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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Venice Biennale

As we arrived in Venice this summer, it was hard to ignore Marc Quinn's Alison Lapper Pregnant, perched in front of Palladio's San Giorgio Maggiore just across the water from St. Mark's Square. The inflated sculpture, depicting a pregnant woman handicapped by the drug, Thalidomide, was part of the British presence at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
A few days ago, in exploring the art of the early abstract expressionist, Hyman Bloom (08-24-13), I mentioned in passing his having been a part of the American delegation to the 1950 Venice Biennale (Biennial, in English). I called it in the briefest terms, "the world's most prestigious international art competition." It is that, of course, but so much more. We might be tempted to call it "the World Series of art," though that phrase may be too American to be appropriate. Perhaps a better designation would be "world's fair of art," though these once popular international extravaganzas are now becoming somewhat rare, not to mention inconsequential. That does not describe the Biennale (pronounced bee-en-AL-ee). Held, as the name suggests, every other year (odd numbered years since 1993) it's about as consequential as the world of art gets these days. Likewise, the image of a world's fair with dozens of national pavilions in a park-like setting is quite accurate. The United States has had a (somewhat dated, architecturally) pavilion there since 1930.

The American pavilion, circa 1930, seemingly designed by
Thomas Jefferson with an assist by Louis Sullivan.
Venice's Giardini, the World's Fair of Art.
The Giardini, is a large park on the eastern tip of the main Venetian islands. Though ignored by the city's populace and somewhat rundown most of the time, every two years the park is immaculately spruced up to host the Biennale. I counted thirty permanent pavilions on the map (above), the largest being Italian (of course) the smallest, next door, that of Iceland. The American pavilion is near the center, in a "U" shape accentuating a modest Greek portico, probably thought to be quite appropriate eighty years ago, though hardly an exemplar of American architecture today. Each pavilion houses what is presumably the best that country has to offer in the way of art, with each curator striving to out-stun visitors with their artistic daring. Countries not having pavilions display at various palazzos elsewhere in Venice. Work too large for inside display is likewise farmed out to various important sites around the city. One such work I couldn't help but notice was that of British artist, Marc Quinn (top). My question was, in seeing this eye-catching piece displayed on the piazza just to the left of Palladio's San Giorgio Maggiore, "I wonder if anyone asked the local parishioners if the they wanted a huge, pregnant, naked woman on their front doorstep?"

The Venice Biennale, 1954, Francis Bacon,
Lucien Freud, and Henry Moore were the headliners.
The Venice Biennale first began in 1895 as little more than a local art show run by the city emphasizing the sale of local decorative arts. As the 20th century dawned, the show gradually became international. From 1907 on, permanent national pavilions began to pop up with Argentina being one of the first. After WW I modern art raised its startling head as many modern day art icons began to display their work. Names such as Braque, Matisse, Calder, Dufy, Arp, Giacometti, and Rauschenberg dot the list of prize winners. By 1930, the show had grown too big for the city of Venice to handle, so it was passed off to the country's fascist government which initiated similar, but separate, festivals in music, film, architecture, and dance during the off years. What had, before, been mostly an art sales event became a true competition as Grand Prizes were initiated for painting and sculpture. Such prizes were abandoned in 1968 in favor of a lifetime achievement award and another for "Best Pavilion." Called the Leone de'Oro (Golden Lion), this list has since grown to include two more categories, Best Artist and Best Young Artist.

The 2013 Venice Biennale Russian pavilion
---beautiful, highly scientific, and I didn't understand a work of it.
After time-out to have a world war, the Biennale became more about prizes than sales, which were officially suspended in 1968. In more recent years, the Post-Modern era has seen the Venice Biennale become far more about the making of artists' international reputations than selling or even winning prizes. The 2013 show hosted some 300,000 visitors, though the real audience came via television and the Internet. Mere paintings (no matter how large) hanging on pristine white walls are ignored in favor of room-size installations, ostensibly promoting some important theme or protesting some social injustice, but all too often seemingly more intent upon shocking the viewer or creating massive, stunning, visual impressions. However, stunning people gets to be harder and harder every two years. In defining the Venice Biennale, perhaps it would be best to call it a barometer registering the state of art in the world today.
Spiral of the Galaxy, a giant bronze seashell also by Marc Quinn.
My first impulse was in wanting to touch it. A guard nearby said, no in Italian.


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