The ‘Dan Brown effect’: Venus-mania from the Olympians to the Expressionists

Mark Evans, Curator of Botticelli Reimagined

Working as long as I have on ‘Botticelli Reimagined’, I run the risk of obsessional behaviour and - like a character in a Dan Brown novel - finding at each and every turn veiled clues and references to my subject of enquiry. For instance, looking down at the V&A’s mosaic floors - jokingly known by the Latin name 'opus criminale' as they were made by female inmates at Woking Prison - I found myself reading a new level of meaning into the decorative feature of a scallop-shell flanked by dolphins. This Venusian motif is considerably older than Botticelli, also found on the mosaic floors of ancient Roman villas.

Detail of the V&A’s mosaic floors, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

When a colleague mentioned that she had spotted a representation of Venus on the half-shell in the corridor leading to the exhibition gallery, I hurried there and encountered a mosaic designed by Edward Poynter (1836-1919), one of thirty-three made in the 1860s, originally situated in the museum’s South Court. It depicts the ancient Greek painter Apelles of Cos with his most famous work, Venus rising from the sea. Of course, Apelles was very well known to Botticelli, whose rare depiction of the apocryphal Calumny of Apelles is in the Galeria degli Uffizi, Florence.

(Left) Mosaic of Apelles of Cos (1860s) by Edward Poynter on display in the V&A, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Right) Detail of the mosaic of Apelles of Cos, by Edward Poynter, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Visiting the annual ‘Works on Paper Fair’ held near the V&A at the premises of the Royal Geographical Society, I was struck by a most unusual drypoint by the German Expressionist artist Lovis Corinth (1858-1925). The Birth of Venus is one of a set of ten prints made in 1921-2 and published in an edition of 100 at Berlin. For those unfamiliar with printmaking jargon, drypoint is a technique in which an image is drawn with a sharp point on a metal plate, creating at the edge of the incised lines a slightly raised irregular rim or ‘burr’. This retains printer’s ink, and when the plate is printed creates a soft, scratchy line quite unlike the harder contours of etching or engraving - more like a drawing in appearance. All the prints in this portfolio depict nude figures and mythological or historical subjects, but in the others - compositions such as The Bacchic Procession or The Entombment - the figures are weighty and heavily shaded, characteristic of the artist’s customary repertory. By contrast, in The Birth of Venus, the figures are light and ethereal, curiously reminiscent of Botticelli’s masterpiece of the same title. My curiosity piqued, I made further enquiry at the National Art Library on the first floor of the V&A.

The Birth of Venus (1921-2) by Lovis Corinth, 2016. Photo by Mark Evans

All was revealed by a rapid perusal of Horst Uhr’s detailed study on Lovis Corinth (University of California 1990).

To read Uhr's study yourself, visit the National Art Library