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VM inspiration: Botticelli Reimagined at the V&A

Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510) is one of the most popular of the early Italian Renaissance painters, and probably best known for his iconic ‘The Birth of Venus.’ ‘Le Printemps’ – which translates as ‘of springtime’ – is attributed as the inspiration for the name of the seminal Paris department store.

Neither image is at the current V&A temporary exhibition, ‘Botticelli Reimagined.’ But, nevertheless, this is well worth a visit as inspiration for VM.

Unusually, rather than looking at more recent homages to an artist’s work after his or her paintings, the exhibition commences with a look at work inspired by Botticelli’s most well-known paintings first. This is very effective in that it doesn’t require the visitor to remember the original image, which they may or may not recognise in subsequent work. Instead they see the later work and then see the original.

It seems fitting to start with an image of the reproductions available in the bookshop, starring three versions of Andy Warhol’s print of a close-up ‘The Birth of Venus.’ There is also a black-skinned version not in the exhibition, and taken together they remind us that beauty is a culturally specific concep. Warhol was, of course, a visual merchandiser working for the famed Gene Moore (1910 – 1998), at Tiffany, and all the elements consistent in his work have their basis in VM tropes.

Chinese artist Yin Xin’s print ‘Venus, after Botticelli’ - image lower left - with Asian eyes and black hair, takes Warhol’s idea of a regionally specific concept of beauty further, combining Western and Eastern elements. The display, with its mix of simple, contemporary and classically elaborate frames, also underlines the collage effect we expect to see in VM and contemporary interiors today.

Artist/photographer David LaChapelle is best known for his hyper-real work with touches of humour, and fashion advertising including his portrait of Jean Paul Gaultier, as here with ‘Rebirth of Venus.’

The original Botticelli painting, which hangs in Florence’s Uffizi gallery, is a celebration of spring. Taken from Latin literature it portrays a naked goddess of love, Venus, on a shell at the seashore, gently caressed by a soft breeze of roses. The early Tuscan canvas signifies the birth of love and spiritual beauty as a driving force, and was commissioned by the wealthy Medici family, suggesting that a reign of love and culture had arrived in Florence thanks to their diplomatic skills.

LaChapelle’s version shows a less coy maiden, her modesty concealed behind a conch shell. Also a musical instrument, a gift of the ocean, a call to arms, a metaphorical awakening from ignorance and a representation of female genitalia, this shell is also thought to symbolize man’s turning life journey. In classical symbolism the use of ribbons depicted a woman’s ability to ensnare a man. In VM this same technique is frequently employed to draw attention to merchandise, making LaChapelle’s work a perfect inspiration for marketing images for a wide range of merchandise.

Genoese noblewoman Simonetta Vespucci (1453 – 1476) for whom Botticelli may have developed an unrequited love, is thought to be the reason he never married. He painted images very like her several times - although as a member of the prominent Vespucci family, she would not have modeled for him. Acclaimed as the most beautiful woman in Florence in her lifetime and later, the most beautiful woman of the Renaissance, she died at 22. Botticelli was buried at her feet as he wished 37 years later.

Her image, with regular features and slightly tousled hair, is remarkably similar to current ideas of beauty and she might well serve as a model for both contemporary mannequin collections and marketing campaigns.

Part of the appeal of Botticelli’s work is due to the flat graphic colour he achieved by using alabaster powder. This original image was inspired by the classical statues of the Venus Pudica - Venus covering her nakedness  - and painted by Botticelli in the 1490s.

The gift shop has displayed these with humour, using three towels carefully folded to recreate a complete approximation of the original. It is an added plus to create a smile with a VM display, and this succeeds. The swing tag, carefully and visibly placed at her ankle, as though laid at Venus’s feet, also suggests thoughtful presentation.

Towards the end of his life Botticelli’s style changed as he became a follower of friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452 - 1498), who became disastrously involved with the politics of the city-state. Moving from the light, deft touch of earlier work towards a flat almost super-real style, Botticelli’s changed thinking was reflected in the many biblical images that he and his workshop then produced.

Probably painted for a Franciscan hospital in Florence and showing a selection of saints and typically combining several biblical stories, this example is particularly striking for its large volumes of flat colour against which the brightly coloured figures are depicted.

It is reminiscent of a contemporary Kelly Hoppen interior with its volumes of flat grey or beige. VM so often employs fashionable interiors in its depiction of settings for a new season’s fashion collection and, with a little imagination, this image might serve as inspiration for a window theme.

The painting belonged to the Pre-Raphaelite painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833 - 1898), whose work is also included in the ‘inspired by’ section.

The exhibition is well worth a visit, and not only for the images selected above: the ‘inspired by’ images include work by the Impressionists, Pre Raphaelites, Rene Magritte, Elsa Schiaparelli, Cindy Sherman, and Orlan, together with film and video clips.

Botticelli Reimagined runs to 3 July 2016.