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The source image for the present work, Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (1486), is an ethereal, monumental painting in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence that was once owned by the prominent Medici family, who embodied art patronage during the Italian Renaissance. In this quintessential and universally recognized Renaissance painting, Botticelli returned to classical mythology, experiencing a powerful revival during the intellectual Humanism movement that took hold during the 15th century. Botticelli’s life-sized Venus – or Aphrodite in the Greek tradition – emerges nude from the sea out of a shell, surrounded by gods and goddesses, presenting herself as the ultimate symbol of classical beauty. In antiquity, this scene of Venus appearing, or perhaps being born out of the sea, was known as “Venus Anadyomene,” or “Venus rising from the sea,” and came to symbolize female beauty, virginity, eroticism, and purity. Today, Botticelli’s masterpiece is firmly embedded in art historical canon, as a constant inspiration to future generations of artists and, subsequently, as a cultural icon constantly reproduced on coffee mugs, t-shirts, posters and more.
Centuries later, artists continued to adapt and reimagine Botticelli’s masterpiece. French painters of the belle époque, William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Alexandre Cabanel presented their versions of the Birth of Venus to the Paris Salon. This scene in particular embodied the male voyeuristic gaze, objectifying the female body, and served as one of the foremost inspirations for modernist critique of the male-centric perspective in creating and viewing art. Édouard Manet’s shocking and vulgar Olympia (1890) reinterpreted the feminine ideal of beauty as depicted in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and morphed the central figure from a goddess into a low-class prostitute. Two decades later, The Birth of Venus served as muse for another modern master: Pablo Picasso. In his proto-Cubist magnum opus, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Picasso appropriated and deconstructed Botticelli’s goddess in his center figure, who brazenly displays her nude body as a crude, fragmented form. Both Picasso and Manet subvert the original intent and traditional interpretation of Botticelli’s alluring figure by rendering the object of the viewer’s gaze as vile, repulsive, or threatening.
From the outset of Andy Warhol’s career, he chose the most universal images of popular culture to replicate in his silkscreened canvases. In a 1987 interview with Flash Magazine, Warhol aptly stated, “I’m still a commercial artist. I was always a commercial artist.” Indeed, throughout the length of his career spanning three decades, Warhol continuously depicted commercially recognizable subjects – from the quotidian to the exalted – from Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles to Marilyns and Jackies, from car crashes and shoes to Queen Elizabeths and Chairman Maos. What was so revolutionary about Warhol’s oeuvre was the shocking familiarity of his imagery; the appropriation and objectification of his subjects emulated the Duchampian notion of fetishizing the banal and bringing it into the realm of Fine Art. In 1919, Marcel Duchamp took a found object, a postcard of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, drew a moustache on her face and scrawled the letters “L.H.O.O.Q.” beneath the image. When spoken in French, these letters sound like “Elle a chaud au cul” or, in English, “She has a hot ass.” This sly maneuver not only degrades the traditionally exalted art historical figure and her creator, but also introduces the overt practice of appropriating artistic masterpieces as ready-mades. In Duchamp’s wake, Warhol too viewed pop culturally resonant icons, figures and paintings, such as The Birth of Venus, as ready-mades at his disposal, free for manipulating and translating in his signature style.
In Details of Renaissance Paintings and in the series of works inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (c. 1503-1519) and Last Supper (1498), Warhol confronted the ubiquitous images of Art History by intentionally stripping the works of their original artistic intent in favor of their value as a pop cultural symbols. There is certainly an odd irony in appropriating Botticelli’s – or any Old Master’s – laborious, detailed and painstaking painting process into a silkscreen, a mechanical process for mass production that essentially removes the hand of the artist. Subsequently, Warhol transforms this work into an easily reproducible commodity, subverting not only Botticelli’s intention, but the very principles of the art historical tradition.
In the present work, the classical symbol of beauty is transmuted in eccentric colors - an eye-catching array of punchy hues. On a background of bright, mint green, Venus’s peach skin radiates, surrounded by a halo of violet curls and outlined in gradations of neon yellow, orange and red. Warhol crops Botticelli’s monumental, mythical scene down to Venus’s face and enlarges it to 48 inches high by 72 inches wide, essentially elevating the image to that of a religious icon in much the same aesthetic manner as Warhol’s early depictions of Marilyn Monroe. The 1964 silkscreen Turquoise Marilyn is almost visually analogous to this Birth of Venus (After Botticelli) from twenty years later. The vibrant green background and unnaturally dramatic and bold facial colors of the present work makes clear reference to his early canvases of the similarly recognizable Marilyn. As Art Historian and Warhol scholar Germano Celant posits, “The history of art is itself another concrete mirage, with its stars and superstars of every age, and Warhol absorbed this too into the magma of his imagination. Alluding to the masters of the Renaissance to Piero della Francesca and Raphael, as well as to Munch and De Chirico, he turned them into dead flowers, so that the absolute subjectivity of art became once again a problem of media communication: a reproduction, cut and edited, with unnatural, technological colors.” (Germano Celant, Super Warhol, p. 10)
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