Location, Location, Location….Oh and a Bit of History too!

-The history of the Venice Biennale has shaped what it has developed into today as a contemporary event.  Venice, as a location, also has a historical background that has affected the exhibition on various degrees.  Through it all though, the bonds the Biennale has to the city has made the institution unique.

On 1895, the Venice Biennale was officially founded by the city of Venice as King Umberto I’s silver anniversary present to Queen Margherita in 1893 as a form of compassion for cultural contribution.   Initially an invitational and solely one nation event, the Biennale turned international shortly after its establishment. [1]  The first location for the exhibition was at a public garden within the Castello district, towards the Lido, near the opening of the Grand Canal, known as the Giardini (The Gardens).  This venue was chosen because it was accessible position to transport artwork in and out.  The Giardini was and still is the site of the central exhibition space.  Decorative arts were a main focus at the emergence of the Venice Biennale’s attempt to collaborate with influences from the Salon exhibiting styles.  From the ornately decorated pavilions, to the artwork which mainly consisted of painting and sculpture, there was a prominent reference to Italy’s lavish and historical past. [2]  Within the specific selection of special commissioners, the personalities of the shows were subject to change from one edition to the next.  A natural growth toward internationalism increased during the twentieth century, but accompanied with it, came a greater stress on national identity.  As more nations participated, the success of the Venice Biennale amplified, revealed in the attendance and works sold rates over the years.  To accommodate those nations, more pavilions were built around the gardens until the end of the 1930’s when the Giardini was settled to its present form.  Additional real estate was then purchased on the other side of the Grand Canal to allow for the formation of more international pavilions. [3]
On January 13, 1930 Vittorio Emanuele signed the law N.3229 of 1928, naming the Venice Biennale a legitimate permanent establishment through the Esposizone Biennale Internationale d’Arte with reign over other Italian shows. [4]  The Central Pavilion turned exclusively Italian in its exhibition in 1934 while handing over responsibility of each pavilion and artwork within to the appointed foreign commissioners of each nation. [5]  The 1930’s also became the decade of new genre of events such as the 1930 Music Festival, the 1932 International Film Festival, and the 1934 Theatre Festival to both the Biennale and Venice. [6]  Both World Wars, the Cold War, and Italy’s Fascist political views affected the Biennale and how the organization was run.  However,  these shifts in the exhibition’s history, though complex, did not run the Biennale off course completely.  The earlier Biennale exhibitions of the nineteenth century were confounded with many restrictions, but heading into the twentieth century, some restrictions and censorships began to lift.  The growth of styles and tastes grew towards a more abstract and international interpretation with artists’ moves to oppose earlier artistic styles of realistic and “academic art.” [7]  Venice and the Biennale evolved into a communication center for the world as the organization expanded into an esteemed global institution.
By 1956, the Biennale shifted away from the historical emphasis in exhibition’s art to focus on the importance of new (avant-garde) art. [8]  Private art became the prominent concentration of the exhibitions.  This referred to work completed without previous commission which restrict the artistic liberties of the work created by the artists. [9]  The need to stress national identity developed more significantly during this time as well.  Within the Giardini, a themed exhibition was and still is held, which is curated by an appointed director.  National reputations became more competitive with the buildup of international interactions.  Around this time the documentation of artists at work in their studios through photographs, magazines, and newspapers, suddenly permitted the audience to have a closer relationship to the art than previously allowed.  The wider distribution of artwork through reproduction also served to build a stronger bond with the masses.  As a result of these factors, avant-garde developed into the focus of discussion. [10]

The twenty-first century exhibitions have evolved from the Biennale’s past and yet, have continued its development in the art field.  In 2005, the fifty-first edition of the Venice Biennale, Maria de Corral [11] and Rosa Martinez [12] became the first women to curate the show.  In 2007, Robert Storr was appointed the first director for the United States of America. [13]  Within the same year, Mexico had its official debut in Venice. [14]  For the fifty-third edition in 2009, more countries such as Andorra, Gabon, Montenegro, Pakistan, Principality of Monaco, South Africa, and United Arab Emirates also plan to participate for the first time.  Swedish curator Daniel Birnbaum has been selected as the artistic director and on October 31, 2008 Birnbaum met with country representatives to outline the upcoming event.  As commonly formatted, the Giardini and the Arsenale will be the main venues.  The Biennale will be open from June 7th through November 22nd, 2009, and Birnbaum has entitled his themed exhibition Making Worlds // Fare Mondi // Bantin Duniyan // Weltenmachen // Construire des Mondes // Fazer Mundos.  According to Birnbaum, Making Worlds, will not be separated into pre-organized sections, but alternatively weave connecting themes into the whole show. [15]  Birnbaum quotes three definite features will be covered:
1.  The proximity to the processes of producton, which “wil result in an exhibition that remains closer to    the sites of creation and education (the studio, the workshop) than the traditional museum show, which tends to highlight only the finished work itself. Some of the works – declared Birnbaum – will represent     worlds in the making. A work of art is more than an object, more than a commodity. It represents a vision of the world, and if taken seriously it can be seen as a way of world making.”
2.  The relationship between some key artists and successive generations: “A number of historical reference points will anchor the exhibition. These artistic roots are still active, productive. They give energy to the branches of the tree of art, and perhaps also to that which emerges today, to the ‘sprouts’. I would like to explore strings of inspiration that involve several generations and to display the roots as well as the branches that grow into a future not yet defined.”
3.  An exploration of drawing and painting, with respect to recent developments and the presence in the latest editions of the Biennale of many videos and installations: “the emphasis on the creative process and on things in the making will not exclude works in classical media.” [16]

The location of the Venice Biennale is expertly divided into a complex structure which creates divisions as well as holds onto the deep rooted bonds that connect the exhibition to the city.  Venice has a historical background of independence.  Separating itself from Italy not only politically and religiously, Venice is actually physically detached from mainland Italy.  This city itself mostly a man-made series of islands broken up into even smaller islands by interlacing canals.  Being constantly surrounded by water adds a majestic sentiment to the islands of temporary worlds that the Biennale attempts to create.  The Biennale’s central location, the Giardini, is surrounded by several other national pavilions also located within this space.  The rest of the national pavilions can be found spread throughout the city.  The distribution of the exhibition makes it difficult to view the exhibition in its entirety as you are trying to find your way around the city. [17]  The architectural aspects of the city make the Biennale a unique experience as well.  Prominent Byzantine and Gothic influences are a constant reminder to the audience of the bond the event has with the city.  Having such an international and contemporary institution in a city strewn with these historical artistic periods creates a dramatic atmospheric quality that makes the Venice Biennale extraordinarily unique.  From one show to the next, new artists are given space and freedom to transform their own tiny temporary worlds based on their artwork and vision.  When thinking economically, art is used to promote certain cities.   Commonly known as “The Sinking City,” Venice could not have been a better place to conduct the most widely known contemporary art show in the world.  The amount of tourism and press that the Biennale brings in is essential to the survival of Venice with its financial needs for restoring and conserving the city’s structures from Mother Nature and the results of time.

1. Lawrence Alloway. The Venice Biennale 1895-1968; From Salon to Goldfish Bowl (Greenwich,     Connecticut: New York Graphic Society LTD., 1968 L.A., 31.
2. Lawrence Alloway, 51.

3. Lawrence Alloway, 105.
4. Lawrence Alloway, 113.
5. Lawrence Alloway, 112.
6. La Biennale di Venezia. La Biennale di Venezia, 2007, revised 2008.     http://www.labiennale.org/en/. 21     November 2008.

7. Lawrence Alloway, 113.
8. Lawrence Alloway, 140.
9. Lawrence Alloway, 147.
10. Lawrence Alloway, 148-149.
11. 51. International Art Exhibition; The Experience of Art (San Marco: Fonazione La Biennale di Venezia,     2005).
12. 51. International Art Exhibition; Always a Little Further (San Marco: Fonazione La Biennale di     Venezia, 2005).

13. La Biennale di Venezia.
14. La Biennale di Venezia.
15. La Biennale di Venezia.

16. La Biennale di Venezia..
17. Artefacta, un Viaggio Multimediale Dentro la Biennale di Venezia. TreccaniLab, 2007.          http://www.treccanilab.com/biennale_di_venezia/. 21 November 2008.

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