By Rosalie Kuyenhoven – Tax, People Advisory Services
It was a rainy April afternoon when I went to the V&A to see the ‘Botticelli Reimagined’ exhibition. I was really excited and all set to get blown away by the enchanting and scenic work of the Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). This was what I got, but only after surviving a dizzying cocktail of post-modern interpretations of some of his most famous works.
In my early twenties I had seen Botticelli’s masterpieces ‘The Birth of Venus’ and ‘The Allegory of Spring’ at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence: a defining moment in my relationship with the arts. I decided to bring my eight-year old daughter to the exhibition. Not only to introduce her to the iconic works of Botticelli, but also to learn from her. It’s always a delight to see the world of art though her eyes as very often she surprises me with her view on things.
So here we are, my daughter and I, entering the exhibition. We open the doors and to our big surprise we find ourselves at a sunny Jamaican beach. We feel the hot sun burning on our skin, we hear the sound of chirping creatures, and see friendly waves inviting us to enter the sea to find some coolness. Then, a woman arises from the waves. She is singing softly whilst admiring the two big shells in her hands. She is beautiful. She is innocent. She is sexy. She is Venus.
A dizzying experience
I realise that I have to review my expectations. No Botticelli’s to start with, but a dazzling world of post-modern interpretations of his work. After our beach experience we pass a Bulgari Flagship store in New York, are almost being run over by a roller-skating Venus in the streets of LA, walk with a group of people quietly through a sunny Bill Viola wood, fancy wearing a Dolce & Gabbana dress, take a flight in Tomoko Nagao’s Easyjet, listen to Bob Dylan and pretending to take off our clothes just like the French performance artist Orlan.
It’s a dizzying experience.
Sense and senses
I tell my daughter that most of the artwork we see are inspired by two famous paintings of Botticelli: ‘The Birth of Venus’ and ‘The Allegory of Spring’. But as she doesn’t know the paintings and can’t picture them in her mind the information does not make much sense.
We decide to do a game in comparing the works on display and I asked which ones she likes. She points at the paintings by Andy Warhol ‘I like these colours’, and she argues that the painting Xin Yin ‘looks more real’. She is fascinated by an interpretation of Venus as hermaphrodite, and by two mirrored portraits based on Botticelli’s picture of Simonetta Vespucci in which some differences can be spotted.
We enjoy the way the works appeal to our senses, but neither she nor I are specifically moved by one of the works. It’s an interesting finding and I wonder why that’s happening. Is it because there are just too many works, all screaming for our attention? Is it because most of the works are not about the works per se, but about something else – consumerism, lust, feminism? Is it because the collection feels too random, with a lack of perceived structure?
Back in time
With these questions in mind, we walk into the next room, where we move back in time. The second part of the exhibition shows works by artists from the 19th century, when Botticelli was rediscovered as an artist with a unique talent.
This room has a completely different atmosphere. The colours are less intense, and the works are more harmonious and dignified. However, as we are still recovering from the first part of the show, we can’t find the focus to pay attention to any of the works in much detail. Moreover, I can’t wait to show my daughter the original works of the master himself. Will she finally see the real Venus and the dancing nymphs from ‘The Allegory of Spring’? So we move on to the last part of the exhibition where we will finally meet Botticelli himself.
Again, the room has a completely different atmosphere compared to the first and second ones. The light is quite bright, like daylight. In this room, no music, flashy lights or explanation is needed. The works speak for themselves. Here’s where we meet no-frills Botticellis.
My daughter and I admire some paintings of Madonna and Child, and the Mystic Nativity, the only painting in the room that actually bears Botticelli’s signature. In another room, two one-to-one life size Venuses welcome us. The original ‘Birth of Venus’ is not on display so this is as close as we can get to Botticelli’s Venus. She is impressive, and it’s not hard to understand why she has become an icon, a solid part of public consciousness. She is elegant and beautiful, and with her pose and eyes she entices the audience to fancy themselves part of her mystical world. A surreal and dreamlike character. However, my daughter points out that Venus’ body is not perfect. Her neck is really long and her second toe is taller than the others.
These little imperfections make her real at the same time. For me, this makes Botticelli’s work unique, and sublime to any of the interpretations we have seen: what we see are real human beings like ourselves, but what we experience is a deeper, supernatural reality appealing to our deepest emotions.
We leave the exhibition and enter the bookshop. And finally, I can show my daughter the ‘Birth of Venus’. It’s on a small print. And what’s more: we are invited to take a selfie as ‘Venus’, in front of a wall showing the background scene of the famous picture. My daughter, who has studied Venus’ pose thoroughly, performs her best look-a-like. And so, we re-imagine Botticelli ourselves.
Whether or not you will like the exhibition depends on your expectations. If you are excited to learn how Botticelli’s most famous images have found their way into public consciousness and how artists and the commercials have adopted them in film, music, fashion, art, this is an exhibition not to be missed. You will be blown away by the diversity and the explosion of the works presented, tickling all your senses.
If you expect to see the original works that inspired most of the artwork shown, such as ‘The Birth of Venus’, and ‘Primavera’, you will be disappointed. You may want to book a trip to Florence as they are not being displayed at this exhibition.
If you are keen to see a unique collection of works by Botticelli, you should definitely go. The exhibition shows the largest collection of Botticelli paintings ever shown in Britain. Among them, there are some real gems, for example ‘Pallas and the Centaur’, and some one-to-one life size paintings of Venus. In this case, it’s probably best to do the exhibition in the reverse order so that you are still fresh and open to get moved by some of the most precious artwork out there.