When I arrived at the Victoria and Albert Museum by walking straight from my District Line tube through the South Kensington station to a downstairs entrance directly connected to the underground tunnel, I headed directly to the museum book shop to buy a small notebook and a cheap pen. I had forgotten my notebook in my Whitechapel AirBnB, and with photography prohibited in the temporary exhibition spaces, I knew I needed to scrawl down my thoughts as I meandered through the “Botticelli Reimagined” show. Unfortunately, as soon as I made it into the ticketed Botticelli exhibit, I realized that the pen sold to me by the museum shop was a dud. My notes, therefore, are a mix of frustrated, inky scribbles and the indentations of letters inscribed painstakingly onto the white paper. Forgive me, therefore, if my recollection isn’t the sharpest, I didn’t have my usual photos or trustworthy notes to jog my memory. Best islamic beard styles.
The “Botticelli Reimagined” exhibition, on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum from early March to early July, “reveals the ways that artists and designers have reinterpreted Botticelli through painting, fashion, film, drawing, photography, tapestry, sculpture, and print.” (1) Operating under the assertion that “our understanding of the art of the past is conditioned by that of our own day” — one of my main points of investigation during my European sojourn — and with dozens of original Botticelli works as well as those of René Magritte, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and more, the show created parallels between Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, permanently housed at Florence’s Uffizi, and generations of art work inspired by it. (1)
Sandro Botticelli. “The Birth of Venus.” 1482–1485. The Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy.
Divided into three sections, basically arranged in reverse chronology — so that modern and contemporary art inspired by Botticelli (a room called “Botticelli Reimagined”) leads to art immediately inspired by the addition of Botticelli to the canon (a room called “Botticelli Rediscovered”) leads to the work of Botticelli himself (a room called “Botticelli in his own time”) — the exhibit expertly points out the prolific appropriation of Botticelli’s images in art, fashion, and pop culture.
Yin Xin. “Venus after Botticelli.” 2008.
Jeff Koons. “ARTPOP-Lady Gaga” Album Cover. 2013.
Andy Warhol. “Details of Renaissance Paintings (Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, 1482). 1984. Acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen.
Installation shot of “Botticelli Reimagined” at the Victoria and Albert Museum. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
What stood out to me both in some of the Berlin exhibits I saw as well as in “Botticelli Reimagined,” which incidentally was put on in partnership with Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, was the obvious effort to connect Classical Italy and Greece, and in this case “the earliest monumental secular nudes since ancient times” — those of Botticelli — to the art of other cultures. Although the exhibit captured the power and influence of Renaissance form and Classical motifs, it also celebrated the commodification of masterpieces and, arguably, the stereotyping of Italian culture. In the last room of the exhibit, full of sketches based on Dante’s Divine Comedy, a recording of a famed Italian actor reading the text is broadcast so that the largely English-speaking guests can, I suppose, feel like a ten minute subway ride has taken them all the way to Florence. Or rather, taken them to their idea of what Florentine culture should be.
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Incidentally, my AirBnb host, Elisa, an artist originally from Turino, Italy, had seen the show a few days before me. She complained to me about one work in particular, a Japanese artist’s take on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus transformed in Superflat style and composed of Italian brand logos. Elisa, although she had no problem with non-Western artists appropriating Italian works in general (see Yin Xin’s painting, above), lamented that here, specifically, an Italian masterpiece was reduced to Barilla pasta boxes, presenting a homogeneous, superficial, and “offensive” understanding of her culture.
Tomoko Nagao. “The Birth of Venus.” 2012
I’ll write more about art historical appropriation of Venus in an upcoming post, because I want to focus here specifically on this emphasis on drawing cross-cultural connections between works from separate cultures and time periods, a tendency I noticed not only in this exhibit in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but also in Berlin, where the “Botticelli Reimagined” first opened last fall.
In Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, I found an informational placard introducing “Objects in Transfer,” a project developed by Freie University and the Museum für Islamische Kunst that “explores transcultural relationships between the Middle East and Europe, developing concepts for communicating these relationships in the museum and thereby questioning the boundaries of ‘Islamic art.’” (2) For example, the Pergamon Museum houses the beautiful and famed Mshatta Palace facade, which was created near Amman, Jordan in the eighth century CE but has been displayed in Berlin since 1904. (3) A placard set up in the facade’s exhibition space as well as information online introduces the “Objects in Transfer” project and explains that the combination of “motifs and techniques from Graeco-Roman Late Antiquity and Sasanid Iran” prompted “discussions about its creation — and about the right place to display it.” (3)
Mshatta Palace facade in the Pergamon Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. (3)
Mshatta Palace facade in the Pergamon Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
The project compiles and presents information on how the structure confounded Berlin’s finest archaeologists and art historians for years, creating huge difficulties in dating and attributing the building to a specific culture.
As an aspiring archaeologist and former museum tour guide, I greatly enjoyed this project’s explanation of this masterpiece’s interpretation history. Nevertheless, I argue that while connecting the Islamic palace facade to art and architecture of other cultures — even Christian monasteries — the information provided by “Objects in Transfer” failed to explicate the facade’s place in its original Middle Eastern setting. In other words, I learned a lot about Kaiser Wilhelm II’s acceptance of the facade as a gift from an Ottoman Sultan, the Bode-Museum in Berlin, German archaeological techniques, and even Josef Strzygowski’s racist classifications of art during the Nazi era, but I learned just about nothing about the Mshatta Palace. Perhaps “Objects in Transfer” does a good job of explaining the controversial and Eurocentric story of how Eastern, specifically Islamic, art ended up in Berlin museums and how we can connect this art to European art history. But it nevertheless reinforces the idea that all valuable discourse surrounding Islamic art comes from the West. Drawing cross-cultural parallels between seemingly disparate objects in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s collections is valuable, but only when coupled with enhanced information about these objects in their original landscape. When looking at the Mshatta facade, museum-goers should learn about the caliphates before they learn about the kaisers, and should learn about the controversy surrounding re-appropriation of cultural heritage before complicitly accepting the Pergamon Museum’s jurisdiction. Instead, they are inundated with praise of Heinrich Schliemann all over Museum Island. Other objects included in the “Objects in Transfer” project include the 14th century Alhambra cupola from Granada being compared to Orientalizing home decor in Europe and the Americas in the nineteenth century, as well as a rare carpet of Egyptian or Turkish origin being connected with a similar rug depicted in a fifteenth century Renaissance painting by the Italian Domenico Ghirlandaio. (4,5)
Another cross-cultural endeavor undertaken by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in the Neues Musuem was, in my opinion, more successful and accessible. “Beards — Between Nature and Razor” “examine[s] the way beards have changed radically both in terms of style and social significance in a range of cultural and historical contexts.” (6) Only briefly mentioning “the beard’s current popularity among Berliners,” the exhibit delves into Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s efforts to masculinize her image with beards in order to legitimize her rule, how Roman men mimicked the beard styles of their emperors (the clean shaven Julio-Claudians and Flavians eventually yielded to the bearded Ulpians and Antonines), Martin Luther’s bearded disguise at the Diet of Worms, and more, using various art objects to communicate varying cultural ideals united by a common visual feature — the beard.
Gunter Rambow’s 1969 “Ego,” featuring Karl Marx with a feather beard. © Gunter Rambow.
Instead of connecting each art object to German history, as “Objects in Transfer” attempted to do, the “Beards” exhibit allows objects to stand within their own cultural and historical contexts, highlighting “the sheer variety of beards…selected from the Staatliche Museen’s ethnographic, archaeological and fine-art collections” without relegating Queen Hatshepsut, for example, to a Eurocentric narrative. (6) Museum-goers are invited to draw their own parallels without being force-fed the idea that to be important, an object or motif must connect to European culture.
While, like the Botticelli show, the “Beards” exhibit’s cultural focus is broad while its thematic focus is narrow, none of the work or commentary exhibited celebrates the appropriation — or as Elisa might argue, the trivialization — of any one culture’s masterpieces. Instead of commodifying an Italian image, the “Beards” exhibit explores a universal experience. Whereas non-Italians can’t claim Botticelli and Westerners can’t claim the Mshatta Palace, everyone can claim a beard, making for a universally accessible and enjoyable exhibition.
My appreciation for the “Beards” exhibition stems from its simplicity, instead of presenting an explanations about the prolific cultural exchanges in art history, curators allow each object to be enough of an explanation in itself. Instead of emphasizing how different cultures conform their art works to certain visual standards, “Beards” celebrates the beauty in how art from different cultures can diverge, even in terms of something as simple as facial hair. And that’s what makes art history interesting to me — recognizing rich art historical diversity allows me to celebrate and appreciate the varying aesthetic lenses through which far-flung cultures see and depict their worlds, no one lens is correct, but all are beautiful.
As a bonus, enjoy this selfie of me standing skeptically inside a Botticelli-inspired seashell.
The Victoria and Albert Museum. “Botticelli Reimagined.” London: The Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016. Plaque.
“Trans-cultural Relations, Global Biographies — Islamic Art.” smb.museum.de. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 29 April 2016. Web. 20 June 2016.
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“Ornaments and a Love of Order.” Objects-in-transfer.sfb-episteme.de. SFB „Episteme in Bewegung“ (FU Berlin), Museum für Islamische Kunst, n.d. Web. 20 June 2016.
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. “The Alhambra in Berlin.” Berlin: The Pergmanon Museum, n.d. Plaque.
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. “Rare Rugs.” Berlin: Pergamon Museum, n.d. Plaque.
“Beards — Between Nature and Razor.” smb.museum.de. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 12 Nov. 2015. Web. 19 June 2016.