Botticelli Reimagined- V&A, Saturday 5th March 2016
Let me preface this by saying that I haven’t done any writing besides the typical nonsensical lists that I like to leave scattered everywhere and anywhere I have access to a pen since around this time last year! Hopefully it doesn’t sound too conceited or embarrassing but w/e, this is pretty inconsequential and I’m not trying to be the next big critical thinker in this space. Please excuse any terrible grammar or formatting mistakes.
For a far more eloquent review, please see Vivien's post.
The other Saturday, Viv, Chris and I trundled down to South Kensington to go and have a look at the much anticipated (by us at least) Botticelli Reimagined. After a quick pitstop at Greggs beforehand for a sausage, bean and cheese melt, we somehow managed to get ourselves to the gallery ready for opening at 10:30. I don’t know why, but being in the ‘first’ group to see something, be it a film, exhibition or otherwise always makes the experience feel more real- going without everybody else’s opinions floating around really helps me to enjoy what’s happening in the immediacy of the moment rather than through a second or often third hand perspective.
As you enter Botticelli Reimagined, you’re confronted by an elevated screen playing the part of Baron Münchausen by Terry Gilliam where Uma Thurman is emerging, Venus-like, from a shell whilst Eric Idle et al. ogle her. It’s impossible not to feel in awe of Thurman in this clip. She encompasses everything that the original icon ‘Birth of Venus’ allows. She is visibly glowing with beauty- whether self aware of purport rated by the viewer, I’m not so sure. As a 24 year old woman, it did make me feel a mixture of insecurity, envy and pure admiration. Thurman appeals as a stock image of beauty. Having watched the accompanying programme on the BBC recently, I can’t help but feel like Venus has been given more agency than she actually has. The programme decides that Venus (/Aphrodite) is meeting the viewer’s gaze and inviting them in. However, my personal feeling is that an attractive woman cannot have control over her situation purely through her looks/ being gawped at by men and women alike. Much as a Page 3 model isn’t in total control of the way she is viewed, ultimately it is the viewer who gets to decide on the implications of their thoughts and physical reaction to high levels of physical beauty.
My favourite painting in the exhibition, Yin Xin’s “After Botticelli”, was the only work in the entire exhibition that stopped me in my tracks. The painting repositions beauty ideals by featuring a woman of a different ethnicity to Botticelli’s Venus- a woman of Asian heritage. Aside from the usual questions of pushing out beauty of a purely western standard, the painting had several depths of technique which really caught me off guard. A beautiful sea foamy texture covered the top layers of the canvas, bringing you right into Venus’ shell. The close crop of her the familiar yet distinguishable face takes you away from seeing Venus purely as a body, she became an individual being. The ‘knowing’ look intensifies as you get closer to her face, there is no hiding from Venus in this painting- you can’t look away to admire the setting of the shell and carefully placed hands. I felt much more of a human connection with Yin Xin’s Venus than any of the others featured. That isn’t to say that I didn’t really enjoy the rest of the works in the ‘inspired by’ first room, it was my favourite actually, but this work really took me by surprise.
The placing of the D&G outfits near such a painting, also ‘questioning beauty ideals’, felt insufficient after other such engaging pieces. As a group, we felt that the looks didn’t and couldn’t possibly address this simply by fragmenting The Birth of Venus and collaging the image over a dress and suit. This is not to say that they didn’t deserve to be in the exhibition, I just feel that a beautiful model wearing highly crafted, and let’s not forget incredibly expensive, items of clothing cannot readdress beauty standards in existence alone.
With regards to the rest of the exhibition, I did feel slightly put out. Often the works featured felt shoe horned in. As Chris pointed out, any painting with flowing fabric was labelled as ‘Botticellian’, which really made me wonder if most of the images featured needed to be shown. I suppose the whole exhibition is dedicated to his wide ranging influence but was there really a need to show so many Pre-Raphaelite artworks? Who knows. personal tastes and preferences obviously play a huge part in the enjoyment of things like this and I can’t deny that my tastes skew way towards more contemporary styles.
Right at the end of the exhibition, after a rather odd room of paintings mainly labelled with ‘attributed to Botticelli’s workshop’, you are greeted by two studies for Birth of Venus. The paintings offer differing body shapes and slightly varying tones- for example beautiful golden hair on one Venus and a fleshier body on the other. Both images offer respite from the variety of the rest of the exhibits. It felt like such a strong and fresh pair of internally lit figurative paintings and restored my faith in painting after a slightly odd and confusing experience.