo and his workshop alongside German and Austrian painters of the 1910s and 1920s, not all of whom had so much as acknowledged looking at the Master.
In the spring of 2014, the Ashmolean in Oxford got away with presenting 50 works of European art from Princeton University as “Cézanne and the Modern”. There, 18 watercolours and drawings by Cézanne, fundamental works often overlooked but now magisterially surveyed by Christopher Lloyd in his 2015 book, made up for a show of an otherwise randomly assorted private collection.
London has seen this scatter-gun approach with the RA “Rubens and his Legacy” (Arts, 30 January 2015) and the National Gallery’s current “Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art” (until Sunday), in which one room of religious painting brilliantly shows what happened to the French Church under the Empire and Delacroix’s more intimate response to state atheism.
Later this year, the National Gallery exhibition “Beyond Caravaggio” (opening 12 October) will pay tribute in Trafalgar Square to the broad range of Caravaggisti, the lesser-known but highly skilled artists drawn from France and the Low Countries, as well as Italy, who were inspired by the rebel painter.
In fairness, such titles can offer the uninitiated something of the art-historical perspective to make more sense of the show, but occasionally, as in South Kensington, it seems as if the big name is really meant only to bring in the punters; to my mind, the National Museum of Wales missed a trick with its excellent 2014 exhibition of Richard Wilson. “Turner in the footsteps of Wilson” would have drawn a grateful crowd without deception.
Nowadays, any visitor to Florence can come home with a chef’s apron imaged with Michelangelo’s David or the equally revealing Birth of Venus. Garden statuary of Venus in the nude or covered up owes a great deal to Botticelli, and this exhibition goes a long way to explain how his art has been reappropriated, both in his own lifetime (so there are many workshop pieces included in the final room) and in subsequent centuries.
The Pre-Raphaelites and their contemporaries were largely responsible in England for re-discovering the Tuscan artist (1445-1510) in an age before cheaper photographic reproduction made the widespread circulation of images possible.
John Ruskin bought the tondo (a workshop work now in the Ashmolean Museum) in 1877, and was appalled at how weak it was when he finally saw it, claiming that it “was so ugly that I’ve not dared to show it to a human soul”, whereas Edward Burne-Jones did slightly better with another workshop piece: The Coronation of the Virgin with St Anthony Abbot, St John the Baptist, St Julian and St Francis is now in New York.
The Revd Walter Davenport Bromley (1787-1862) was able to make use of the financial independence he obtained from his second marriage, to a peer’s daughter, to buy the oil-painting of Venus in the nude in 1844 for their home at Capesthorne Hall in Cheshire; it is now in the Galleria Sabauda in Turin. A second version, bought in 1821 and now in Berlin, hangs beside it.
The autograph works by the Florentine artist and those of his associates would make any visit to this exhibition immensely satisfying. I recommend visitors to go to the last room first, where they are displayed against the shocking white background of floors, walls, and ceilings, bursting as if with Tuscan light.
Then, and only then, immersed in the rhetoric of drapery folds and sinuous necks, and fortified with glimpses of half-hidden landscapes, return to the start of the exhibition. The bulk of the show uncovers, in reverse chronological order, a history of style and design which is exemplary.
Sometimes the debt to the earlier artist is obvious; Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted La Ghirlandata in 1873 (Guildhall Art Gallery). It was a work that he promptly sold to William Graham, a Liberal MP, for 800 guineas. Three years earlier, the same member for Glasgow, who was a wealthy sponsor of both Rossetti and Burne-Jones, had declined to buy an original Botticelli from Rossetti for £200. In turn, both Rossetti and Burne-Jones inspired Simeon Solomon to paint “Eros being blown by the winds”, which was posthumously entitled Love in Winter when it was shown in 1906. The style is unmistakably that of Botticelli’s Zephyr.
Gustave Moreau (1826-98) had studied in Florence in 1858-59, and repeatedly used Renaissance themes in his own later paintings as did many European artists.
In the last century, Raoul Dufy painted at least 20 versions of The Birth of Venus from 1936 until Paris fell, and, in 1984, Andy Warhol produced a glut of screenprints that risked reducing the Florentine painter to a one-trick pony.
René Magritte embodied the figure of Flora (from another iconic work in the Uffizi, Spring) on to the back of a suited and booted gentleman overlooking a forest. Sir John Lavery’s wife dressed as Flora for a charity ball held at the Royal Albert Hall in 1913 to raise funds for “invalid kitchens”.
David LaChapelle, Domenico Dolce, Stefano Gabbana, the performance artist Orlan (aka Mireille Porte). and the Chinese artist Yin Xin (b. 1959) all tirelessly exploit images that are now so well known as to be all but interchangeable. At that point, the prudent visitor will want to return to the last room to see the “originals” for themselves.
“Botticelli Reimagined” runs at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7, until 3 July 2016. Phone 020 7942 2000.