Looking and Seeing through Reproductions: Thoughts on 'Boticelli Reimagined' @ V&A, London
As the theory goes, one in every two hundred men are related to Genghis Khan. At the V&A we see a similar fecundity in a powerful iconic image and how it appears in so many aspects of our visual culture. Throughout the generations the descendants may have become less recognisable as belonging to that lineage but traces of the original are still detectable today.
I have never looked at 'The Birth of Venus' but I know it well. It is an image that pervades our culture and can be seen at any time in my mind's eye. This is what I took with me to 'Botticelli Reimagined' and I expect everyone else was carrying their version of the painting with them too. The common saying of rereading the classics becomes an innocent veracity, here more than ever we are rereading this classic as we have encountered a hundred previous incarnations and refractions of it in texts, stories, and reproductions. The exhibition at the V&A lays this idea out immediately with a clip from Dr No, Uma Thurman as the Venus in 'The Adventures of Baron Munchausen' and then a golden Italian racing car wheel. Although I have never looked at the original painting I have seen it in ways the original would never allow me to. Many people interpret an image and each interpretation is different because in the production and in the reproduction the people reveal not the image but themselves, so I see my version of 'The birth of Venus' through hundreds of others' eyes.
Botticelli's Venus stands in our minds as a timeless image of beauty and the V&A first shows us modern day re-imaginings and reproductions. From the super flat Venus that emerges from a sea of garbage whilst Easy Jet planes fly over head to a Venus recreated in trash and Warhol's reproductions focused on her rhapsodic gaze. Warhol's and Rauschenberg's pieces speak wonderfully with the ideas of reproduction and appropriation in this exhibition. In the spirit of the age of the internet where everything is documented, exhibited and nearly all manifestations of an image and idea appear somewhere online: the exhibition gets weirder. In seedy alcoves we see a transexual as the Venus, Orlan having cosmetic surgery to look like a living Botticelli and Bob Dylan is singing Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. Each manifestation of the multiplication of an icon far from diminishing its power rather serves to increase its fame and conceptual aura which leads to the much greater idea of 'Botticelli's Venus' that lives in a unique way in us all.
Further through the exhibition we see how the Victorians reinterpreted the Beauty of Botticelli and corrupted his depictions by appropriating it for sexual fantasies and socialist statements; it is the Victorians' rediscovery and reproductions of Botticelli that have led to our obsession. As you enter the final section of the exhibition the original works of Botticelli appear in contrast to the whirlwind of versions and mutations we have seen through the movement backwards through the centuries. We see the multitude of beautiful women shining out of the religious iconography. The rows of versions of Madonnas with many infant Christs from Botticelli's workshop realising the idea that Botticelli was a brand who produced many icons and status symbols for the rich and religious. This exhibition does a great and bold thing in that it highlights the mass production of beauty in Botticelli's workshop and moves away from a traditional method of exhibiting Renaissance Art in a stiff and scholarly fashion. Compare Botticelli's workshop to the mass production of his works today at Museums on key-rings and tea towels; this exhibition embraces all forms of the image.
A few months ago I looked upon the Mona Lisa for the first time amongst the crowds of tourists taking selfies; who were producing more versions of the famous image. The experience was everything it promised to be simultaneously irritating, profound and wonderful to see the original of which before I'd only experienced through others' eyes, reproductions and doppelgängers. Like people images can reproduce and their offspring will carry on their genes.
So what is it that has made Botticelli's Venus last throughout the ages and be reproduced in kitsch gift shop objects and echoed in car wheels and graffiti murals? It is not the religious work of Botticelli that have affected us so strongly today but his love of divine beauty. It is this that we carry with us, the traces of genetic code that have lasted through so many rounds of reproduction and mutation. The original may still look as it did in Botticelli's time but we do not see it the same. There is a trace of Botticelli in the make up of ourselves, that has survived the generations of reproduction, and so we look and see with the same rhapsodic gaze.