The Venice Biennale, one of international art’s biggest events, is where art lovers and the “who’s who” of the art world flock to see new trends and ground-breaking works by the greatest artists of our time and others whose names are barely known outside their home countries.
The result can be inspiring and overwhelming: shows scattered throughout one of the world’s most awe-inspiring cities and in the Biennale’s two main venues, often on a grand scale, focusing on painting, sculpture, experimental media, photography and the latest forms of artistic expression.
From its founding in 1895, the Biennale, has expanded by fits and starts, becoming a worldwide event in the first decades of the 20th century when countries started building their national pavilions in the Giardini (Venice’s public gardens). In the 1930s other cultural events were added under the Biennale umbrella organization, a foundation that also operates the annual Venice Film Festival and festivals dedicated to architecture, music, theater and dance.
A six-year hiatus during World War II shut down the Biennale but the event restarted in 1948 with more vigor than ever, with a retrospective of Picasso (his first appearance at the Biennale at age 67) and works by artists Ernst, Dali, Kandinsky, Klee, Miro and Mondrian representing Cubism and Surrealism trends.
The Biennale became known for exhibiting avant-garde art, including abstract expressionism in the 1950s and, in a controversial move, recognizing Pop Art when it awarded its top prize to Robert Rauschenberg in 1964 (prompting French critics to decry the Biennale for introducing American “cultural colonization”).
Sometimes, the exhibits are political: in 1968 artists from many countries took part in the student protest movements and, in solidarity with demonstrators, covered up their art or turned them over. In 1974 the entire Biennale was devoted to the country of Chile as a protest against the dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Art Scattered Across Venice
The main exhibit of the Biennale is located in the Giardini, a sprawling park that features a large Central Pavilion housing the works curated by the festival’s director. Each year, the Biennale is curated by a different director, who gives the show a theme and chooses the exhibits in the Central Pavilion (the original site of the Biennale) and in the Arsenale, the historic fortress-like shipyard and armory from the era when Venice was a major world power.
In 2013, for example, the main show was entitled “The Encyclopedic Palace” by chief curator Massimiliano Gioni of the New Museum in Manhattan. Gioni took inspiration from an 11-foot-high tower by Italian-American artist Marino Aurito, who intended the tower as a model for a monument to human achievement and ethical values.
The Giardini also houses 29 smaller pavilions clustered around Central Pavilion, owned and operated by the individual countries that participate in the Biennale. They include the European nations and world’s large countries, such as China, Brazil, Russia, the United States, and much smaller countries. Newcomers in 2013 were Angola, the Bahamas, Bahrain, the Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, the Maldives, Paraguay, Tuvalu and the Vatican.
Many countries have their pavilions run by their ministries of culture, but others choose to fund their pavilions differently. The U.S. Pavilion, which was built in 1930 by the Grand Central Art Galleries, an artist cooperative, opened with works by Edward Hopper, Henry Tanner, among many others. Since 1985, the pavilion has been operated by the Guggenheim Foundation, which works with the U.S. Department of State and other federal agencies to review proposals and select artists for inclusion in the U.S. exhibit.
Bigger and Bigger
Each Biennale is larger than the last, attracting more and more art lovers from around the world. In 2013, the Biennale featured the works of 150 artists housed in 88 country pavilions and counted 475,000 visitors during the seven months after it opened its doors. Included for the first time was the Vatican, which commissioned a group of artists to create a modern interpretation of the first chapters of the book of Genesis.
Visitors to the Biennale are drawn in many directions in dreamy Venice, on long walks on maze-like passageways or boat rides along sun-dappled canals and lagoons. They absorb a diverse selection of art showcased not only in the main venues but in galleries, grand palaces, churches and smaller museums, with art critics, journalists and art collectors setting the tone for the most discussed works on display. The result is an enthralling and heady mix of art—and the glorious setting of one of the world’s most magical cities makes the exhibitions even more thrilling.