Poor Venus. Once the Roman goddess of beauty and love, rising from the sea in a seashell as long ago as the first century AD in Pompeii, she now stands armless and naked in the Louvre, having to smile quietly at the millions of tourists who crowd round and clamour to take selfies with her day after day. At least in the fifteenth century, Sandro Botticelli gave her some dignity with long flowing hair that could discretely cover of her nudity. And then things went quiet and peaceful – hooray!
It was those Pre-Raphaelites who started things off again in the 19th century when they re-discovered Botticelli, his Primavira and his Venus which cannot travel from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, but now poor Venus’s image has been taken, used and abused by a galaxy of artists and designers. For goodness sake, how did she become a fashion fabric for Dolce and Gabbana? At least Andy Warhol brought her into the 20th century along with other beautiful women such as Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe, though appearing in a cold beach as the “Scottish Venus” was a rare example of Scottish surrealism by Edward Baird in a climate where is it is not recommended to be naked even in summer. In a highlight of the modern era, Venus transformed into Ursula Andress in the film “Dr No” alongside Sean Connery and wittily becomes dressed in the Alain Jacquet’s logos of another iconic shell from the Shell Oil Company. As a contrast, Vik Muniz in “Pictures of Junk” sets poor Venus in the 21st century world where the seas are clogged with human debris and rubbish.
“Botticelli Reimagined” at the Victoria and Albert Museum starts with the “Dr No” film and moves backwards in time from modern interpretations to the PreRaphaeiites and then to Botticelli himself, or rather Botticelli, his workshop and his friends as he signed very few paintings and, in many cases, apart from the obvious lesser refinement of some of the works from his workshop, there is a lack of certainty about what is the work of the master and what is that of his workshop, especially as some popular compositions were repeated for different clients. Here however the white floors and walls clash with many of the paintings which are glazed and reflect the gallery spotlights.
The exhibition ends with a sample of Botticelli’s exquisite drawings of Dante’s Inferno, difficult to see with the lighting and reflective glass but, while the relevance to the theme of the exhibition is lost, it does give a lead to the parallel exhibition of Botticelli drawings at the Courtauld Gallery.
Venus can be a force for good and sadly the exhibition does not mention the 2010 initiative to raise awareness of breast cancer “Everyone Is Art” by the artist Samira Harris which featured the faces of 1,096 men and women from all over Europe (1,096 is the average number of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Europe each day).
Like many of the V&A’s exhibitions the visitor ejects into the shop at the end wondering “so what’s next”, like a novel with no conclusion – the exhibition needs to return to its theme and answer more of the question it starts to investigate at the beginning.