The origins and the first Biennials

Deliberated by the Municipality of Venice on April 19, 1893, to celebrate the silver wedding of King Umberto and Margherita di Savoia, the first national biennial art exhibition was inaugurated two years after April 30, 1895. A special statute was drawn up which provided for the invitation to the major Italian and foreign artists, leaving space also for the works of uninvited Italian painters and sculptors; each artist could participate with a maximum of two works never exhibited in the national territory.

The building that hosted the first edition was erected in a very short time in the public gardens of Castello and the royals of Savoy took part in its inauguration; the number of visitors to the first International Art Exhibition in the city of Venice was more than 200 thousand. Many prizes and awards but the work that caused the greatest stir, for the topic considered rough (a dying man surrounded by the bodies of naked women) was the Supreme conference of Giacomo Grosso, rewarded by a popular referendum.

In 1897, the second Art Exhibition was held, in conjunction with the establishment of the Gallery of Modern Art in Venice, and it was decided to convert the prizes into purchases, for the benefit of national and local art galleries. A Critics' Award was also established, which on the one hand was an impulse and stimulus for the production of articles and reviews, improving their level, on the other it marked a stage in the history of contemporary art criticism. The prize was awarded to Primo Levi and a second place ex aequo to Ugo Ojetti and Vittorio Pica.

Considering the good relations between Italy and Germany, the first biennials saw German art as protagonist, which already in 1899 presented Klimt's Judith II. The first guilds began, groups of artists who proposed their collectives at public exhibitions forbidding associates to exhibit independently; the Biennale allowed them to exhibit the works in their rooms.

It was only two years later that the Biennale opened to French art with an exhibition of French landscape architects from the 1930s, welcoming works by Corot and Millet and twenty sculptures by Rodin's solo exhibition. The decorative arts were exhibited starting from the fifth Biennale (1903) which involved an important innovation: the preparation of the exhibition halls including the furnishings.

With the passing of the editions, there was an opening towards American art, in particular Sargent in 1907 and Barlett in 1909; also in 1907, the Tolstoian witness of the Russian traditions Repin, as well as Bakst, costume designer and decorator of Russian ballets, also participated.

It was only from 1910 that the international presence at the Biennale took on considerable importance: it was precisely in that year, in fact, that the rooms dedicated to Klimt were opposed to the one reserved for Renoir, but the works by Courbet and Monticelli were also remarkable.

The current of Expressionism, which arose in Dresden in 1903, only crossed the gates of Venice 11 years after its birth and Picasso himself could only find a place in the Spanish pavilion in late 1948.

The Italian pictorial current saw that of the nineteenth century predominate, to which the symbolist style was gradually added and then gradually opened up to other currents also due to the young reactionaries of Cà Pesaro; this allowed the sculptor Medardo Rosso to be able to exhibit in 1914 with a personal exhibition.

The biennial cadence of the Venetian Exhibition had only one interruption: from 1914 to 1920, due to the Great War.

The first foreign pavilions were built starting from 1907, the first ever was that of Belgium then Great Britain, Germany and Hungary in 1909, three years later it was the turn of France and Sweden and, after only a year, the Swedish pavilion was ceded to Holland. Currently, in the Giardini area there are 29 pavilions and nations without pavilions exhibit in various locations located in the historic center.

The Biennale and the two wars

In the first post-war period, the new Secretary General of the Vittorio Pica Biennale was particularly interested in the Impressionists and in 1920 the works of artists of the caliber of Cézanne, Matisse, Van Gogh and Hodler were exhibited in the French, Dutch and Swiss pavilions. Pica, in 1922, presented Modigliani's first retrospective and organized an exhibition of black sculpture; for health reasons, he had to resign 4 years later.

An important year was 1928: the first Archive of the Biennale was inaugurated, called the Historical Institute of Contemporary Art. In 1930, the Biennale was transformed into an Autonomous Body and its control passed from the Municipality of Venice to that of the Fascist State.

Due to the Second World War, only 10 nations participated in the 1942 edition while the next two, 1944 and 1946, were skipped.

The first post-war edition of 1948 saw a review of the avant-garde and 19 paintings by Pablo Picasso and the Peggy Guggenheim collection were exhibited. The participants of this edition were only fifteen due to the problems that arose as a result of the devastation of the war, but despite the absences, those present could count on very important names in the contemporary and non-contemporary artistic sphere: from Morandi to de Chirico, reaching the great protagonists of the art of the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thus ranging from the Impressionists to the Austrians Kokoschka and Schiele, from Henry Moore to Ensor and from Arturo Martini to Mino Maccari.

The 1948 edition was also important because it marks the arrival of Rodolfo Pallucchini as Secretary General, a position he held for the subsequent five editions of the post-war Biennale. Pallucchini thus managed to define the development of the great European avant-garde, except for Dadaism, making the connections underlying the art of his time easy to understand for the Italian population. The following edition of 1950 marked the full affirmation of Cubism, Futurism, the Fauves and Balue Reiter thanks to the corresponding exhibitions, but what characterized the success of the exhibition was the discovery and great success of the Mexican painters Joe Orozco, Diego Rivera , David Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo, the masters of Central American Muralism.

The fifties and sixties

The 1952 Biennale is instead remembered for having brought the Division of Previati and Segantini and the French Pointillism of Signac and Seurat to rediscovery, in addition to the splendid exhibition of prints by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec set up in the Napoleonic Halls. In the American sphere, Jackson Pollock was the undisputed master. Two years later, in 1954, the International Art Exhibition was instead marked by the definition of the primary characters of Surrealism, as well as by the extraordinary exhibitions dedicated to Gustave Coubert, Edvard Munch, Paul Klee and Renee Magritte.

In 1956 Pallucchini gave way to Gian Alberto Dell'Acqua, who held the position of Secretary General until 1968: these were the years of the diffusion of contemporary art, but above all of the great critics capable of moving the world of culture to them will. It was thanks to international critics that the informal movement had its explosion at the 1960 Biennale, with Hans Hartung but especially with our local Emilio Vedova.

Particularly original was the 1964 edition, which saw the exploit of the American Robert Rauschenberg and subsequent Pop Art across the old continent. The Biennale of 1966 was completely different: Optical Art, Kinetic and Programmed art, installations at the Gardens, but especially Franco Fontana and his revolutionary vision of art. But it was certainly the 1968 edition that marked a moment of particular importance for international culture: the dispute completely affected the Venice Art Exhibition, and many countries joined it by covering or turning the works of their symbol-artists. The Central Pavilion hosted an extraordinary exhibition entitled Research lines, with authors such as Kazimir Malevich, Marcel Duchamp, the aforementioned Rauschenberg and many others. In the Italian context of great impact was the Prize awarded to Gianni Colombo and Pino Pascali, the master of contemporary art who passed away too early, just a month before the great event.

The seventies and eighties

The 1968 contest had strong repercussions in the following years: in 1970 the Grand Prix was abolished, which would have been restored only in 1986. It was also decided not to organize monographic and celebratory exhibitions, opting for those dedicated mainly to a well-defined and suitable for contemporary styles. The new Secretary General was Umbro Apollonio. The 1972 edition was characterized by the figure of Mario Penelope, elected the previous year as Extraordinary Commissioner for the Figurative Arts, but the most emblematic moment was that relating to the work of Gino De Dominicis who, against common opinion, decided to introduce a boy suffering from down syndrome with a sign around his neck in which the inscription "Second solution of immortality: the universe is immobile" was printed. But all the 70s were marked by scandalous and tumultuous events: in 1974 the edition was dedicated to Chile, showing that the Biennale could become the most effective instrument of cultural protest against the political dramas of the contemporary world. Italian and international artists created works throughout the city of Venice, especially murals postponing their solidarity with the Chilean people.

In 1976 the ASAC, the Historical Archives of Contemporary Arts, and the Archives of the Biennale were inaugurated, while the theme chosen for the Exhibition was Environment and Art. The 1978 edition marked Luigi Scarpa's work in the field of visual arts: the theme chosen was From nature to art and was inspired by Kandinsky's quote "great abstraction, great realism". The Central Pavilion was curated by Achille Bonito Oliva, who defined the exhibition route through six points centered on paintings by Kandinskij himself, Pietr Mondrian, Giorgio De Chirico, Umberto Boccioni, Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Duchamp, George Braque and Pablo Picasso.

The fabulous 80s of the Biennale were defined by the thought of the newly appointed Giuseppe Galasso at the helm of the historic Exhibition while Luigi Carluccio was included in the development of the Visual Arts. That of 1980 was marked by countless artistic events scattered throughout the city: from the exhibition dedicated to Balthus in the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista to the one on modern Czechoslovak art set up in Ca 'Pesaro, passing through the great initiative "Open '80" in the former Magazzini del Sale, a special section dedicated to the young artistic levers that had particular success even in the following years. Precisely in this new section the future masters of the transavantgarde exhibited, Mimmo Paladino, Francesco Clemente, Nicola De Maria, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi.

The title of the 1982 exhibition was "art as art: persistence of the work" but the exhibition dedicated to Consantin Brancusi and the one dedicated to Egon Schiele were very important. In 1984 the famous architect Paolo Portoghesi arrived, who was head of the institution until 1992. The main exhibition was dedicated to artistic Vienna from the Secession until the end of the Habsburg Empire, however set up in Palazzo Grassi, but the whole of the Biennale it was marked by the theme linked to the relationship between art and history. The 1986 International Art Exhibition had art and science as its main theme. It was divided into two main areas: "between past and present" and "in the age of exact sciences". The American Pavilion was placed under the control of the MOMA and the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation. The last exhibition of the 1980s was instead titled "The place of the artists". The absolute protagonist was Jasper Johns, while in the youth sector the lights turned on the figure of Barbara Bloom.

The nineties

The last decade of the past century began with the 1990 exhibition, directed by Giovanni Carandente. It was titled "Future Dimension", and had as its main theme in the central pavilion "Ambiente Berlin", an extraordinary exhibition dedicated to all those artists who had lived in Berlin prior to the fall of the Wall. Bonito Oliva instead organized an exhibition in Giudecca entitled "Ubi Fluxus ibi Motus". Some works are highly criticized, especially that relating to the AIDS drama exhibited by the US group Grand Fury (which caused a stir among the ranks of the clergy) and that of Damien Hirst with the subject of a sectioned cow carcass. The following Biennale had forty-five participating countries, and many tributes to the great artists (painters and otherwise) of past and present years, such as Francis Bacon, John Cage and Peter Greenaway. this edition took place in 1993, therefore a year behind the historical canons, in order to make the next coincide with the centenary of the historic Exhibition which was then in 1995. It was entrusted for the first time to a foreign director, specifically Jean Clair. Heterogeneous exhibitions were made throughout the city, all with different cultural themes. 1997 was the year of Germano Celant, the very famous Italian art historian. The main theme was developed around the future, the present and the past, ideally bringing together artists of different generations and work developments. On January 23 of the successful year, the legislative decree for the transformation of the Biennale into a "cultural society La Biennale di Venezia" was approved. In this way, six specific sectors were developed: architecture, visual arts, cinema, theater, music and finally dance.

Recent years

The first Biennial of the new millennium took place in 2001, with the title "Platea dell'Umanità". Among the major works on display is that of Joseph Beuys, "The end of the twentieth century". The 2003 Biennale, under the command of Francesco Bonami, was entitled "Dreams and Conflicts - The spectator's dictatorship" and had a very strong following of visitors, reaching over 260,000 tickets sold. In 2005, the Fifty-first International Art Exhibition was held, and for the first time in the history of the Biennale, two women were at the top of the main exhibitions set up respectively at the Giardini and Arsenale with the title of "Experience of art" and "Always farther". The appeal of visitors was increasingly greater, reaching almost 920,000 interested parties between the official offices and those scattered throughout the lagoon city.

The 2007 Biennale recorded one of the highest influxes in the history of the Exhibition: with 76 national pavilions and 34 events in the city center, it was the most visited exhibition in the country, receiving a very high public consensus in the last thirty years of the Biennale's life. 2009 is the turn of "Fare Mondi - Making Words", a Biennale curated by the Swedish Daniel Birnabum and strengthened by the union under a single theme of the two historic sites of the Arsenale and the Gardens, obtaining remarkable success the Italian Pavilion, totally renovated and doubled. The 2011 Biennale, curated by the critic Bice Curinger, was entitled "Illuminations", had a huge following of the public, exceeding 440,000 visitors with an increase of about 18% compared to the previous Biennale. The participating countries were eighty-nine, while the artists who first participated in the art exhibition history were about thirty-two. In addition to the official itineraries and the ten-year exhibitions outside the originally arranged venues, the series of meetings called "Meetings on Art" was extremely successful, which allowed the public to get in touch with the world of the arts by authoritative characters such as Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Germano Celant, Ulrich Obrist and many other exponents of the great and mysterious universe of art.


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