Beyoncé meets Botticelli: how tabloid photos throw new light on old masters

The Twitter account Tabloid Art History juxtaposes celebrity shots with artworks they resemble. It’s a game that works because great art is universal

Beyoncé poses with her twin babies. She is bedecked in flowers as she gazes emotionally into the heavenly distance. Do you spot the artistic echo? The creators of a Twitter account called TabloidArtHistory did. They juxtapose this photo with Botticelli’s Renaissance masterpiece Madonna of the Pomegranate. It is a beguiling match. Beyoncé’s maternal ecstasy mirrors Botticelli’s mystically beautiful Virgin Mary.

Melania Trump presenting Michelle Obama with a gift alongside the manuscript illumination of Christine de Pisan and Queen Isabeau.
Melania Trump presenting Michelle Obama with a gift alongside the manuscript illumination of Christine de Pizan and Queen Isabeau. Composite: ABC Screengrab/Alamy

Tabloid Art History delights in hilarious yet visually convincing collisions of high art and celebrity culture. Melania Trump giving Michelle Obama a gift is compared with a manuscript illumination of Christine de Pizan presenting her book The City of Women to Queen Isabeau and Géricault’s Romantic vision of despair, The Raft of the Medusa, is matched with a pic of The Real Housewives of New York slumped on the floor at an airport.

Harry Styles and Egon Schiele’s Self-Portrait with Physalis, 1912.
Harry Styles and Egon Schiele’s Self-Portrait with Physalis, 1912. Composite: Rex/Alamy

Is this a lazy reduction of great works of art to the status of memes to snigger at? No, it’s a fresh and insightful way to look at art – and at life. We’re surrounded by great art all the time, these iconographic couplings reveal. Everyone is a statue or a painting, just waiting to be recognised. Harry Styles looks like an Egon Schiele self-portrait in a certain light. When Tyra Banks cupped her breasts to give contestants on America’s Next Top Model some career advice, she suddenly resembled Mary Magdalene in an altarpiece by Jan Polack.

Zendaya and Albert Lynch’s Jeanne D’Arc engraving, 1903
Zendaya and Albert Lynch’s Jeanne D’Arc engraving, 1903 Composite: Getty

This game works because great art is universal. The gestures and expressions that artists such as Botticelli and Schiele saw in the world around them and distilled into sombre monumental images amount to a gallery of human possibility, a museum of moods, experiences and fates. All human life is in their masterpieces. So why is it surprising that Beyoncé looks for a moment like a Botticelli? He painted the way he did because he observed the street life around him with insight and truth. It’s no wonder today’s tabloid images and selfies occasionally throw up images of the same human truths.

Janelle Monáe and a detail from The Virgin of Deliverance, by Auguste-Antoine-Ernest Hébert.
Janelle Monáe and a detail from The Virgin of Deliverance, by Auguste-Antoine-Ernest Hébert. Composite: Getty

The creators of TabloidArtHistory – graduates Elise Bell, Chloe Esslemont and Mayanne Soret – have hit on the democratising magic that often eludes curators of old-master art collections. By presenting art with humour and humanity, they have unlocked the marble prison that can make it seem remote.

The sweet melancholy dreaminess of Botticelli’s Madonna of the Pomegranate is relevant to all people in all times. If we need to see it next to a photograph of Beyoncé to recognise that – all power to the memes.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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