Sunday, 24 April 2016

'Botticelli Reimagined' at the Victoria & Albert Museum

On Friday afternoon I trotted off to the eagerly awaited new Botticelli exhibition at the V&A in South Kensington. I first heard about it about a year ago, so it's been a long-time coming. It's another one of those 'here's a painting by the artist and here are some more he influenced' type of exhibitions but we were also promised lots of Botticelli's so I'm okay with that.

The exhibition is in three parts. Firstly, very modern works that have been inspired by Botticelli, then a section on the Pre-Raphaelites that helps to 're-discover' Botticelli in the 1800s, and finally a large display of Botticelli paintings (and those of his workshop) and drawings. The latter was, for me, the highlight since that's what I wanted to see.

I found the first section rather unappealing. It didn't seem to be so much about the influence of Botticelli, more about people doing their own versions of 'The Birth of Venus' and 'Primavera'. To be fair, the title of the exhibition is 'reimagined', but it's still mainly these two iconic paintings.

We see snatches of film, paintings and prints, photographs recreating 'Venus' and even Dolce & Gabbana dresses made with 'Venus' printed cloth. Um, ok. Some of it was very meh and some at least made me do a double-take to check what I was actually looking at, but now of it made me go wow. There was nothing I wanted to see again (including the Magritte man with Primavera on the back of his coat).

Someone's put a lot of effort into tracking down these often odd pieces and, while I'm not convinced it was worth the effort, it more than adequately shows the influence of Signor Botticelli still lingers, or at least the influence of these two paintings, either to be loved or ridiculed.

Next up was a room full of paintings mainly by from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (and sisterhood in some cases) to demonstrate Botticelli's influence on painting under the Victorian as his works were rediscovered after languishing in the second league of painters for most of the previous few hundred years. It's odd to think that someone so popular today was largely ignored for hundreds of years. The major contributors in this room are Burne-Jones and Rossetti and many of them have been included in other exhibitions over the past ten years or so, but there were a few paintings I hadn't seen before (such as this reimagined 'Venus' by Walter Crane) so that made it worth wandering round. But then, on to the main event of a large space given over to the works of Signor Sandro Botticelli himself.

Of course, when you think of Botticelli, everyone wants to see 'The Birth of Venus' and 'Primavera' but that's not going to happen unless you go to the Uffizi in Florence. Luckily, I have been to the Uffizi and they're a gorgeous sight. What we're given is a collection of religious paintings, mythological paintings, portraits and drawings, both by Botticelli and by his workshop and it's interesting to guess which were by him and which by his staff copying his style, some of more obvious than others.

It was interesting to see multiple versions of portraits of the same people and how the styles change slightly. It was also good to see styles unchanging over the years in some of the Madonna and Child paintings, with their heads looking the same, even at the same angles despite the years, with the backgrounds being different. There was series of round paintings with the Child's chubby face exactly the same in several different paintings.

More interesting to me was 'Mystic Nativity' which is on loan from the National Gallery and which I suspect everyone has seen on Christmas cards. It's surprisingly small with an awful lot of detail that rewards close scrutiny. The angels are dancing partway between heaven and Earth and three crowns are suspended just under their feet, presumably for the holy family. The central group of the family with a cow and donkey reminds me of the small painting above a door in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, also by Botticelli, so, perhaps, is another example of Botticelli repeating his successful compositions.

The shepherds are receiving crowns of laurel or olive branches suggesting the crown of thrones at the other end of Christ's life. If you look in the bottom corners of the painting you can also see small devils watching and, presumably, waiting their turn. It's all rather strange when you put the composition together and is very different from the other paintings on display.

I think my favourite painting was the large 'Pallas and the Centaur' which I can't remember seeing before. It shows Pallas Athene taming a warlike Centaur with his bow lowered. She's fondling his hair like a favourite pet and his head is bent towards to her, almost unwillingly like a wild creature she's just tamed.

It features Botticelli's trademarked flapping drapery with gorgeous designs and the many-layered wavy hair of both mythological figures. It's always worth a closer look at the background of paintings and it's nice to see the contemporary (for the time) ship sailing into the port of whichever land this happens to be. I went back to look at this painting several times - it rewards a repeat viewing.

It's been a long time coming but I enjoyed it and I'm pleased to have seen so many Botticelli's in one place, particularly seeing similar compositions and being able to compare them. It would've been nice to see more, of course.

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