The first Art Biennale opened 124 years ago in Venice. In order to celebrate the silver anniversary of King Umberto and Margherita of Savoy, the Venice city council proposed a resolution to produce a national art exhibition every two years. The seed of this vision was sown by Selvatico, mayor of Venice in the 1890’s. His sense was that the evening gatherings of artists at the Cafe Florian evolve into a successful and competitive international show.The exhibition was by invitations only to Italian and major foreign artists. Those Italian artists who received no invitations could still take part if they limited pieces to two each. One was used by the press and the second piece was for publicity purposes. The first Art Biennale, named International Art Exhibition of Venice, took place in a pavilion constructed in the public gardens in Castello on April 30, 1895. The name changed in later years to describe more accurately its 2-year cycle. Within the Castello Gardens that house all the national pavilions of the Venice Biennale, the US Pavilion enjoys a prominent position.

For the first Biennale, a major prize went to Giovanni Segantini‘s “Return to Native Village”. Segantini was an Italian painter deserted by his mother and father, who eventually got off the streets and into a school which encouraged his art abilities. He became the painter of the Alps of which nature inspired his vision. The first major prize was a tie. The other painter was Francesco Paolo with his painting  “Jorio’s Daughter”. But literally at the end of the day, the jury gave another prize to Giacomo Ghasso’s “Supreme Meeting”. A popular referendum defeated the jury on this one. It’s not surprising that another kind of prize the “Critic’s Prize” was created to improve the next biennale’s awards.

In the early history of this international exhibit, the Germans and Italians were the countries dominating this event. For the 3rd Biennale, the Italian artists Michetti and Sartorio established the practice of showing art in private rooms. By 1901 at the 4th Biennale, France was invited to exhibit French landscape paintings. France also sent 20 sculptures by Rodin. By the 5th in 1903, decorative art and furnishings were included. At the turn of the 20th century, French Impressionist artists were recognized by Europe but not so readily by the Biennale jury. In heated fashion, a protest about the jury’s elimination of 823 pieces of art of 963 resulted in creating the Salon des Refuses.

At the 7th Biennale, Sargent won a medal and American artists came on the scene. The Ballet Russes was represented by Repin of Russia who made costumes and set design. After 1930 when the new president of the Biennale, Volpi, was chosen, a concerted effort was made to promote regional Italian artists at the Biennale but also in other countries. New York city reciprocated by holding a major Italian exhibit in 1932. By the beginning of World WI,7 international pavilions had been built. Today, the Giardini area in Venice hosts 29 pavilions.

“If the Venice Biennale is the Olympics of the art world than the national pavilions are the stadiums where countries unleash the best talent they have to offer.”https://news.artnet.com/art-world-five-must-see-national-pavilions-at-the-venice-biennale-955787

Infamous figures in history and great masters of art became represented at the Biennale although not without controversy. Picasso’s works were not allowed at the show until 1948 because his “innovative artistic language”  was too provocative. Hitler rebuilt the German pavilion according to the designs of Ernst Haiger, whom he personally chose. Ordinarily, the pavilions were owned by the Venice city council.

For this year, Mark Bradford, an artist from Los Angeles, was invited to exhibit his work in the American pavilion. Bradford earned a BFA and MFA from California Institute of Arts inValencia, Ca. The key to Bradford’s long-awaited Biennale exhibition is a poem written by the artist, which is set in stone on the exterior of the neoclassical US pavilion in the Giardini. By creating large-scale abstract painting he conceptualizes about the structure of urban US society. Bradford received the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award in 2009. His canvases are covered in collage materials and a survey of his works was shown at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.

For the Venice Biennale, Bradford’s show “Tomorrow is Another Day” expresses a commitment to the social nature of the material world. By material, he incorporated examples of a hair salon, Home Depot, and the streets of Los Angeles. He cares about marginalized people, both their vulnerability and resilience. He understands that America is threatened or at least its so-called social promise has not been fulfilled and thus undermines the American character. “Tomorrow is Another Day” will be also exhibited at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Sept.2018-Jan.2019.

To appreciate the Venice Biennale is to show its growing outreach to the international world.This growth does not always go smoothly as the Biennale’s history has revealed. Kenya has recently been invited to the Biennales but in 2017, the Kenyan government failed to support its artists with needed funds to travel and set up the show. Kenya’s curator Jimmy Ogonda worked quickly to find and fund a venue for the Kenyan artists. Individual artists were on their own to get to Venice, however. On the island of Giudecca, Ongaonga found an abandoned school which the  Kenyan artists could use. Fortunately for them, a supporter of Kenya’s artist-in-residence program bought airline tickets for the art crew and a coffee company Hausbrandt found housing. Arlene Wandera, one of Kenya’s artists, installed a ladder with balanced tiny figures made from wire to inhabit the space on the 3rd floor of the unused school. Paintings and video from Kenyan artists are also on display.

Kenyan artist with display of ladder and small figures

With the 57th edition of the Venice Art Biennale now open to the public, managing editor Olivia Mull selects some of the best designed exhibitions, spatial installations, and pavilion takeovers.The Biennale opened May 13th and closes November 27, 2017. Wheelchair accessible, small animals allowed and free stroller rentals are available. Guided tours are given in several languages.


  1. www.labiennale.org/en/art/exhibition
  2. www.artnews.com/2011
  3. www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/May/09/phyllida-barlow-review-venice-biennale-british-pavilion-scupture
  4. www.labiennale.org/en/Home.html




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