Sunday, 12 June 2016


David LaChapelle Re-Birth of Venus
 I NEARLY MISSED  the Botticelli exhibition at the V&A owing to the publicity and reviews concentrating on its promised ‘re-imaginings’  such as this fearful example.  And so the second mistake was to allocate it only a short time in busy day.  Thus, when I finally reached its true Botticellian section, I was triply angry with the curators who had insisted we waste half our time with Warholian and worse vulgarities from the twentieth century, plus a large roomful of Victorian hommages, before encountering the real thing, in all its wondrousness.
Botticelli Virgin & Child with two Angels Vienna

From darker, sexed up spaces filled with versions, allusions and pastiches of Primavera and the Birth of Venus one passes to a white room packed with original and studio works – though alas neither of the two famous picture (that was always too much to hope for) – in a welcoming atmosphere of pictorial purity  and grace.   The large selection of religious works, many in tondo form, express a  devotional sincerity that emphasises the spiritual beginnings of European art, while the male portraits  convey the confident laddishness of young Florentine men, all swagger and style.

Botticelli, said to be Smeralda Baldinelli, V&A 
Although very Botticellian, the profile female heads seem less visually interesting - and two here are categorised as 'ideal portraits' - perhaps because they lack the direct, arresting gaze. One that does engage the viewer is that now known as a portrait of Smeralda Bandinelli, looking from a loggia window and wearing a red silk gown under and over-garment of finest gauze.  It was bought in 1867 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, via Charles Howell, as an undoubted Botticelli, which is now agreed,and played its part in the Victorian revaluation of the artist.   Ss did the emergence of the Mystic Nativity in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century.    Burne-Jones owned a workshop version of the Coronation of the Virgin, now in the Metropolitan Museum, and it is clear how influential Botticelli's spirit and style were on the later artist, represented here by Luna and Evening.

Botticelli, Pallas & the Centaur, Uffizi
The star picture is that entitled Pallas & the Centaur, with a somewhat abashed centaur having his hair pulled by a goddess of some sort, draped in olive leaves and bearing a most tremendous axe. The possibly neo-platonic allegory is still uncoded.  Typically sinuous rhythms of limbs hair and drapery are held by vertical and horizontal rocks, pole and landscape, in sober hues offset by whites, gold and the thin scarlet strap of the centaur's quiver.   It's mysterious, beautiful and quite compelling.

In retrospect  I fully understand the curators' decision to mount the exhibition in reverse order.   Had it started more conventionally with the originals, the later tributes would have seemed merely honest failures, while the recent 're-imaginings' would have aroused derisive and sometime disgusted laughter.   It all has an air of Golden, Silver and worse than Leaden Ages.


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