In his Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel says that in art, the unfolding of truth and the revelations of world history are interlinked. He specifically notes the painting of the Venetians to be no mere decoration, but “a living need.” World history, truth, and the visual history of Venice are ever-present at the 57th Biennial, thanks in large part to the global reach of the artists invited, and the long tradition of art in this old city.
May 13 – November 26, 2017
The present Biennale is a very large exhibition. The official show has three parts. Christine Macel, who is curator, invited 120 artists from 51 countries to show in the pavilions on the east side of the city. There are also the individual freestanding displays of the participating countries; 31 in the Giardini and 25 more in the Arsenale, with others in various sites scattered around Venice. Then there are the 23 collateral events including, Philip Guston and The Poets, housed in the Gallerie dell’Academia and James Lee Byars’s The Golden Tower at Campo San Vio, as well as officially unrelated presentations like Damien Hirst’s installation at Palazzo Grassi.
Philip Guston’s mini-retrospective is a marvelous, tightly curated display of 50 paintings, which reveals the dramatic transition from successful Abstract Expressionist works of the 1950s to his great political paintings. At the start is a painting in which he writes out the names of his artist-heroes: Masaccio, Piero, Giotto, Tiepolo and (in smaller letters) de Chirico. And in the first gallery Guston’s The Young Mother (1944) is juxtaposed with Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna con il bambino benedicente (1510). Here—and in the permanent collection of Academia— Guston’s distance from the old master Italians who inspired him is plainly visible. And if Guston’s fascination with the poetry of D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, and some other Italian and American writers links him to modernism, the political engagement of his figurative paintings—so utterly relevant right now—marks his entry into a later, very different visual tradition.
Mark Bradford’s installation, Tomorrow is Another Day, at the U.S. Pavilion is a triumph. Bradford uses paintings, mixed media constructions, and a video to create an impressive Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art expressing his social engagement in terms that owe something to Cy Twombly’s paintings, Marilyn Monroe’s 1953 film, Niagara, and his familial training as a hairdresser. Like Guston, Bradford offers a political commentary bringing together the traditions of high art, Hollywood culture, and his personal working class experience. It is an impressive synthesis.
I was fascinated, also, by Women of Venice in the Swiss Pavilion, a display of art by Carol Bove, and the collaborative duo Alexander Birchler and Teresa Hubbard, which turns on a historical consideration of the important Swiss artist, Alberto Giacometti. Hubbard and Birchler use a film to imagine the life of the obscure American artist, Flora Mayo, who studied in Switzerland and was Giacometti’s lover. Meanwhile, Bove responds to Giacometti’s late figurative work with a group of seven new steel sculptures, which develop his concerns in a contemporary idiom.
Just as the Carnegie International has little connection with the contemporary city of Pittsburgh, so the art in this Biennale seemingly has no visible relationship with the great Venetian tradition of painting, which lies right at hand. This is surely inevitable, for the art of Titian, Tintoretto and even Tiepolo has little to do with the concerns of Guston, Bradford, or most of the contemporary artists in this show. The world and the art world have changed too dramatically for that prior visual culture now to remain of more than historical interest.
If, then, we turn from the exhibition to look around at the painting of Venice, the commonality, the shared period style of this survey contemporary this art, will emerge. In his introduction to the Biennale Paolo Baratta, President of the exhibition, writes that the guiding theme is humanism in which “the artistic act is contemporaneously an act of resistance, of liberation and of generosity,” a humanism, which “celebrates mankind’s ability to avoid being dominated by the powers governing world affairs.” As he notes, in our culture visual art is expected to be politically critical, an ideal which has very little to do with the visual culture of the old masters. Ironically, Hirst’s grandiose display of wealth, which is perfectly at home in a villa along the Grand Canal, has more aesthetic affinities with that traditional Venetian art than does almost all of the art in the Biennale.
One way to understand the works in this contemporary art exhibition is to stop into the Academy and look upon the most famous painting in that collection, Giorgione’s Tempest (1506-08). Adrian Stokes provided a fine, eminently Hegelian account of the picture:
Spirit has been brought down from the skies to inhabit a plane, which the medieval world considered brutish. The observed appearance of an object successfully provided an aesthetic mode. The fantasies evoked by texture and chromatic interchange, purely aesthetic matters, expressed in terms of the senses, can provide an immediate yet profound commentary upon life.
Stokes, who was a great modernist aesthete, describes a visual culture that in the Biennale has all but disappeared.