The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s "Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes" exhibit is an innovative example of how traditional visual art may be juxtaposed with contemporary artistic practices such as cartooning. Juxtaposing renowned Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli with New Yorker cartoonist Karl Stevens (The Winner), the exhibit showcases how the apposition of seemingly contradictory art forms can recontextualize each form in new ways. The exhibition includes Sandro Botticelli’s The Tragedy of Lucretia (1499-1500), The Story of Virginia (c. 1500), the early life and miracles of Zenobius (c. 1500), and the Adoration of the Magi (c. 1500). Karl Stevens’ complementary work does not merely detail Isabella Stewart Gardner’s acquisition of the Tragedy of Lucretia (Mrs. Jack, 2018), the first ever Botticelli painting to be housed on American soil, rather it draws on Botticellian aesthetics and design to challenge and complicate intrinsic themes in the exhibition’s selected Botticelli pieces.
Although the "Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes" exhibition offers placards of Botticelli’s history and work for visitors to peruse and better understand the context of the artwork, it does not offer any literature regarding Stevens’ work, or how the juxtaposition of the two artists re-informs and reimagines Botticelli’s work through a contemporary lens. A short video of Stevens detailing his artistic process in creating the exhibition’s companion pieces offers patrons a small glimpse into the relationship between the two artists’ work. In it, Stevens explains:
The connection that I felt towards Botticelli is that we’re both storytellers, and that’s something that a lot of old masters were, particularly in the Renaissance. That’s something that has been consistent throughout Western Art for a long time. And cartooning is sort of the last bastion of that. It’s like what’s going on in drawing right now is happening in cartooning.
In fact, this connection between traditional Italian artistic practice and comics art is implied by the very word cartoon. As comics scholar Hillary Chute writes in Graphic Women, the "word cartoon comes from the Italian word cartone, which means cardboard, and denotes a drawing for a picture or design intended to be transferred, historically to tapestry or to frescoes. Yet, when the printing press developed, cartoon came to mean any sketch that could be mass-produced.” However, Chute also notes that this very mass-productivity, inherent to the comics form, is also the trait “that has largely kept [comics] from being considered ‘fine art.’” In this sense, the inclusion of contemporary comics art in museum exhibitions (such as the Gardner Museum’s "Heroines + Heroes" exhibition) and alongside traditional artists (such as Botticelli), is an important step towards the public recognition and legitimization of the artistic practices that inform comics and the appreciation of contemporary visual story-telling practices. This short article endeavors to showcase how traditional and contemporary modes of art can inform one another through their juxtaposition in exhibition settings.
Juxtaposition is one of the defining features of the comics form. As American cartoonist Scott McCloud explains in his influential text, Understanding Comics, comics can be understood as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” According to comics scholar Thierry Groensteen, in his text The System of Comics, the juxtaposition of panels across the entirety of a comics text creates “a network” of information; these networks place multiple ideas in relation to one another through his concept of “braiding,” which acts as a “sort of bridging” between visual information. This juxtaposition continually re-informs the viewer’s understanding of the chain of events presented in the comic as well as their changing meanings. In this same way, in the Gardner Museum’s juxtaposition of Sandro Botticelli’s work alongside Karl Stevens’ reinterpretation of the work, meaning is transferred between the two artists’ images prompting the viewer’s reconsideration of each.
Botticelli’s The Story of Virginia depicts the chaste, betrothed Virginia as desired by the corrupt magistrate Appius, who hires Marcus Claudius to kidnap Virginia under the false pretext of being his stolen slave. The viewer can see how the painting’s action unfolds from left to right in seven distinct sections which read much like a comic undivided by the traditional “gutter” space. According to the exhibition placard accompanying this piece, Virginia is surrounded by women defending her, is forcibly taken by guards, is lead to judgement, is depicted at judgement, is unsuccessfully defended by her fiancé, is murdered by her father so as not to be captured, and is avenged by soldiers as her father mounts a horse to rally his troops.
Stevens’ accompanying single page comic mounted beside Botticelli’s Virginia re-informs this scene in a visceral way by focusing his composition on hands and faces. Firstly, it should be noted, that the compositional focus of Botticelli’s Virginia is not of Virginia herself, but rather of the corrupt magistrate Appius. Appius sits at the highest peak of the painting, framed by the domed architecture of the Roman court, and presides at the centre of the action in a fixed position as Virginia is brought to him, her loved ones plead for her, and soldiers vow to avenge her. Virginia herself moves as a wraith across the painting – minute, hunched over, and covering her face from view. Stevens’ work forcibly intervenes on this scene by devoting three quarters of his page space to Virginia’s figure. In his interpretation, unlike in Botticelli’s version, Virginia stares out of the page plane at the viewer, not pleadingly or fearfully, but defiantly. Virginia fixes the viewer with her gaze, as she is looked upon, no longer the object of the piece, but the agent. She engages in an eye-to-eye connection with the viewer in the moment before her capture. In her essay “Staring at the Other”, Rosemarie Garland-Thompson explains the effect that staring, as captured in a visual medium, has on the viewer:
Staring is a vivid form of human communication. Part of our enormous communal vocabulary of the eyes, staring is a particularly emphatic way of expressing our response to others. A more forceful and sustained form of looking than glancing, glimpsing, scanning, contemplating, surveying, gazing […] Staring is a way of strongly reacting to another; it bespeaks involvement. It is the human response to novelty, to the unexpected. As such, staring is an embodied and relational visual exchange that carries complex cultural and historical meanings.
By creating a connection to Virginia through the stare, Stevens evokes a visceral personal response in the viewer that is absent from the Botticelli. Moreover, the viewer empathizes in Virginia’s struggle through this gaze, by the creation of what Elizabeth Wheeler calls a “next-to” identity through a “shared experience” with a minority identity. Stevens, however, does not merely incorporate the viewer into the action through their shared gaze with Virginia, but also through the first-person perspective of the hands imminently apprehending Virginia. From the viewer’s perspective of Virginia, the hands reaching out to seize her are the viewer’s own. This complicates the action of the Botticelli by suggesting that the viewer is implicated in Virginia’s demise, not only implicated but the agent of it. Stevens’ composition remarkably grants agency to both the subject of the painting, Virginia, through the stare, and to the viewer through the first person view of the hands apprehending her. Stevens’ composition juxtaposed with the Botticelli, thus calls into question the passive consumption of the action and the bystander effect prevalent in both the Botticelli painting and the exhibition-goer.
Re-imagining Private and Public
Juxtaposition is not only a compositional feature of comics, but also of the Botticelli pieces displayed in the Gardner Museum’s "Heroines + Heroes" exhibition. Botticelli’s The Story of Virginia and The Tragedy of Lucretia were intended as companion pieces. Through the juxtaposition of both pieces, Botticelli illuminated key instances in Florence’s history that resulted in revolution and the reformation of corrupt governmental practices. Like The Story of Virginia, The Tragedy of Lucretia depicts the Roman noblewoman, Lucretia’s violent intimidation and rape by Tarquinius (the King’s son), subsequent suicide, and Brutus’ vow to overthrow the Roman monarchy through revolution. Although Lucretia acts as the agent of her own fate, unlike Virginia who is killed at her father’s hands, Botticelli’s focus remains on Brutus, serving the male nation-building narrative of revolution.
However, Botticelli’s painting did re-envision the circulating Lucretia narrative of his time, which is typically depicted as Lucretia’s discovery, her public display and Brutus’ vow, and the ensuing liberation of Rome. According to Scott Nethersole, Botticelli’s Lucretia “belongs with a small group of paintings executed in the final quarter of the fifteenth century by Filippino Lippi […] and Jacopo del Sellaio” where Lucretia is depicted as already dead upon being removed from her home and displayed in the street. While Brutus is still the focal figure of each of the artists’ compositions, Botticelli’s depiction of Lucretia as alive when carried from her home and committing suicide in the streets, changes the emphasis of her story from one that is private to one that has public resonance. It is through Botticelli’s engagement with his contemporaries’ visual narrations of Lucretia’s story, and the juxtaposition of those versions, that the viewer may fully appreciate how seemingly subtle changes in visualizations across time impact the visual narrative’s significance for the viewer.
Both Botticelli’s and Stevens’ work play with the transition between private and public spaces in their art, prompting the reader to consider how private events are re-appropriated for public consumption and how the viewer similarly moves between the domains of public and private. Lippi’s version of Lucretia’s story features only one threshold on the far-left side of the painting, through which Lucretia is carried, while del Sellaio’s version depicts thresholds on both the left and right sides of the painting, flanking the central action of Brutus’ vow, finally, Botticelli places the flanking images in semi-enclosed spaces – thresholds between public and private life. Each artist, however, preserves Lucretia’s trauma as private and Brutus’ vow as public. However, according to Nethersole’s research, “Brutus’s speech occurred privately in her chamber over her body." Each artist’s placement of Brutus’s vow at the centre of the action and in public space, frames Brutus’ act as the outcry which fuels the revolution. This arrangement of private and public spaces and events again invites the viewer to question their complicity in history’s unfolding action, as they are positioned in the public space of the image to view action and in the public space of the gallery. Questions arise such as: How do public affairs infiltrate the private sphere? How do private events bear on public life? How can one individual influence the collective? And what is the collective’s responsibility towards the individual? By placing the action on the boundaries of private and public spaces, Botticelli’s work asks these questions of the viewer.
This symbolic composition and its accompanying thematic questioning are similarly taken up by Stevens in his treatments of Botticelli’s Tragedy of Lucretia and the early life and miracles of Zenobius. Stevens depicts both the importance of Roman society’s structure to the unfolding events of Lucretia, and its forthcoming change, by framing Lucretia within iconic Roman archways and pillars situated on the threshold between public and private space. In Stevens’ depiction, it is Lucretia’s dynamic and violent personal force that will change the structure of Roman society forever, not Brutus’ public call to revolution. Like his depiction of Virginia, Lucretia’s figure takes up three quarters of the page, her arms in purposeful and oppositional motion against the background Roman structure; the armored Tarquinius is depicted as unable to stop what she is set in motion and will prove to be his ultimate destruction. The contrast in Tarquinius’ hard and Lucretia’s soft costuming ironically underscores Lucretia’s power over the now vulnerable Tarquinius. Unlike Botticelli’s view of Lucretia as a minuscule and crumpled form carried by others, Stevens’ depiction of her is as erect, in action, and shown from a low-camera angle that emphasizes her position of power. Just as Botticelli re-wrote Lippi’s and del Sellaio’s versions of the Lucretia story through a change in visual composition, so too can the viewer understand how Stevens’ reimagined visual composition in the comics form once again changes this story and its significance through its juxtaposition with the traditional Botticelli.
Like The Story of Virginia, which is removed from the private chamber to the public streets, the early life and miracles of Zenobius also illustrate the tenuous relationship between public and private spaces and events. This fluid transition between private and public spaces and events in Three Miracles of Zenobius, is depicted in the painting’s background within an enclosed chamber whose wall is cut away enabling the viewer to peer inside. Here, Zenobius cures one of his disciples, who in turn performs his own miracle in the public street. Similarly, Four Scenes from the Early Life of Zenobius depicts Zenobius moving from the public street into a semi-public covered portico alongside the building. Each pillar acts a divider of the space between Zenobius’ life as well as the public and private space of Rome. These pillars act much like contemporary comics gutters do, asking the viewer to differentiate between sections of life and to imagine the intermittent movement and narrative of the depicted procession between Zenobius’ rejected marital life, baptism, and eventual appointment as bishop of Florence. Just as Botticelli brought the story of Zenobius from ancient to modern through the juxtaposition of old and modern Roman architecture in this scene, so too do Stevens’ paired depictions of contemporary Florence above these paintings bring the exhibit viewer into the ancient world through a contemporary view of the landscape.
Stevens’ sprawling vistas of modern Florence above each of the Zenobius paintings remind the exhibit-goer that they are viewing actual sites in Rome, where these events historically occurred. Stevens’ carefully recreated, detailed panoramas bring a reality to the religious events depicted in the Botticelli paintings. Unlike the Botticelli paintings however, which are full of people, Stevens’ depictions of modern Florence are curiously devoid of a public that is inferred by the robust architectural landscape. The viewer simultaneously sees and does not see the contemporary public of Florence. However, these paired images remind the reader that the contemporary structure of Florence is inextricable from the scenes depicted by Botticelli which carry these ancient stories and places – both public and private – into the ever-changing identity of modern society.
In a personal interview, Stevens explains that Isabella Stewart Gardner refused to place descriptive placards alongside the work she originally curated for her museum. She did this, Stevens says, to dissuade viewers from considering any one art piece as more important than another found in the museum through its association with a more recognizable artist. Though the Gardner Museum does provide art descriptions on laminated information sheets in every room, touring the Gardner Museum without placards affixed to every piece certainly gives one the sense that all art pieces are created equal. Gardner’s collection of art, furnishings, books, tapestries, and musical instruments from various artists, time periods, subjects, styles, and locations certainly instills one with the inherent beauty of such unattributed juxtaposition. The collected items speak to each other, and to the contemporary viewer, who brings their own experiential lens to the museum, in intricate and subtle ways. So too, even if literature was not provided for Stevens’ work in the Gardner’s exhibition of "Botticelli: Heroines + Heroes", the juxtaposition of traditional Renaissance art and contemporary comics art speak to one another, and to the viewer, through the defining feature of comics: juxtaposition. Through the juxtaposition of Botticelli’s and Stevens’ work, the viewer may reconsider, reexamine, rewrite, reimagine, and challenge seminal events and private and public boarders through the contemporary artistic practice of comics’ visual storytelling.