Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26 1992 1992 Rineke Dijkstra born 1959 Purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, courtesy of Mr and Mrs Robert Bransten 1999 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P78330

A young woman, photographed in Kolobrzeg, Poland, 26 July 1992, by Rineke Dijkstra. Image courtesy of the Tate Museum.

Walk into the V&A’s Botticelli: Reimagined exhibition and meet the eyes of Uma Thurman, naked and wrapped in her own hair, while winged attendants drape white veils around her. She is a modern-day Venus in a steampunk-esque filmclip from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by Terry Gilliam. Men’s eyes pop; they stare speechlessly at this vision; and a dreamy soundtrack suggests sunlight breaking through clouds, wildest fantasies coming true, and heaven. The clip ends and cuts to Ursula Andress emerging from the sea as Sean Connery looks on, mouth slightly agape. From then on, the tone is set, and although a few references to Botticelli’s other works can be found in the exhibition, the dominant image is that of The Birth of Venus.

The exhibition traces how Botticelli’s Venus has come to be seen as a definitive standard of beauty, and how artists through the ages have drawn upon and responded to the painting in their own work. The exhibition goes further: it offers examples of how ‘Venus’ has been commoditised and her beauty used to put a sheen on products from cheap cigarette lighters to Dolce & Gabbana trouser suits. A case of everyday contemporary items, including Lady Gaga’s album cover for Artpop, show how blond hair, white skin, and a shapely figure have become shorthand for the pinnacle of womanhood, not just in the Western world but globally.

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. Image courtesy of the Uffizi Museum.

Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Image courtesy of the Uffizi Museum.

A number of pieces in the exhibition challenge us to consider what effect The Birth of Venus as a beauty standard has had on women and men across the world. One painting, by Yin Zin, presents an Asian-looking woman in the place of ‘Venus’ – though whether this is a subversion of the Western beauty ideal or an indication of its power is left up to the viewer. There is a clearer criticism in the work of Ulrike Rosenbach and Orlan. Although their interesting feminist critiques of Botticelli’s Venus are squashed into a rather cramped corner of the gallery, it was the busiest section of the exhibition when I visited. Rosenbach’s video art shows a projection of the painting, with ‘Venus’ removed from the scene. The artist stands in the space, attempting to fit her own body into the ideal mould of womanhood. Orlan goes one step further: she is photographed as she is about to undergo cosmetic surgery to alter her chin to that of ‘Venus’.

For me, though, the most arresting images were by Rineke Dijkstra, of two young women, photographed on a beach in their bikinis. These girls had been given no instructions, and Dijkstra had not intended to produce a piece responding to Botticelli. Yet their body language and posture shows how profoundly women have internalised the definition of beauty presented by Botticelli in The Birth of Venus, and confirmed by art, film, business, and marketing ever since. It’s a marked difference from the Bikini Girls of Sicily. And a reminder to us all to be conscious about where our beliefs about what makes us beautiful come from.

The exhibition space at the V&A, with Dolce & Gabbana’s trouser suit.

The exhibition space at the V&A, with Dolce & Gabbana’s trouser suit.

-Eleanor Harding
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.


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