Preview: The 2019 Venice Biennale

The Biennale is monumental – this year 90 countries from around the world will be exhibiting along with 21 official collateral exhibitions, which are staged by public or not-for-profit galleries. On top of this, private art foundations will be displaying their wares around the city, bringing the total number of exhibitions on in Venice this year to over 150.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its size, the Biennale has a different feel from year to year, and below are some ideas of how the focus this year is different from previous Biennales.

More painting and major retrospectives

While national participants are tight-lipped about their shows before they open, there have been rumours that the Biennale this year will include more painting than previous years. Painting had been declared a ‘dead art’ by some critics – often the same critics who declared ceramics to be the ‘new art’ – although it continues to thrive as a contemporary art medium.

The suggestion that more attention will be given to painting this year is supported by some major retrospectives on in Venice this year, including Georg Baselitz at Venice’s Accademia, Luc Tuymans at Palazzo Grassi (reviewed below), Arshile Gorky at Ca Pesaro, and Sean Scully at San Giorgio Maggiore.

A major retrospective of works by the renowned German artist Georg Baselitz will be the first exhibition by a living artist to be presented at the Gallerie dell’Accademia. Pictured is Schlafzimmer (Bedroom), 1975, oil and charcoal on canvas (yes, it’s supposed to have this orientation!)

Beyond painting

There will, of course, be much more than painting to see and experience at the Biennale, which continues to present new media alongside the traditional. Of particular interest to an Australian audience is Angelica Mesiti’s work for the Australia Pavilion, which promises an immersive video piece exploring polyphony and cultural harmony.

Australian artist Angelica Mesiti, who’s artwork will be taking over the Australian Pavilion

But perhaps the most conceptually sophisticated and innovative work this year will be from New Zealand. New Zealand has for many years now punched above their weight on the international stage, presenting cutting edge, and often beautiful, work with a light touch.

New Zealand also wins the prize for the most elusive statement about their exhibition: “Dane [Mitchell] will create an ambitious new work that will speak to his interest in exploring how different forms of knowledge can intersect across the visible and the invisible. The sculptural project will be simultaneously present whilst hiding in plain sight. Broadcasts that give voice to invisible realms and phenomena will be transmitted throughout the city of Venice, conveyed by modern and contemporary technologies.”

The elusiveness of this statement is not down to artspeak. Some rumours and statements going around the art world about exactly what Dane Mitchell is doing in Venice suggest he has nailed it. Watch this space.

Giudecca Arts District

Giudecca, the long thin island that protects Venice from the south, has for many years been home to some excellent galleries and museums, including Casa di Tre Oci, which hosts world-class photography exhibitions (for the current exhibition, see our review below).

The island of Giudecca

This year sees the opening of the Giudecca Arts District – the first official art district in a city that overflows with art. The converted houses and industrial spaces host 11 galleries, give a home to three national pavilions, and provide artists with studio space (space is a rare commodity in Venice…). In this sense, the new precinct aims to benefit Venetians as much as it does the art lovers who come to the city for the Biennale.

But, while it is the first official arts district, it is conveniently close by vaporetto to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. San Giorgio Maggiore is best known for Palladio’s church, one of the landmarks of Venice, and the wonderful views its belfry offers over the city.

At the entrance to San Giorgio Maggiore, apart of the 2013 Biennale, stood Marc Quinn’s Breath – an 11 meter inflatable version of ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’

But behind the church is a line of former warehouses that overlook the city (and a marina for luxury yachts), which have in recent year been used by public and private art foundations as exhibition space. Of particular note amongst these is the Stanze del Vetro, which has internationally acclaimed exhibitions of glass art and glass design (this year’s exhibition is also reviewed below).

Our review of some of the major exhibitions coinciding with the Biennale

Academy Travel director, Robert Veel, fresh from a two-week tour of Venice, stayed on in Venice to catch the early-opening Biennale shows. The main purpose was to provide information for colleague Dr Nick Gordon who leads our two tours to the Biennale and Venice International Film Festival later in 2019. Here’s a review of some of the shows now available.

***** Letizia Battaglia: Photography as a life choice
Casa dei Tre Oci, Giudecca Island

This astounding retrospective of the work of Sicilian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia is as good as it gets. More than 300 images, many of them on display for the first time, focus on people: mainly the women, men and children of her native Palermo during the ‘years of lead’ in Italy in the 1970s and 80s. The intimate and revealing portraits show the poor, the celebrities, the police and the Mafiosi of the time. More than anything else the show provides a portrait of Battaglia herself – a non-conformist intellectual with a surprisingly romantic streak to her otherwise unavoidably political work. An excellent video allows Battaglia to speak for herself on her complex relationship with feminism, politics and photography. An added bonus is the venue itself, a rare example of art-nouveau melded with traditional Venetian architecture and great views of the Giudecca canal.

****½ Maurice Marinot: Glass, 1911-1934
Le stanze del vetro, San Giorgio Maggiore Island

The Giorgio Cini Foundation is renowned for its collection of glass art and the shows it puts on for the Biennale, and this year is no exception. French glass artist Maurice Marinot trained at the École des Baeux-Arts in Pairs and first exhibited in 1912. His unique output shows the influence of both the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles, though his is a unique voice. The carefully curated show traces Marinot’s output across three decades, and combines sketches and models with more than 200 pieces, with a variety of techniques including enamel, etching and acid. Just outside the Stanze del Vetro is another impressive work – contemporary Californian artist Pae White’s Qwalala, a monumental resin sculpture installed for the 2017 biennale.

**** Luc Tuymans: La Pelle
Palazzo Grassi

With Venice’s Punta della dogana and the Palazzo Grassi, French entrepreneur and collector François Pinault is undoubtedly a leading figure in the contemporary art scene. (He just donated 100 million Euros to the reconstruction of Notre Dame, by the way.) For each Biennale he assembles new exhibitions of artists whom he collects, though the exhibitions stretch way beyond Pinault’s personal holdings and include works sourced from galleries and dealers around the world. Of the two shows he is mounting for the 2019 Biennale, the retrospective of Belgian artist Luc Tuymans is the more compelling. It’s refreshing to see such a large and comprehensive retrospective dedicated almost exclusively to painting, making something of a comeback in this year’s Biennale. Around 90 works are beautifully displayed in the elegant baroque surroundings of the Palazzo Grassi. Tuymans’ intriguing technique often involves zooming in on and enlarging an anatomical detail such as a pigeon’s eye, a face, a breast and then – contrary to expectations – softening the focus rather than sharpening it. Other figurative paintings are stripped of their ‘natural’ colour and then infused with a few key tones which bring out the essence of the subject and create a sense of nostalgia about the works. A very pleasing show.

*** Luogo e Segni (Place and signs)
Punta della dogana

Pinault’s main venue, the former Venetian customs house, located at the mouth of the Grand Canal on the tip of the Dorsoduro island and converted to a gallery by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, is an attraction in itself. In this uber-minimalist show, the works of more than 30 artists are displayed, many of them responding to the poetry of Etel Adnan and loosely following the curators’ proclaimed ‘leitmotif’ of visual, auditory and tactile memory. This is a challenging and sometimes inconsistent show, but one with many highlights. For me the op-art works of American R.H. Quayman and the terra cotta sculptures of Syrian artist Simone Fattal were the standouts, though there are also big names such as Agnes Martin, Louise Bourgeois and Constantin Brancusi to be viewed.

Our June 2019 tour to the Venice Biennale is now fully subscribed. Places are still available on our August/September Venice Biennale & The International Film Festival tour.

Dr Nick Gordon

Dr Nick Gordon

Dr Nick Gordon is a cultural historian and artist, with over 10 years of experience leading tours to Europe. He has strong interests in art, history, philosophy and architecture, from the ancient world to the present. Nick is also a practicing painter and brings this passion to the visual arts. He holds a University Medal and PhD in history from the University of Sydney.

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