by Roderick Conway Morris

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Beyond the Biennale

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 16 October 2010
Jean-Pierre Gabriel
Fortuny's studio with small canvas by Marco Tirelli



This city has no permanent museum of contemporary art. Perhaps it has not felt the need of one because every two years the international contemporary art world descends on Venice en masse for the Visual Arts Biennale, which for months occupies scores of locations all around the city.

And one great advantage of the Biennale is that when it ends and the exhibits are all packed up, some (mercifully) are never seen again.

In any case there's something paradoxical about a contemporary art museum. The longer the exhibits sit around, the less contemporary they become. The French multi-millionaire François Pinault took over Palazzo Grassi, FIAT's flagship special exhibitions space on the Grand Canal in 2005, and added the refurbished Dogana, or Customs House (on which he flies his own Breton flag) to his empire last year. He uses both spaces primarily to showcase his own collection of post-modern art, and quite a number of the pieces in Pinault's current display at Palazzo Grassi go back forty or nearly fifty years.

Which is not to say that the city does not have its own home-grown contemporary art scene.

Many of Venice's commercial art galleries are concentrated in the central San Marco district, within a 'contemporary art triangle' of streets and squares between Palazzo Grassi, the Fenice Opera House and Palazzo Fortuny, with a cluster of them around the Fenice and another grouping in and around the tiny San Samuele area behind Palazzo Grassi.

Veronese had his studio-house on the now gallery-lined Salizzada San Samuele. Casanova was born here, the illegitimate child of an actress and an aristocratic theatrical entrepreneur, and played the violin in the San Samuele theater, where his mother performed. Byron lived here with his menagerie of exotic animals and mistresses. At various points in its history San Samuele was chiefly famous for its prostitutes.

On a recent Saturday morning stroll around the warren of narrow alleys these ladies of the night used to inhabit, I came across an amateur local artist at work on his latest compositions: arrangements of carrots and apples in the iron window-grills of his house. The descendant of a Polish officer who settled down with a Venetian girl in the mid 19th century, Paolo Paitowsky photographs these eccentric still-lifes and enters them in photographic competitions.

FIAT's acquisition of Palazzo Grassi and the nearly 20-year-long run of blockbuster exhibitions it held there brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to San Samuele and encouraged the blossoming of the neighborhood's cosmopolitan gallery scene. This was also a period when Venice's traditional stores were closing as population figures declined and children became reluctant to follow their parents into those old-style family businesses. The spaces left vacant attracted a new generation of aspiring gallerists.

The galleries are small and some represent only one or a limited range of artists. This is partly due to the economic squeeze, with galleries falling back on reliable sellers to pay the rent rather than taking risks by showing untried artists. It is also sometimes on account of Italy's arcane, restrictive licensing laws, which make it easier to open an 'artisanal' outlet, authorized to display only one type of product (in this case those of a single artist).

While the opening of a Palazzo Grassi show during the FIAT days was an event, as any of the San Samuele galleries will tell you now, Pinault has so far failed to create the same buzz. This has spurred the galleries to try some new initiatives of their own. Fifteen of them clubbed together last month for a 'Three Days in September' jamboree during the opening of the Architectural Biennale and the Venice Film Festival, with late-night openings and drinks parties.

Although Palazzo Grassi may have not quite sunk without trace in Venice's 'contemporary art triangle', the number of visitors appears to have dwindled to a trickle - hardly surprisingly given the present show has been going on there since the last Visual Arts Biennale in 2009 and will remain in place until April next year, when it will have run for nearly two years. How edgy is that?

However, as Palazzo Grassi has taken on a somnolent air, activity at Palazzo Fortuny, at another corner of the triangle, has been on the up and up, with regular changes of featured artists, culminating in the recent inauguration of seven simultaneous temporary exhibitions across its four floors (which continue until January 9).

Mariano Fortuny y Madrazo arrived in Venice from Granada in 1899, four years after the first Venice Biennale. He took a studio in the attic of the 15th-century Palazzo that now bears his name. The multi-talented Spanish artist gradually took over the rest of the palazzo floor by floor to accommodate his diverse activities as painter, engraver, sculptor, photographer, fabric-maker, fashion and theater designer, and inventor of a revolutionary theatrical lighting system and stylish domestic lamps.

At the time of his death in 1949 it was Fortuny's hope that Palazzo Fortuny would become a Spanish cultural center, but his homeland refused the legacy and, when his widow Henriette died in 1956, the Palazzo and its contents were left to Venice's municipality.

Since then the Palazzo has gone through phases of revival and neglect. But under the inspired leadership of its current director, Daniela Ferretti, the Fortuny has come very much alive again. Over the past couple of years Ferretti has curated a series of colorful and entertaining exhibitions, experimenting increasingly with the idea of mixing them in part with the permanent collection of Fortuny's works - a successful formula, both enhancing the contemporary pieces and highlighting the originality and creativity of Fortuny's own works.

Among the shows have been ones devoted to the art-deco designer George Barbier, the sculptor-couturier Roberto Capucci, the sculptors Isabelle de Borchgrave, working with painted papers, and Francesco Candeloro, with laser-cut plexiglass.

The current exhibitions open on the ground floor with the furniture, fabrics and portraits of Dublin-born Nuala Goodman. On the second floor, the works of two contemporary artists - the painter Marco Tirelli, and sculptor and jewelry-maker Alberto Zorzi - are integrated with a rich variety of Fortuny pieces, including some beautiful additional examples of his fashions from two private collections. Two side rooms host a score of still-lifes by Giorgio Morandi, some on public show for the first time.

On the spacious floor above are large canvases of Marco Tirelli's subtle monochrome images of geometrical forms and architectural spaces. The top floor is shared by 11 installations in glass, copper, gold and found objects by Giorgio Vigna, and 'My Wild Places', 40 superb photographs by Luca Campigotto.

Born in Venice in 1962, Campigotto has traveled to the ends of the earth over the last twenty years to record these magnificent images of mountains, deserts, polar wildernesses, lakes and oceans - landscapes with what he describes as 'heroic dimensions' - and he has captured them with an unfailing eye and consummate technical skill.

A version of this article was published in the International Herald Tribune.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023