BY Tim Smith-Laing in Profiles | 08 MAY 17
Featured in
Issue 187

The City and the Shadow

A brief history of the Venice Biennale

BY Tim Smith-Laing in Profiles | 08 MAY 17

There is no event like the Venice Biennale. The only global art gathering to have survived from the 19th century into the 21st, it’s simultaneously a baro­meter of art-world trends and one of the most venerable of its institutions. Indeed, with almost all of art’s utopianisms, ructions and scandals having been echoed in its setting – Venice’s Napoleonic Giardini – the history of the biennale could be seen as the history of modern art itself, in microcosm.

When the ‘Prima Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte della Città di Venezia’ opened its gates in 1895, there was no guarantee of longevity. Though the city had successfully mounted a national art showcase in 1887 (and even managed to turn a profit in the process), 19th-century Venice was by no means an obvious place in which to celebrate fin de siècle modernity. In 1818, in his poem ‘Ode on Venice’, Lord Byron wrote that the city which once ruled the Adriatic had long since ‘turn’d to dust and tears’. In The Stones of Venice (1851), John Ruskin declared that ‘the final period of her decline’ had come: ‘We might well doubt,’ he wrote, ‘as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City and which was the Shadow.’ Forty years on, when the unification of Italy had put an end to territorial tussles over Venice, it still had the air of a city ready to sink beneath its lagoon for good.

Poster for the 18th Esposizione Internationale d’Arte, Venice, 1932. Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia, ASAC, Fondo Manifesti; design: Franz Joseph Lenhart

The idea that the 1887 show could be repeated and turn Venice into the site of an international celebration of modern art solidified under the leadership of mayor Riccardo Selvatico. A poet and playwright who had been among the intellectuals calling for a second iteration of the exhibition, Selvatico convened a commission in 1893 to oversee what swiftly became an international affair, with the committee sending formal invitations to selected artists from across Europe and the US. Featuring a range of painters and sculptors from Italy and 14 other countries, Selvatico’s official announcement declared that the biennale would ‘affirm [Venice’s] faith in the moral energies of our nation, and […] all the noblest activities of the modern spirit, without any distinction of nationality’.

In the event, the success of the biennale was sealed by less noble activities of the human spirit than Selvatico had envisaged. With only 12 days until the hastily prepared galleries in the Giardini were due to open, the contribution from one of Italy’s best-known artists arrived and caused instant consternation among the organizers. Turinese painter Giacomo Grosso’s huge Supremo convegno (The Final Tryst, 1895) depicted five naked women writhing over their dead lover’s coffin – one of them riding the bier with her back arched in frank sexual abandon. Rumours of the painting quickly spread through the city, causing the Patriarch of Venice – the future Pope Pius X – to demand that it be withdrawn from the show. In the end, Supremo convegno was merely relegated to a side room, where it was hoped it would not draw too much attention. Viewers, though, flocked to it and, while the jury prizes went to less audacious works, the prize by public vote went straight to Grosso. News of the scandalous work spread so widely that it was purchased after the exhibition closed by speculators intending to take it on a world tour. (Sadly, their investment went up in smoke during a mysterious fire at its first stop in the US.) An astonishing 224,327 visitors attended the first biennale: a figure that many 20th-century iterations struggled to equal, particularly during the 1960s.

Peggy Guggenheim photographed with her collection in the Greek pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 1948. Courtesy: Lee Miller Archives

As the biennale emerged as one of the leading international art shows, the number of works accepted rose steadily. By 1905, it had nearly doubled from the first exhibition’s 516, overwhelming the original buildings. The solution, which borrowed from the example of the ‘Rue des Nations’ at Paris’s 1900 Exposition Universelle, was the biennale’s now-famous model of permanent national pavilions. The Belgian pavilion appeared in the Giardini in 1907, and other countries soon followed suit. Then, as now, the pavilions were totally independent of the biennale’s own administration, functioning in much the same way as actual embassies: each an island of its own country abroad. By the 1914 biennale, all of the great nation states were represented – turning the exhibition’s intended celebration of internationalism into a face-off between individual nationalisms that was all-too-apt in its timing.

Inevitably, the spectre of nation­alism would come to haunt the biennale in the decades that followed. With the rise of fascism in 1915, solidifying into Benito Mussolini’s premiership from 1922 to 1943, the biennale took on the concerns and philosophy of the regime. By the 1930 edition, the prize list had expanded to include awards for ‘Best Maternity Subject’ and ‘The Poetry of Labour’, while mythologizing portraits of Il Duce – such as Enrico Prampolini’s Mussolini Architettonico (Mussolini, Architect, 1922) – proliferated. All that finished, however, when the 1942 biennale closed its gates, months after Italy’s military position had become untenable. With more pressing concerns in mind, the hiatus lasted until 1948.

While the pavilion model has attracted criticism for appearing to approve of artisic nationalisms, it has also prompted artists and viewers to reflect on world politics. 

While the pavilion model persisted in the postwar era, the biennale was transformed. Under the leadership of the art historian Rodolfo Pallucchini, as General Secretary and Artistic Director, the organization took advantage of the special legal status it was granted by the fascists to make deliberate moves to look outward and forward. The 1948 biennale included works by Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, James Ensor and Paul Klee, along with a Pablo Picasso retrospective, while at Pallucchini’s invitation Peggy Guggenheim’s personal collection made its way to the city (where it found a permanent home). This was a revivified biennale, announcing its intention to reflect the latest trends in contemporary and avant-garde work, while making up for lost time on those it had previously overlooked.

After Pallucchini’s tenure ended in 1956, the biennale continued to develop. To ward off the risk of it becoming, in the words of critic and curator Lawrence Alloway, an ‘inter­national trade fair’, since 1976 the committee has set an overarching theme. Estab­lishing a common thread – however broad – between the disparate curatorial visions of the contributing countries, this approach has helped turn the biennale into an institution that values responsiveness to the times in artistic production and research. That receptivity has been further enhanced since the 1980s by the nomination of a new Artistic Director for each biennale – with Harald Szeemann, who curated the 1999 and 2001 editions, being the only exception. The show has also expanded. Spilling out beyond the Giardini, there are now 29 national pavilions as well as seemingly countless official and unofficial venues throughout Venice. The 2017 biennale will offer works by 120 invited artists from 51 countries.

While the pavilion model has attracted criticism throughout the years for appearing to approve of artistic nationalisms, it has also, in the modern era, prompted artists and viewers to reflect on world politics and national history. At one end of the spectrum, grand statements like Hans Haacke’s Germania (1993) – which dug down into the Nazi history of the German pavilion, shattering its floor – have rarely been far from the spotlight. At the other end of the spectrum, eyebrows have often been raised at the less critical political reflections found in the Italian pavilion – with its curators dogged by accusations of cronyism and poor taste during Silvio Berlusconi’s presidency. Given the events of the past year in world politics, any such reflections might have a special poignancy at the 2017 biennale. This year’s curator, the Centre Pompidou’s Christine Macel, has announced that the theme of her show, ‘Viva Arte Viva’, aims to celebrate art’s capacity as an ‘act of resistance, of liberation and of generosity’: three things we might only hope for more of in the year to come.

Main image: Giacomo Grosso, Supremo covegno (The Final Tryst), 1895. Courtesy: Art Renewal Center

Tim Smith-Laing is a writer and critic based in London, UK. He is writing a novel based on the life of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and a biography of Lady Luck @TimSmith_Laing