Sunday, 17 April 2016

Botticelli in the Heaven and Hell of 2016 London

There are two Botticelli shows in London, Botticelli Reimagined at the V&A and Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection at the Courtauld Gallery. 

Erwin Blumenfeld, Advertisement from Picture Post, 1969

Sandro Botticelli was born in 1445 in Florence and his best known works, Primavera and The Birth of Venus, are both held by the Uffizi in his hometown and unfortunately don’t travel, but the V&A show, the largest exhibition of Botticelli paintings and drawings ever held in the UK, does have lots of other treasures. Botticelli is, it seems, current and is with us even away from these exhibitions. In London we are able to see no less than nine of his paintings for free on a regular basis at the National Gallery including Venus and Mars and one of my favourites, Portrait of a Young Man (a different painting from the one of the same name at the V&A). I am a little bit obsessed by a series of his paintings, which I have only seen in reproduction, held by the Prado in Madrid and sadly not at the V&A – widescreen ratio panels with a cross sectioned storyboard showing the grizzly tale of Nastagio degli Onesti, which involves a girl being hunted by dogs – they are flatly painted with a hint of naivety and I love looking at them.

Sandro Botticelli, Portrait of a Young Man, 1480-5
(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Paul Himmel, Botticelli Girl (Patricia McBride) Fire Island, 1954

The V&A is promoting Botticelli not as a dusty old painter staidly ensconced in the narrative of art history but rather as an artist who painted an unusual number of non-religious subjects and tended towards a classical, somewhat masculine depiction of beauty that along with his flat, graphic, style means he feels unusually contemporary.

This compelling exhibition in three parts which travels from now to then, focuses on the way Botticelli has been continually rediscovered and referenced. It begins in the modern world in a darkened gallery where all of the varied work on show has been made in response to Botticelli’s oeuvre, particularly The Birth of Venus. It includes Warhol’s re-workings of Venus, Cindy Sherman as a Botticelli grotesque, Dolce & Gabbana’s Venus print clothing, Orlan’s attempt to become Venus, Blumenfeld’s magazine advertising and Himmel’s beautiful photographic portrait, which although of a contemporary woman, is an unambiguous tribute to Botticelli’s Venus. 

John Ruskin, Sketch of a Few Leaves in the
Background of Botticelli's Primavera
, 1871

The second room is devoted to the Pre-Raphaelite worship of Botticelli – Ruskin, Rossetti and Burne-Jones all owned works by him, and his aesthetic was an important inspiration for the movement. I particularly like Ruskin’s rather clunky Sketch of A Few Leaves in the Background of Botticelli’s Primavera. The third section of the exhibition, (Botticelli in his Own Time) a display of works by Botticelli and his studio, is exhibited in a heavenly, bright, white gallery. This is unexpected – we are used to seeing older works against muted walls – and it works brilliantly, the work is born again. The Uffizi masterpieces may not be here but there is a good selection of Botticelli’s powerfully pared back, colour-blocked portraits and an alternative, two autonomous versions of Venus, covering her nakedness against black backgrounds.

Two x Venus at Botticelli Reimagined at the V&A

Dissenters could say that Botticelli is shallow, his crowd-pleasing works have no depth and this is precisely why they have been picked up by popular culture. I would refer them to the Courtauld show – which has far less of a pop aesthetic.

Between 1480-95 Botticelli set out to illustrate every aspect of Dante’s Divine Comedy, an imaginary journey to heaven, hell and purgatory that Dante took accompanied by the poet Virgil and his lost love Beatrice. The Courtauld exhibition features 30 of these vellum drawings, which were made for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, the young cousin of Lorenzo (Il Magnifico) Medici (Botticelli’s brilliant portrait of Il Magnifico’s brother Guiliano’s is at the V&A show). The works are part of the magnificent Hamilton collection put together by the 10th Duke and sensationally sold, despite the intervention of one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, to a Berlin gallery in 1882 by his feckless, debt-ridden grandson. 

Sandro Botticelli, Giuliano de' Medici, 1480 (Gemรคldegalerie, Berlin)

Sandro Botticelli, Centre of Hell (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXXIV 2),

The exhibition is hung on dark puce walls and is lowly lit to preserve the delicate works, which include ten drawings from each of the three parts of the Divine Comedy. These beautiful drawings are both spare and detailed and are drawn with a confident, expressive line. Such is Botticelli’s skill that he is even able to convey meaning in his feet, and the exquisite array on display in these drawings includes a fiery pair from hell. Hell generally is the most gruesomely fun section featuring upturned torsos, their legs flapping in the air, and a six-bat-winged three-headed Lucifer gorging on the souls of arch traitors. Paradise meanwhile, although less-excitingly peopled by beautiful angels with flowing robes, boasts the androgynous Beatrice and Dante ascending to the heaven of fire (Divine Comedy Paradiso II), which was considered by Kenneth Clark to be one of the great Renaissance drawings.

These two exhibitions really show the depth and breadth of Botticelli and his on-going influence. Maybe the most famous works aren’t here but that just means that there are new delights to discover.

Cathy Lomax

Sandro Botticelli, Beatrice and Dante ascending to the heaven of fire
(Divine Comedy, Paradiso II)
, 1481-95

Botticelli Reimagined
Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, London
5 March – 3 July 2016

Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection
The Courtauld Gallery
Somerset House, London
18 February – 15 May 2016

1 comment:

  1. arty commentator8 May 2016 at 14:16

    An informative studied review. The re-reading of contemporary aspects of this classically well-known painter along with the writer's obvious delight of really re-looking at what we (artists) call 'dead-painters' take Sandro out of the nicey-nicey chocolate-box, tea-towel art card market and put him back into the painters we can learn from however back in the day he may appear.