by Roderick Conway Morris

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F. Galli/Venice Biennale
'The Encyclopedic Palace of the World,' from the Venice Art Biennale in 2013

In Venice, a Venerable Art Fair Flourishes

By Roderick Conway Morris
Venice 14 March 2015


'Venice is a great survivor,' said Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian-born critic, curator and director of this year's Venice Art Biennale.

Older than today's premier art fairs by almost a century, locked into brick-and-mortar exhibition pavilions in an era of pop-up galleries and street events, the Venice Biennale endures and, it can be argued, thrives through adaptation, and by using its age and structure to its advantage.

'It does still have a special role, but now amplified' by other international art events, Mr. Enwezor said by telephone. 'Being part of a larger scene is beneficial for it. Its structure is unique with its park setting and national pavilions — and the arrival of pavilions of new nations gives energy to the event.'

The Venice Art Biennale was originally the brainchild of the poet and playwright Riccardo Selvatico, then mayor of Venice, and his circle of artistic and intellectual friends. It was stimulated in large part by the economic crisis the city was facing in the last decades of the 19th century.

In 1887 the city organized a national exhibition of painting and sculpture of over a thousand works. This proved surprisingly successful, as many of the pieces were sold, yielding a profit that was used for charitable purposes in what had become an industrially depressed city.

In that age of great exhibitions Selvatico had the novel idea of hosting one every two years to attract visitors to Venice on a more regular basis.

The project was from the beginning unusually international in outlook, and well-known foreign artists such as Gustav Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, Edward Burne-Jones, Lord Leighton, Max Liebermann and Gustav Schönleber were recruited to sit on the first supervisory committee.

The first edition was scheduled for 1895 at the Giardini, or public gardens, in the eastern Castello district of the city. A temporary pavilion was constructed with a central hall and nine side rooms, the first version of the much larger Central Pavilion of today.

The importance of controversy to the success of an art event was established from the very beginning. One of 516 works on display at the first Biennale — 'Supremo Convegno' (Last Meeting) by Giacomo Grosso, a symbolist canvas featuring five naked young women and a corpse — not only led to a scandal and complaints from the Catholic Church, but also was awarded first prize on the basis of its success with the public. The first Venice show attracted 224,327 visitors, guaranteeing its immediate future.

Antonio Fradaletto, a co-founder of the Biennale and its managing director until 1914, had the shrewd idea of attracting financing and consolidating the event's international profile by inviting exhibiting countries to build and maintain their own permanent pavilions at the Giardini. Belgium was the first to respond in 1907, followed by Hungary in 1909, France and Sweden in 1912 and Russia in 1914.

Fradaletto's artistic acumen was less certain. In 1905 he pressured the Spanish exhibition into removing a painting by Pablo Picasso after only three days, considering it excessively avant-garde and liable to alienate the public.

But despite justified attacks on the institution's conservatism and its failure to include young artists, a pre-World War I high point was reached in 1909 when 457,960 visitors attended the event.

With the rise of Fascism in Italy, the organization gradually lost its autonomy, and a new statute effectively formalizing state control was enacted in 1930. Hitler made an official visit with Mussolini in 1934, and in the face of the bellicose policies of Germany and Italy, other nations began to boycott the event. In 1942, the last edition before its wartime suspension, only Italy, Germany and nine other nations were present.

The revival in 1948 was described at the time as 'probably the largest and most comprehensive exhibition ever prepared in the world of contemporary art.' Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka and Picasso were given pride of place, while Giorgio De Chirico, who was feuding with the organizers, held his own exhibition at a Venetian rowing club, setting a precedent for the parallel shows that now accompany the official exhibitions.

World events were never far from the Biennale. An interim show of dissident Russian artists in 1977 incited a diplomatic confrontation between the Italian and Soviet governments and accusations that the show would endanger the recent Helsinki Accords. The central theme of 1978 Biennale, 'From Nature to Art, Art to Nature,' highlighted environmental concerns at a time when they were not so generally discussed.

This year's event will begin earlier than usual, on May 9, to coincide with the Expo Milano world fair. Mr. Enwezor's edition promises to be one of the most interdisciplinary ever, involving artists, filmmakers, choreographers, actors, composers and writers.

In contrast to the aspirations of previous artistic directors, Mr. Enwezor said he did not expect the national pavilions to reflect the themes of the shows he is curating. 'In fact, I'm hoping to learn something from them,' he said.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024