Botticelli died and was forgotten. Or so the story goes. Rediscovered in a substantial way by the Pre-Raphaelites, so began a long arc of repetition, quotation and homage, not yet ended. The Gemäldegalerie in Berlin has put together a story of the renaissance of Botticelli, assembling works influenced by the Florentine master. They show the diversity of inspiration found in Botticelli’s brushstrokes, and in particular in the body and beauty of his The Birth of Venus.
I find the long reach of this particular Venus extraordinary. Botticelli’s rendering of Simonetta Vispucci, half floating, half falling out of the half shell, always seemed to me to be an ill-postured, unbalanced, scoliosis affair with a small head. In any case, the Berliners haven’t got their hands on that particular rendition from the Uffizi. They’re making do with a study of the same, isolated against a black ground. I prefer it. Venus, born of nothing, makes much more sense to me than Venus born of a seafood platter. And the version they do have is the highlight of the show, being the only Botticelli actually placed directly into the context of modern works inspired by it.
The fact that some of these works are difficult to look at, and others painfully ridiculous, only draws one back to the original with the thought that genius peaked right off the bat. Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs of beached teenagers, looking for all the world like non-consentingly sexualised bully victims, stand either side of Venus, begging inappropriate questions of pubescent sexuality and nascent womenhood, forcing one to don blinkers and look all the more carefully at Botticelli’s increasingly compelling masterpiece. This is the true stroke of curatorial brilliance. The juxtaposition confronts the eye and demands we reject it, yet the trinity thus presented haunts us with the corruptibility of artistic intention and slaps us with our own corruption.
The rest of the show is anti-climactic, from the pointed photographic dross of David Lachappelle to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s own insipid obsession with square jaws and arachnid fingers. The main problem is the striking absence of Botticelli himself, save for the introductory Venus. The modern borrowings suffer for the lack of a narrative. After the striking first impression, this is more of an exercise in artistic genealogy, but with the viewer left to draw the family connections.
Botticelli’s works are, inexplicably, relegated to the rear of the exhibition, lumped together with a number of studio productions of dubious quality. The cursory curatorial narrative slips here, from one of inspiration to apology. Why not spare us half a dozen replications of a single image, each a bit more ropey than the last, in favour of contextualising Botticelli among his adoring followers. By the end, the striking first impression is utterly lost, as are we as we try to find our way to the exit.