Botticelli and pulp fiction

Mark Evans, Curator of Botticelli Reimagined discusses the impact of The Birth of Venus on popular culture.

Implicit testimony to the grasp of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus on the popular imagination is provided by the celebrated sequence from the first James Bond film, Dr. No (1962), in which the bikini-clad Jamaican shell diver Honey Ryder, played by Ursula Andress, emerges from the sea, holding a conch shell: a scene re-enacted forty years later by Halle Berry as the secret agent Jinx Johnson in the twentieth Bond movie Die another Day (2002). However, already in 1958 Ian Fleming made an explicit reference to Botticelli’s painting in his account of Bond’s first meeting with Honey from the original novel Dr. No (chapter 8, ‘The Elegant Venus’, p.112):

Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder in Dr. No, Directed by Terence Young, 1962

The whole scene, the empty beach, the green and blue sea, the naked girl with the strands of fair hair, reminded Bond of something. He searched his mind. Yes, she was Botticelli’s Venus, seen from behind’.

Fleming’s text inspired the encounter between the immortal ‘Space wanderer, seeker of truth and electric banjo player’ Simon Wagstaff and his sexy robot companion Chworktap (an anagram of ‘Patchwork’) in the science fantasy novel Venus on the Half Shell (1975) by Philip José Farmer (1918-2009), writing under the pseudonym Kilgore Trout (chapter 9, pp.41-2):

…the scene looked almost like Botticelli’s painting, Birth of Venus. She wasn’t standing on a giant clamshell, and there wasn’t any maiden ready to throw a blanket over her. Nor was there any spirit of wind carrying a woman. But the shoreline and the flowers floating in the air behind her did resemble those in the painting. The woman herself, as she waded out of the sea to stand nude before him, also had hair the same length and color as Botticelli’s Venus. She was, however, much better looking…’

(Left) Kilgore Trout (Philip Jose Farmer, 1918-2009) Venus on the half shell, 1974. Private Collection (Right) Kilgore Trout (Philip Jose Farmer, 1918-2009) Venus on the half shell, 1975. Private Collection

On my first visit to Los Angeles in 1983 I was bowled over by the monumental Venice on the Half-Shell (1978) by Rip Cronk, who recast Botticelli’s heroine in a tank top, hot pants and thigh-high leg warmers, roller-skating down the board walk of Venice Beach. A full scale preproduction of this ‘Neo-Pop’ acrylic painting will be included in Botticelli Reimagined. I was convinced the Californian muralist had deliberately parodied the title of José Farmer’s cult novel until last September (2015), when I finally made contact with Rip, who gently advised:

‘I am so naive. I wish I could take credit for the Kilgore Trout reference but I was completely oblivious to what was almost a synchronistic event.’

Venice on the half Shell, Rip Cronk (born 1947), 1981. Courtesy of the artist and SPARC, Los Angeles