How can old masters be freed from the dust of times? Take a representative who has earned his merits in the field of art for dealing with the topic of eros and confront him with the present. Like this or something similar could have looked the brainstorming of the curators. Botticelli is predestined for such a project, as he used the same model for his sweet pictures of the Virgin Mary as well as his pin-up girls in the most barefaced way, a highly erotic blend of virginity and sex sells.
The favourite model of Sandro Botticelli was Simonetta Vespucci, the It-girl of Florence in the circles of the Medici. She was said to have been the mistress of Giuliano de Medici, and Botticelli as well was captivated by her beauty and charm, she became his great unrequited love. Also other great Renaissance artists immortalized her beauty such as Piero di Cosimo. Simonetta Vespucci died at the age of only 23 of lung tuberculosis, Botticelli was said to have wished before his own death to be buried next to her at the cemetery of the Ognissanti Church in Florence.
What would have become of Sandro Botticelli without Simonetta’s charisma? Probably just another Virgin-Mary-painter of the early Renaissance, but Simonetta’s beauty just cried out for being freed from the garment of the Virgin Mary, in order to extend the strictly Christian picture programme of the Western world by mythological themes. In painting the Birth of Venus and the Allegory of Spring for the Medici, Botticelli didn’t create two icons of the Renaissance only, but also a completely new picture genre in the art of Europe.
After already Roman architecture of ancient times had been rediscovered by the master builders of the Renaissance, all above by Filippo Brunelleschi, realizing its secrets successfully in new buildings such as the cupola of the Dome, Sandro Botticelli achieved the same in the field of painting with his new picture programme. The Birth of Venus is the first female nude since ancient times.
Botticelli never has been interested in the measurement of the human body, his goal was to create projection screens for the desires of the viewer.
Because of this coup we willingly forgive Botticelli his technical deficiencies; his problems in illustrating the anatomy correctly, especially when it comes to hands and feet. He wasn’t a Leonardo da Vinci and no Raphael as well who set new benchmarks in this respect. In the illustration of figures Botticelli obviously still adhered to the Gothic exaggeration and reduction of anatomy, already anticipating the future Mannerism at the same time that was to follow the Renaissance in the transition period to the Baroque. El Greco with his stretched figures could have been inspired by Botticelli in this regard, however, he lived 100 years later. Botticelli simply has skipped the measurement of the human body, which has been determined by Leonardo da Vinci with eternal validity. Nevertheless his paintings belong to the highlights of the Renaissance, because through the artistic liberties Botticelli took and thanks to Simonetta Vespucci’s amazing aura, they own something that many other works of the Renaissance are missing.
It’s the contrast between unrivalled beauty and human imperfection, which charges his pictures so intensely, bringing them closer again to the standard measure of the average mortal at the same time. That’s how they become the ideal projection screen for the desires of the viewer in search of his own ideal of beauty. The enamel effect and the brilliant colors of Botticelli’s tempera technique also push the two-dimensionality and the harsh graphic contours he applies to design his figures into the background. The accent on the contour makes Botticelli a direct precursor of pop art, his application of linearity and two-dimensionality played into Andy Warhol’s hands, as demonstrated at the exhibition impressively.
The rediscovery of Sandro Botticelli is owed to the Pre-Raphaelites with their neo-classical ideal of beauty.
The show attempts to link Botticelli to the present by connecting three different exhibition sections to each other: contemporary art, Botticelli’s rediscovery in the 19th century, and the original works by himself. Although this is just a side aspect of the exhibition, it’s its main merit nonetheless to visualize how the reception of the work by Botticelli took place influencing contemporary art. Since Botticelli had been forgotten over several centuries and wasn’t rediscovered before the 19th century by the Pre-Raphaelites in England. It’s a paradox of history, that the rediscoverer of Botticelli were to go down in art history as Pre-Raphaelites, whereas the German Romans pereferred Raphael to Botticelli.
John Ruskin discovered frescoes by Botticelli during his Rome stay in 1874 and made copies of them. Since then Rome became the place of dreams for the English colony of artists, Botticelli’s ideal of beauty perfectly matched the late classicism of the Pre-Raphaelites in the middle of the 19th century. They were the only artist community in Europe at all who succeeded in transforming Botticelli’s heritage into aesthetics of their own. The gracile female figures by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais still breathe Simonetta Vespucci’s aura, already pointing out to the dawn of Art Nouveau.
The dilemma of the exhibition becomes visible, that bridging this gap could only work by using a trick. The few first-rate works of the period of the Pre-Raphaelites in total aren’t substantial enough to furnish an entire hall. Therefore many second-rated works of the 19th century have to serve for filling the walls. Although this is enlightening for the reception of Botticelli at that time, they cannot deceive about being stuck in quoting merely. The Source by Ingres from the Musée d’Orsay is a clear proof of the exhibition failing in this regard. Although the picture had been painted before the rediscovery of Botticelli by the Pre-Raphaelites already, Ingres queues up with other well-known artists who allegedly refer to Botticelli. The mere erotic nude, however, isn’t enough yet to establish a link to Botticelli. It rather demonstrates that the principle ”sex sells” has always been working over the centuries, always being used consistently as long as secular enlightened societies have permitted it.
Garishness against technical sophistication – the hopeless struggle of contemporary art.
Furthermore quotes by Magritte and Dali can be found who pick up Botticelli’s icons gladly, but put them into a completely different context. Also fashion has been inspired by Botticelli’s floral illustrations of garment from Spring, the dress designs by Elsa Schiaparelli for instance are supposed to bear witness to. But also in this case the link to Botticelli looks a bit far-fetched, as floral patterns are a perpetually recurring theme in fashion. The failure of the exhibition, however, can be most clearly observed in the section of contemporary art, too banal and superficial are the quotes of Botticelli’s rich pictorial legacy here. At the same time this also demonstrates, how far contemporary art has drifted away from complex holistic aesthetics like the Renaissance in the meantime. There is quoting, dissecting, making collages, spicing up with garish colors, such as the kitschy-gaudy re-creation of the Birth of Venus by David LaChapelle. The pressure of competition struggling for attention is high, that’s why the principle ”sex sells” is applied in the most barefaced way here. At the same time the failure of the exhibition reveals the dilemma of all contemporary art, the historic heritage is overpowering and it’s impossible to stand one’s ground against it by technical means only.
From this submissive position arises the compulsion to elevate quotation to art, thus occupying the few niches the art market has left. After all the garishness with its platitudes as visitor one breathes a sigh of relief, when entering the Botticelli hall with the originals. The balance of form and color, the universal holism of the humanistic world view of the Renaissance, the technical sophistication compensate for the disillusioning quality of contemporary art.
The memento mori of the exhibition, however, is a monumental picture frame by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, because the frame is empty. It was designed for Botticelli’s painting The Virgin and Child with Angels Carrying Candles by Schinkel, in the last year of the war, in 1945, it was destroyed in the apparently safe Flak bunker Friedrichshain together with 434 large-scale pictures of the Berlin Gemaeldegalerie stored there. The heavy war losses prove that even art isn’t immortal, just as the evanescence of beauty. Simonetta Vespucci died at the age of 23 already.
24.09. – 24.01.2016 Gemaeldegalerie, Berlin