The History of the Venice Biennale

VENICE • THE OLYMPICS OF THE ART WORLD


"If art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors" - Bertolt Brecht

The Venice Biennale is the oldest art gathering in the world. It dates back to the 19th century, making it one of the most venerable art institutions ever. In 1928, the Archive of the Biennale was established under the name of the ‘Historical Institute of Contemporary Art’,  and the institution still serves as one of the primary records of the modern art history.

How did the Venice Biennale start ?


On April 1868, Margherita of Savoy signed a wedding contract with her first cousin, King Umberto I of Italy. It has been said that before the wedding King Umberto was already involved in an affair with his long term lover, Eugenia, and therefore, the personal relationship between Margherita and Umberto was unsuccessful in terms of personal feelings.

Margherita of Savoy, Queen of Italy

Margherita of Savoy, Queen of Italy

Portrait of Umberto I in 1887

Portrait of Umberto I in 1887


Although Margherita and Umberto reportedly discontinued their marital relations after two years, they always walked tall as a power couple. They worked together harmoniously as colleagues, and the King strongly relied on his Queen politically. They never made their personal separation known to the public.


In 1893, 25 years later, the Venetian City Council passed a resolution to set up an international art exhibition to celebrate the power couple’s silver anniversary. In the period between the idea and its realisation, the Mayor of Venice, Riccardo Selvatico, committed to transform the artists’ evening meetings at the famous Caffè Florian on St. Mark’s Square into a prestigious international exhibition. 

The Opening


On April 30th 1895, the first Biennale opened at the Palazzo dell’ Esposizione, located in a public garden known as the Giardini in the presence of King Umberto and Queen Margherita. 

The first Biennale major Prize were given to Giovanni Segantini for his Return to Native Village.    Giovanni Segantini    (1858–1899) won    Title:  Returning Home,   ( Ritorno al paese natio)   Date: 1895 - Courtesy of  Alte Nationalgalerie

The first Biennale major Prize were given to Giovanni Segantini for his Return to Native Village.

Giovanni Segantini (1858–1899) won

Title: Returning Home, (Ritorno al paese natio)
Date: 1895 - Courtesy of
Alte Nationalgalerie

Around 225,000 people came through the first “International Art Exhibition of the City Venice” - (Later to be called “Biennale”, meaning ‘every other year’ in Italian, because it took place every two years). The inaugural exhibition featured 516 artworks, 188 of which were by national artists and the rest were by European artists. Since then, the show has continued to be a vital source of tourism and commerce for the floating city, and today, the Biennale has an attendance of over half a million visitors.



Gustav Klimt in 1910 Venice Biennale

Gustav Klimt in 1910 Venice Biennale

“We want to cure and cicatrize this rotting town, magnificent wound of the past. We want to enliven and ennoble the Venetian people declined from its former grandeur, morphinised by a disgusting cowardice and abased by a small dishonest traffic. We want to prepare the birth of a commercial and military Venice, able to brave and affront on the Adriatic Sea our eternal enemy — Austria.” -    an excerpt from the  futurist poet Marinetti’s anti-Biennale leaflets that he dropped off from the Clock Tower in St. Mark’s Square in 1910

“We want to cure and cicatrize this rotting town, magnificent wound of the past. We want to enliven and ennoble the Venetian people declined from its former grandeur, morphinised by a disgusting cowardice and abased by a small dishonest traffic. We want to prepare the birth of a commercial and military Venice, able to brave and affront on the Adriatic Sea our eternal enemy — Austria.” - an excerpt from the futurist poet Marinetti’s anti-Biennale leaflets that he dropped off from the Clock Tower in St. Mark’s Square in 1910

What happened since the opening? 

  • In 1901, the 4th Biennale presented French art for the first time through Corot and Millet’s landscape paintings and Rodin’s sculptures.

  • In 1903, Decorative Arts, especially furnishings, was introduced during the 5th Biennale.

  • In the 9th Biennale which was held in 1910, Klimt had a room dedicated to himself, Renoir had a one-man show, and Courbet had a retrospective dedicated to himself. Futurist poet Marinetti arranged a drop of anti-Biennale leaflets in St. Mark’s Square. Antonio Fradeletto, who was then serving as the General Secretary of the Biennale, refused a work by Picasso fearing that it wouldn’t be appropriate to exhibit to public.

  • Between 1916 and 1918, the Biennale was cancelled due to the First World War.

  • 1920, Neo-Impressionist artist Paul Signac was the curator of the French pavilion and he curated works by Cézanne, Seurat, Redon, Matisse and Bonnard, whilst the Dutch Pavilion proposed a retrospective of Van Gogh

Installation view, Venice Biennale, 1920; image courtesy of The Archipenko Foundation

Installation view, Venice Biennale, 1920; image courtesy of The Archipenko Foundation

  • In 1922, the General Secretary of Biennale, Vittorio Pica, represented the first retrospective of Modigliani and in that same year organised an exhibition of African sculpture, which both caused criticism and controversy. The word ‘primitive’ was used in a negative sense for African sculptures and Modigliani’s disorganised life was emphasised. In order to restrict the ‘boldness’ of Pica, the town council set up an Administrative Board to work alongside him. 

  • A big change happened  in 1930 when the Biennale passed from the control of the Venice City Council to that of the Italian state during the Mussolini years, turning Biennale into a fascist organisation. When Hitler was in town in 1934, he also saw the platform as an opportunity to showcase his ideology and politics. The shows were seen as a powerful platform to influence the public.Under the fascist government, the Biennale funds were increased and new events were set up such as Music, Cinema, and Theatre, so the organisation took on the multidisciplinary character that it has to this day. 

  • During the Second World War, the activities of the Biennale were interrupted between 1942 and 1948. 

  • After WWII, the Giardini public gardens expanded. The comeback Biennale exhibition in 1948 was particularly significant due to its reconsideration of European avant-gardism — from which Dadaism still remained excluded. Peggy Guggenheim presented her collection and Dali, Kandinsky, Klee, and Miró were some of the names that characterised this Biennale. This 24th edition also marked Picasso’s first appearance with 19 paintings at the age of 67. While Austria presented Egon Schiele, the British Pavilion brought Turner and Henry Moore.

Hall of the Venice Biennale in 1930 dedicated to Amedeo Modigliani.

Hall of the Venice Biennale in 1930 dedicated to Amedeo Modigliani.

  • Georges Braque won the Grand Prize of the Biennale for painting in 1948. Matisse followed in his steps in 1950, Raoul Dufy in the consecutive Biennale, and Max Ernst in 1954. 

  • In 1950, the US pavilion presented works by Jackson Pollock for the first time. Sculptor Alexander Calder in was first presented in 1952, both of whom were supported tremendously by Peggy Guggenheim. Edward Hopper also presented the US pavilion in 1952.  

  • 1964 witnessed the sensational arrival of the pop art, giving new direction to the Biennale. The foreign prize was given to Robert Rauschenberg, shifting the artistic focus from Europe to the United States of America. An American artist receiving the grand prize provoked heated discussions and criticism; the French accused the Biennale of introducing American ‘cultural colonisation’ and the stir that Pop Art had caused amongst the European press and critics somewhat cast a shadow over the other exhibitions in ‘64 edition of the 32nd Biennale.

Installation of Rauschenberg’s  Studio Painting  (1960–61),  XXXII Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d’Arte , Venice, 1964. Work in background is Jasper Johns’s  Double Flag  (1962)  Photo: Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs.

Installation of Rauschenberg’s Studio Painting (1960–61), XXXII Esposizione Biennale Internazionale d’Arte, Venice, 1964. Work in background is Jasper Johns’s Double Flag (1962)

Photo: Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs.

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  • In 1966, it was the year of optical and kinetic art. It was also this year that Kusama turned the Giardini into her Narcissus Garden.

  • In 1968 Venice Biennale turned the city into a war zone due to unrest between the police and political activists who accused the exhibition of being a fascist institution and a platform of ‘cultura dei patroni’: culture of the bosses. The increasing intensity of the accompanying protests took place during the installation and preview days of the Biennale which sparked brutal police crackdowns, unfinished pavilions, and artist boycotts. Some thought that this would mark the Biennale’s death. 

Archive poster for the Venice Biennale © Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia

Archive poster for the Venice Biennale © Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia

Students protesting the 34th Venice Biennale, 1968.  Courtesy: © the artist Ugo Mulas & Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool

Students protesting the 34th Venice Biennale, 1968. Courtesy: © the artist Ugo Mulas & Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool


  • Despite the crisis and turbulence, the Biennale continued in 1970. But the 1968 protests had left their mark: the sales office was eliminated, the Grand Prizes were abolished with no awards being presented. The prizes were offered again in 1986 with the Golden Lion, an award that continues to be given today. For the first time, the International Art Exhibition had a theme, a ritual that has continued up to this day.

  • The 1972 Biennale was much appreciated. That year’s theme was ‘Work and Behaviour’. During this Biennale, ten thousand butterflies were liberated from a large wooden chest in Saint Mark’s Square. 

  • A quotation by Kandinsky, "great abstraction, great realism", provided the starting point for the Art Exhibition which was divided into six "stations" with the collective title "From nature to art, from art to nature".

  • In 1990 Jeff Koons infuriated the art critics. American Aids activist arts collective Gran Fury hung a set of provocative posters addressing the Catholic Church’s stance on sex and contraception. 

  • The 1993 exhibition, ‘APERTO’, probably evoked stronger reactions than any other, receiving mixed responses that critics still debate today. It included 45 nations participated and homage exhibitions dedicated to Francis Bacon, John Cage, and Peter Greenway also featured. 

  • The German Pavilion’s floor surface which Hitler built was broken up by the artist Hans Haacke. That year Hans Haacke won the grand prize.

  • South Korea opened it own pavilion in 1995. 

  • In 1997 Marina Abramović was awarded with the Golden Lion for her ‘Balkan Baroque’ performance, when she performed for six hours a day over four consecutive days: washing a pile of cowbones with a metal brush, soap and scraping the last bits of meat from them. This purification 'to the bone', represented cleaning the self of the ugly, the unpleasant, or the past.

Hans Haacke,  Germania , German Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 1993,  © Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society

Hans Haacke, Germania, German Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 1993, © Hans Haacke/Artists Rights Society

  • 1999 initiated the the Arsenale in Venice as more countries became involved with the Biennale. The exhibition surpassed from Giardini and expanded into Venice. Arsenale is a large-scale renovation project on the historic naval buildings nearby which transforms them into commanding exhibition spaces.

  • In 2005, the Biennale was curated by two women for the very first time. 

'Balkan Baroque' for Venice Biennale 1997 by Marina Abramović - Courtesy of the artist and © Coehlo/Godschalk 1999   'Bang' by Ai Weiwei for Venice Biennale 2013 - Courtesy of the artist

  • 2013 was a year that wasn’t nationalist. Ai Weiwei appeared at the French Pavilion, with his ‘bang’ installation, representing a German contribution, even though he is Chinese. In the same year, Kenya announced its first-ever participation at the 55th Venice Biennale, but shocked through presenting a very few Kenyan artists compared to non-Kenyan in its own pavilion. A similar thing happened to Kenya in 2015, when it was announced that the country would be represented by six Chinese artists, one Italian, and only one Kenyan.

  • 2015 also marked the first African-born curator, Okwui Enwezor, in the exhibition’s 120 year history. 

  • And today in 2019, the curator of the 58th Biennale Exhibition from London, Ralph Rugoff describes the show ‘May You Live in Interesting Times’ as presenting types of art that variously illuminate the notion, articulated by both Leonardo da Vinci and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: “Everything connects with everything else.


Everything really connects with everything else. What started as a political cover for Margherita and Umberto’s failed marriage has always continued to mirror other political or cultural issues over the years.