Catalans, to Venice!

[Read original version in catalan]

Historically considered the atrium portos of the arts, the Venice Biennale was a reference, the foremost international arts festival, from its foundation in 1895 until the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the modern artist, showing work at the Biennale meant an instant boost in terms of both sales and social prestige, though the Venice Biennale was much more than a mere economic event. It was an enlightened phenomenon, a platform where culture and ideology became fused in a fertile alliance. A reality that highlighted the artistic, political and social engagement of many Catalan artists, as we can see in the 2009 ACCA prize-winning essay Matèria reservada. Els artistes catalans i les biennals de Venècia (“Reserved Material. Catalan Artists at the Venice Biennale”, Edicions 62). We have been invited by the magazine Bonart to provide an overview of the ideas contained – and the vicissitudes described – in this book.

All our “isms” and great artists triumphed at Venice, and the first was modernism. To have presented work at the Venice Biennale in 1905 was, indisputably, a great success for Anglada Camarasa, particularly in view of the impact caused by his early decadent works, which brought the shadows and miseries of the Parisian night – the drugs, the shenanigans, the loose women – out into the open, scandalising the European bourgeoisie, none more so than Papist Italy. Meanwhile, Anglada’s contemporaries – Casas, Canals, etc. – seized the chance to present their most commercial production, mainly portraying Flamenco dancers and Gypsy women, at the festival.

Business, power and ideology. At the Biennale, these three values have often prevailed more strongly than the artistic phenomenon itself. Or, to put it better: art as a vehicle for moving money, fame and politics. All this becomes most explicit, perhaps, in the case of Eugeni d’Ors. Many know that he was a member of the Spanish fascist Falange, but it is less widely known that he was the acting curator of the Francoist pavilion at the Biennale in 1938; that he employed reactionary argot to champion such deplorable artists as Pérez Comendador; that he was one of the ideologues behind the Spanish Falangist aesthetic; that Pere Pruna, having been converted to the cause, attended to his every whim in Venice; and that he used the Biennale quite ruthlessly to spread his ideas. And all this, in alarming consistence with the noucentiste principles that we admire in his Glossari.

D’Ors’ participation was open, theatrical, bare-faced. And his performance at the festival, perhaps, inspired Salvador Dalí when he made his only appearance there, in 1954. Dalí had just sworn allegiance to the Franco regime; he had recently given his hilarious lecture Picasso and I; he had also just visited Pope Pius XII at the Vatican, where he had unsuccessfully applied for Nihil obstat – Papal approval – for his “Madonna of Portlligat”, in which Gala is represented as the Mother of God. However, the truth is that Dalí did not cut such a glamorous figure as he would later, particularly amongst the Italian political sector, Republican to the core and, in many areas, communist. There was much more interest and admiration for Joan Miró in those days, and this explains, no doubt, the fact that Miró was awarded the Prize for Engraving that same year, 1954. Nevertheless, Miró saw the award as a defeat, since the most important accolade at Venice, the Great Prize for Painting, went to his rival and contemporary Max Ernst. Miró must have been surprised, and rightly; a major exhibition had been dedicated to him, reviewing all his works since the times of Montroig, whilst Max Ernst, who had just published an essay against the painterly art (“Beyond Painting”), had presented a widely criticised series of pictorial collages.

In any case, as we can see in his correspondence with Pierre Matisse, Miró held the Biennale in rather low esteem. In fact, he considered the festival an “international showcase of slums”, calling it the “stinking Venice salad”. We are also amused by the anecdotes that Matisse tells, noting that Miró only agreed to visit the Venice Biennale when he was informed that he would be picked up at the airport by Rolls Royce and that his visit would be accompanied by a pleasant stay at Matisse’s villa in Saint Paul de Vence.

The book Matèria reservada also places particular emphasis on revealing the shadows that were cast over the triumphs of our artists. We should not be ashamed to note that Miró won the engraving prize by presenting works at the Francoist Spanish pavilion. And we need to stress this fact, particularly in the case of such a referential and politically engaged artist as Miró, who had taken part in the Republican Pavilion in Paris and who assured Picasso, in a previously unpublished letter quoted in this book, that he would never show works in a pavilion organised by the Franco regime. And, of course, the precedent set by Miró contaminated all the later generations, who followed and admired him: all the members of the Dau al Set group and most of the informalists used the Francoist platform in Venice to become consolidated internationally in a cycle, the truth be told, conducted in the most refined way by González-Robles. The most controversial and infamous case was that of Tàpies. It is intriguing to map Tàpies’ qualitative and spiritual progression and the increasing engagement of his art after his show at the Francoist Spanish Pavilion during the Biennale. Tàpies reacted late to the paradox, years later stating that, if he regretted anything in his trajectory as an artist it was, without doubt, his participation at the Venice Biennale during the Francoist dictatorship.

The history of Catalan participation at the Biennale does not end with Tàpies, nor with the Golden Lion that he won in 1993. The most outstanding Catalan contemporary artists have all taken part at some time or another, and have helped to project their own name and that of Spain at international scale: Clavé, Arranz-Bravo, Bartolozzi, Miralda, Eulàlia Valldosera, Antoni Muntadas… And all have presented the most eye-catching and rigorous exhibitions. We need only remember the impact that Miralda created with his Honey Moon Project, a huge installation portraying, in chryselephantine scale, a marriage, with all its peculiarities and traditions; or Bartolozzi and Arranz-Bravo’s vast undertaking in the exhibition Mides Universals (“Universal Sizes”), at which they painted one hundred and twenty-six canvases, exploring all the possible sizes. Or Antoni Muntadas’ latest intervention, in which he converted the Spanish Pavilion into a waiting-room to propose a critical analysis of the one-hundred-and-ten-year history of the Venice Biennale.

Even the Vives-Bestué tandem have benefitted from the Biennale recently, showing that those who say that the festival no longer serves any useful purpose in the post-modern arena are wrong. The Biennale continues to be functional, despite being just one more amongst the more than one hundred and ten art festivals of the kind that exist worldwide today. What has happened is that Venice has lost its political prominence, its reputation for social engagement. The editions directed by the Italian eco-communist Carlo Ripa di Meana in the 1970s, devoted to Chilean mural painters, to Russian architecture, to the new Spanish democracy, to Flower Power, are a thing of the far-distant past. The last Biennale, despite the well-meaning dedication to the subject of Utopia, was a discouraging failure in terms of proposals and impact on political reality in this global world. A true showcase to the worst face of the artistic phenomenon, a showcase distant from people and closer to contemporary museum orthodoxy. We must admit, moreover, that the exhibition at the Catalan Pavilion did little to help resolve this problem. Nor was the Spanish Pavilion, which hosted Miquel Barceló’s first major exhibition at Venice, much better. The conceptual hermeticism of the former and the formal hedonism of the latter showed us, once more, that virtue, and the path to follow in forthcoming editions, reside in the mid-point, in mediocritas – despite the paradox of their respective etymologies – in fusing formal transcendence and conceptual engagement to create an event steeped in radical humanism.

[Bonart, June 2011]