by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Parisian Savior for the Biennale

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 10 June 1995
Roberto Capucci/photo Andrea Meltzi & Efrat Kuper
Fan Dress by Roberto Capucci, 1980



Italy's faction-ridden medieval republics sometimes found that the only solution to their chronic disorder was to call in a foreign podesta, or governor, to rule them. The city of Ragusa, now Dubrovnik, institutionalized the system. Machiavelli was an eager, though unsuccessful, candidate for the job there.

Last year, as the 100th anniversary drew near, this cumbersomely bureaucratic, administratively top-heavy institution appeared to opt for a similar course: it suprised just about everybody when it bypassed local Italian candidates and, for the first time, called in a complete outsider, Jean Clair, the man in charge of the Picasso Museum in Paris.

Though he had little time to prepare the event, the retiring, pipe-smoking academic has managed to place his stamp on this year's centenary Biennale, which opens this weekend and runs until Oct. 15.

Clair has made his presence felt through an enormous personal exhibition: 'Identita e Alterita', Identity and Otherness, or Identity and Alterity, as the catalogue would have it.

The central theme of the show is how a wide range of artists have viewed and presented the human body in general and the face in particular over the last hundred years. To accommodate the show's 1,000 works, which include 600 paintings and 200 sculptures, Clair has filled Palazzo Grassi (FIAT's cultural flagship on the Grand Canal) with overspill sections of more recent works in the Correr Museum on St. Mark's Square and the Italian pavilion in the Biennale Gardens in Castello.

Clair is fascinated by the influence of scientific and technical innovations - the invention of cinema, X-ray - on the vision of artists. The canvases and sculptures are paralleled by photographs, from studies of the human body in motion and pictures from police archives to masks of racial 'types' and gadgets such as one to measure the human skull.

Clair illustrates how, in an age of mass destruction, artists have tended to see the human body no longer as a classical whole but fragmented into constituent parts. Nazi and fascist art is interestingly seen to run against this trend, producing spuriously 'wholesome' ideal beings, like those in Adolf Wissel's 'Kalenberg Farming Family' (1939), a chilling painting that contrasts dramatically with Felix Nussbaum's 'Self-Portrait With Jewish Passport' (1943).

Many famous artists are represented in the show - from Matisse, Picasso and Munch to De Chirico, Bacon and Hockney - but not necessarily by their most famous works. There are other discoveries to be found here in a thought-provoking show that will delight anyone interested in 20th-century art.

Deliberately or not, the exhibition is a notable counterblast to Achille Bonito Oliva's 1993 Biennale, in that almost all Clair's selections are figurative, even in the more recent sections, whereas to find such works anywhere in the Biennale's multiple spaces two years ago was an uphill task.

The city of Venice decided to mount its own historical retrospective of the institution at the Doge's Palace, curated by Giandomenico Romanelli. The selection of some 170 pieces is rich and rewarding. Again there are fine works by artists little known today, as well as by figures such as Klimt and leading Italian 20th century painters and sculptors.

The city show also has a section with some 400 exhibits at Ca' Pesaro on the Grand Canal, covering the applied arts (including a large glass section) that were also shown in the first Biennales. On the top floor of Ca' Pesaro is an astonishing cycle of monochrome art-nouveau murals done by Aristide Sartorio for the 1907 Biennale. These should not be missed (though visitors are allowed to see them only on request).

Clair created a rumpus by deciding to cancel the Aperto, or Open, section for young artists, previously held at the Corderie, the Arsenal's old Rope Walk. He contended that the building is not in good enough condition and that the event has often been of uneven quality.

He did not characterize this as a permanent abolition of the event. But in the absence of a special space to show young artists, countries including the Netherlands and Britain have set up their own shows (the former in the cloisters of San Francesco della Vigna, the latter in the Scuola San Pasquale, next door to the church).

The Netherlands is the only country I am aware of with an 'art mountain' to parallel Europe's beef mountains and wine lakes. It consists largely of otherwise unsalable works bought from Dutch artists by the state as a form of government subsidy. The Duchampist works on show at the cloisters may, one suspects, share the same fate. The British works, too, will appeal only to die-hard fans of today's often state-sponsored 'avant-garde'.

Most of the national pavilions in the Biennale Gardens offer little of great excitement, though the fashion designer Roberto Capucci's sculpture dresses in the Italian pavilion are fun and beautifully made. These pieces are not designed to be worn by any living woman, but to stand on their own as works of art, an amusing comment on the near-naked models the couturiers have been sending down the catwalks of late.

Equally enjoyable is a show held jointly by Allen Ginsberg and the Japanese artist Hiro Yamagata at the Zitelle Cultural Center on the island of Giudecca (until Sept. 15, closed July 1 to 5) . The beat poet turns out to be a skillful photographer. His pictures, which document not only his own life but also those of confreres such as William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac, are poignant, sensitive and revealing. Hiro Yamagata, who says he was inspired by Ginsberg, has produced an extraordinary set of motor cars by cannibalizing the wrecks of dozens of Mercedes-Benz Cabriolet 220As, restoring them to mint condition and painting them in glorious technicolor.

Some Italian critics have been waiting for Jean Clair's Biennale to fall on its face, speaking of him as if he were a new Machiavelli incarnate. It is a pleasure to report that he seems triumphantly to have saved the Biennale from itself.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024