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Out of the Frame: Botticelli’s La Primavera

Kate O'Sullivan reflects on rebirth and reinvention in her final installment of 'Out of the Frame'.

Approaching the end of term and after a period of delay, spring has finally sprung. It is a time of the year which is universally related to themes of rebirth, freedom, and vitality. This week I have chosen a painting which I think encapsulates these concerns perfectly: Botticelli’s ‘La Primavera’ (Spring) is a tempera painting (a process involving the mixing of egg and pigment to create paint), completed around the late 1470s to early 1480s, depicting a scene of mythological frivolity and laissez-faire attitude. One can only look at the painting in envy as we await our eventual release from national restrictions, which makes this painting for me all the more tantalising as it celebrates the joy of dance, festivity and freedom, its characters intermingled in a setting far beyond the reach of social distancing rules.

The composition of the painting is complex and crowded, resonating strongly with the hustle and bustle of eager Brits trying to mingle in the outside world. The overall aesthetic confronts us with a mix of reality and fiction, speaking particularly to us as an audience who for the last few months have done nothing but fantasize. The silvan environment in which the scene is situated boasts a number of accurately depicted plants, with at least 138 species identifiable, such as orange and laurel trees. While such painstaking attention has been paid to the accurate representation of these plants, the overall effect is fairly flat, almost like the set of a play. Furthermore, the arrangement of the trees appears to form an archway framing the central character, Venus. This helps to draw the eye directly to her, as does her position being slightly higher up than the rest, but the archway is reminiscent of other paintings where the characters are situated in a rather more architectural setting, like a niche, inside a building. This provides somewhat of a perfect parallel to our situation for the last few months, where our surroundings, both interior and exterior seemed to blend into one: restricted travel meant we could only travel so far from our homes, transforming the nearby vicinity into an extension of our own homes. Venus looks out to the viewer, almost inviting them to join in with the festivities as she points her hand towards the twirling Graces to the left. These three women, for me, embody the feeling of freedom, their hands interlocked gently, dancing at close proximity, their clothing like clouds resting above their skin. Beside them, Mercury, dressed in red, raises his caduceus, a small staff adorned with two intertwining serpents, to banish a small storm in the sky. Not only is he banishing the bad weather, he is banishing the bad times that came with it.

You may still be somewhat confused about why you are reading an article drawing parallels between a 21st century pandemic and a 15th century painting and you would be totally justified in sustaining this opinion. But the important point I am trying to make here is that an approach to art is not always something that can be taught, nor is there a right way to think about it. To read in our own interpretation, to make our connections, is part of what art is all about. Even today, the true meaning of this piece, with its complex composition, eludes scholars today. Our personal close engagement with individual artworks can make such interaction that much more enjoyable. Of course, I am not suggesting that this piece has anything to do with Covid, but the themes and emotional responses it inspires are just as relevant to our current situation as they were to concerns in 15th century Florence. As the last piece in my column, my hope is that my readers will come away from this feeling less intimidated by art and realise that no one should feel unable to interact with it for fear that they will not understand or interpret it correctly. Our art is one of the key pieces of evidence for the emotions of the past and with it, we can see that through the millennia, many aspects of life remain quite the same. It accompanies or human development not only by reflecting our primary focus, but by documenting our technical advancements. For so long, the world of art was purely one of pigments, stones and bases, but with the rise of technology, we are still redefining our perception of what constitutes an artwork. In a few decades or centuries time, I am sure we will look back on the first NFTs and draw parallels encapsulating our contemporary concerns and the concerns of the future. Cultures may rise and fall, fashions may change, as may aesthetic values, but the fact remains the same that art will stay with us and will keep recording our development as a species. Who should not feel entitled to explore our human nature in a form so readily available to us? The only tools you need are your eyes and your imagination.

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