The 56th Biennale di Venezia (various artists and venues until 22 November 2015)
Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited (New Edition), Sarah Quill, Ashgate, 2015, 256pp. £30 (hardback)
Death in Venice, Benjamin Britten, Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 23 June 2015
Venice is a city of ceilings and the Scuola Grande dei Carmini in Dorsodoro, deliciously decorated by Giambattista Tiepolo in the 1740s, might make a claim to own the bellissimo. Floating imperiously is a central Virgin, the vision of an early English Carmelite saint, Simon Stock, who crouches beneath her. She seems to have her eye on something far below us but we are already halfway to heaven and so can glimpse what surrounds her. From four tight corners emerge twelve half-hidden Virtues, those most intangible of early-modern humanized qualities. The effect of the whole is beguilingly pulled together through an act of unsettling perspective that threatens imminent architectural collapse; only it appears to be in reverse gravity. Gazing lazily away from the Virgin is Patienza (Patience), slumped bare-breasted as though on a sun-lounger with one foot teetering over the architrave. She almost appears to grasp a lamb for ballast in case she might drift on upwards and away into the heaven of a blue Italian sky. That blue – at once milky-soft and also richly redolent of escape from hazy, humid heat – is one of Tiepolo’s signatures. He used it in his dramatic rendering of the ascent to Calvary in the church of Sant’ Alivse, an outpost in the northern sestiere of Cannaregio, where it is draped over a pallid and exhausted Christ. In the city in May, when Venice plays host to the Biennale, it is easy to see where Tiepolo discovered this colour and, amid the crowds, easy too to see why he loved it as a symbol of freedom ascendant, a feeling rising out of the dense air of our hot, tired feet.
Tiepolo’s fresco is a beautiful trick of visual theatre that eschews the real but herein lies a problem. There is something languidly erotic going on, a quintessential Venetian combination, you might think, but it is a curiously bloodless eroticism in which no one gets messy. This staged pretence appears to avoid terrestrial human concerns and this is perhaps why, of all of Venice’s great offerings, those of Tiepolo have suffered most in reputation since the city became a traveller’s loadstone around a century and half ago. We are now conditioned to admire art in which the veronica of the artist’s soul can be glimpsed on anguished brows. Tiepolo hides himself. John Ruskin, who only ever mentions him to sneer, is partly responsible for the painter’s decline, for he hated the neoclassicism with which Tiepolo’s brush was inevitably tarred. Ruskin, that great Victorian moralist, was rude about the Calvary in Sant’ Alivse, finding it hackneyed, inauthentic and without the spiritual force of his beloved Gothic, and yet, for all that I disagree with his assessment of that painting, it is easy to see what he was driving at. The very lightness that makes Tiepolo “immune to the rust of history”, in Roberto Calasso’s nice phrase, also releases his images from their obligation to articulate the very spiritual struggles that might be thought to lead to true virtue.
Inchoate thoughts along these lines hung in my mind as I sat in the audience at the Scuola dei Carmini in May. We had gathered in the dark, lower room as guests of Iraq’s representation at the 56th Biennale to listen to a discussion, chaired by Venetia Porter, about the relationship between art and conflict. This was a side event to the main exhibition, “Invisible Beauty,” that had opened in San Polo on the previous evening. The workings of the Biennale are mysterious to the uninitiated and like any exclusive club it’s bad form not to know them. Most of the major exhibitions take the form of installations – or elaborate acts of interior design – within the spaces available at two main sites, the Giardini and the Arsenale, both of which are located in the tail of the fish-shaped island. These are very different places. The latter is the old naval workshop of Venice, the industrial foundry on which the empire’s power was based. The wealth that built Venice first poured out of the Arsenale as naval might, but if this is the origin of the beauty that brings the people in then it is the Giardini, as a symbol of civilised pleasure, that sustains them. When it isn’t the Biennale, the latter is a place of rest amid the madness of the city; a parkland of green tranquillity dotted with the curious garden pavilions that are transformed biennially to house the exhibitions of those nations, of which Britain is one, with the longest established presence at the festival.
Away from the main sites however, there are countless other events that take place across Venice over the week of restless energy that marks its opening. Relative newcomers, such as Iraq or Azerbaijan, set themselves up where they can. But in Venice there are no poor venues, and so it was that we had come together in this most beautiful Scuola to discuss the unlovely relationship between art and conflict. In the context of Iraq, it is, of course, a theme with especial resonance, not least because the crafted footage of an ISIS militant drilling through the face of an Assyrian winged bull at Nimrud was then only weeks old. Lamia Al-Gailani Werr, an archaeologist who has documented that campaign of destruction, spoke grimly about the most recent news. The adherents of ISIS claim to be against representational art but are obsessive creators of a certain form of it. This was an uncomfortable but inescapable irony present to anyone who had sat through even a small fraction of the many hours of video installation on offer at the festival. How distant a cousin of this is the genre that ISIS has mastered? Something nags. However large a wedge we are able to force between the two, it’s undeniable that the making of those terrible videos reinforces the connection between violent conflict and the production of artistic media that responds to it. “Is this the artistic theme of the decade?” Porter asked as she opened proceedings, and most of her interlocutors were quick to agree that it is.
As discussion circled, my mind kept wandering back to the Tiepolos in the celestial chamber above us. Mark Twain and Edith Wharton had admired him but Henry James, whose own doubts would no doubt have found paradoxically renewed strength beside such New World champions, thought Tiepolo’s work was shallow and sycophantic. Late in life, he recalled a spring spent in 1888 writing in “one of the wonderful faded back rooms” of the dazzling Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal, home to his American friends, the Daniel Curtises. Above him, he noted, hung “a pompous Tiepolo ceiling,” which celebrated the glory of the Barbaro family. It is a loose, sketchy thing in poor repair, as I discovered a few days later when on a visit to the “The Union of Fire and Water,” an exhibition for the Biennale sponsored by YARAT, an association from Baku in Azerbaijan, which has taken over the Palazzo Barbaro. Glancing up as he wrote, James must have reflected on this faded kitsch as nothing more than second-rate decoration to furnish a room in conceited celebration of its owners. And he would have had a pretty good point were it not for the fact that he appears to have been unaware that the fresco on the ceiling is a copy of the vibrant original that was sold off in the mid-nineteenth century, a work that now hangs in the Met. Still, his attack is the kind that has stuck. Tiepolo’s painting announces its beauty very obviously and as such it seems to be all about surface and pretence. Roberto Calasso has written an eloquent defence of Tiepolo as an artist of discretion, perhaps the last of a line before the dark self-absorption of Romanticism took hold, but it is hard to the deny the main charge. This is art that is undeniably decorative. It has the air of being very upscale but ultimately reassuring room furnishing for those in positions of power and privilege.
Downstairs at the Scuola, matters were becoming ever darker. Tamara Chalabi, director of the RUYA foundation that sponsored the Iraq pavilion, had assembled an interesting panel. They disagreed in lively manner from time to time but clearly held one precept in common – that the link between politics and aesthetics is immutable, and that art is important in so far as artists disrupt political power. Charles Tripp’s definition of art – “any artefact in the public sphere that can be analyzed for its social or political effect” – followed this line and was that of a social scientist, but I was fast coming to understand that it was the prevailing notion not only in this discussion but also at the festival more generally. Kadar Attia, a gently spoken artist from Algeria, talked of the artist as witness but then went further to declare that art can only be authentic if made “in the face of hell.” I thought back over the last few days as I had trawled through endless similar exhibitions down at the Giardini and the Arsenale. Unintentionally perhaps, Attia had caught something of the mood of the whole thing. In pavilion after pavilion, there was the sense that hell had to be found somewhere in order to present an aesthetic of shock to an increasingly desensitized audience. This was surely what drove Sarah Lucas to cast the contorted concrete genitalia of her friends that jut up in the British pavilion in rooms smeared yellow as custard (that sustaining nastiness of the hell of school). Beauty might be uncovered in unexpected ways, as in the industrial paint shop installation in the Canadian pavilion, where an arbitrary explosion of colour sang out amid yet more deadening concrete, but it must never be sought consciously.
“Art is not decorative but a form of knowledge,” announced Philippe Van Cauteren, the Belgian curator of the Iraq pavilion. It was a view held with such obvious conviction that I felt rather the naïve aesthete as I wondered about the critic’s responsibility to make disinterested judgements of quality, the kind that surely rub uncomfortably against raw didactic power. It may be that it is a privilege of the free west to consider art outside its political context (one of which we may need to disabuse ourselves a bit) but equally the instrumentalist idea of art that emerges at the Biennale can become a little depressing, not least because while the aim is to make the artist a critical witness, it is potentially a reactive gesture in thrall to the ideology of the time. The art of conflict or, rather, the value placed on art for its use as a means of conflict is a risky commodity because it relies on a highly mechanistic aesthetic that insists on telling us something that can be reduced to a clear, even shouty, message. “We hate poetry that has a palpable design on us,” John Keats once wrote wisely, and I’m not sure how much he’d have enjoyed the 56th Biennale.
Over at the Palazzo Barbaro, in the piano nobile, beneath the duplicate Tiepolo, vast video screens beamed out scenes depicting the developing oil fields of Baku, a truly infernal vision, while the eerie wailing of industrial production did battle at deafening pitch with the moaning lament of a rather beautiful dark-eyed singer from the Caucasus. Her traditional dress looked as incongruous beneath the nodding donkeys of the oil wells as the whole installation did itself within this most literary building, which once hosted Henry James, Edith Wharton and Robert Browning. Juxtaposition is one of the hallmark topics of the Biennale. The opening of the Iraq pavilion had been a rather moving experience and part of this derived from the contrast between the rawness of the material on show and the richness of the space, in this case a palace of the Dandolos, the greatest of Venetian families, on the Grand Canal. More so than at any other pavilion, one inevitable theme rang out repeatedly here: the horror of the 2003 invasion and its appalling aftermath. Terrible beauty has occasionally been born out of horror but it is reasonable to expect that it will generally be in short supply and the headline, “Invisible Beauty,” underscored this.
Nevertheless, there were images here of immensely moving delicacy. Latif Al Ani’s photographs of the country in the 1950s provided a resonant sense of the once sophisticated ambition of this ancient land. Haider Jabbar meanwhile, a refugee working in Turkey, had produced a series of tender watercolours in feint monochrome. Their brutalized subjects, rendered with a care that made one flinch, were the severed heads of ISIS’s victims. Other exhibits worked less well. Nearby, a TV screen flickered in the corner, rather as it might in a bar in a minor American airport. It replayed an interminably banal commentary on the Chilcot Enquiry in which anonymous British citizens read out sections of official testimony about the Iraq War. The violence of war and its blind motivations were reduced to the quality of that quintessential mid-western wallpaper, the afternoon chat show. In the old cliché, war is boredom punctuated by moments of terror. This installation, by Rabab Ghazoul, made an undeniable point along those lines. Art cannot ignore the affect of tedium, particularly when it is underpinned by such nastiness, but there is a danger in pure instrumentalism: the object itself becomes irrelevant. To put it another way, when Arendt wrote of the banality of evil, her point was that banality has the upper hand.
After several days of the Biennale, with its remorselessly repeated acts of shock, it is difficult to avoid wondering a little about the anxious relationship between the city itself, with its unrivalled artistic history, and those who are charged with the task of making something new to sit amid it. Above all, Venice is a place of colour – the rose stone that fascinated Ruskin and then Proust, or the lapis blue that we can trace from Giovanni Bellini to Cima da Conegliano and on to Tiepolo. The rich palate of Venetian painting is what gave it novelty in the age of Titian but it is also what has lent its detractors the idea that it always risked lapsing into mere decoration. The installation in the Japan Pavilion was a rare thing at this year’s Biennale, being an object that was consciously not about its capacity to make the viewer recoil but rather one of obvious, exquisite fineness: the deep vermillion that appears on the buildings of San Marco in the late evening had been harnessed to decorate a boat in delicate thread, a spider’s web hung with abandoned keys that gestured at a common maritime heritage. By contrast, Sarah Lucas, with her bilious yellow, had, if nothing else, found a colour that was original and new even in this place of pyrotechnic visual diversity. This is a tension with a long history.
Venice remains in the imagination as a city of lascivious decoration – an epitome of the unreal – but for later artists, bearing the weight of that earlier tradition, it has often been an instrument for a didactic message of one sort or another. The many curators at the Biennale who feel so determined to smash through that illusion of surface beauty are, of course, only the latest to make Venice a vehicle for their ideas. Friedrich Schiller, through his strange story The Ghost-Seer, had it (in an echo of his pietist origins) as an alluring place of Catholic corruption, even though he hadn’t been an actual visitor himself. A little later, Lord Byron, a long term resident, got in ahead of Sarah Lucas to tell his readers in his dazzling comic poem Beppo that the sex in Venice was freer and more fulfilling than it ever could be back in clammy Britain. This is a theme too that Benjamin Britten took up when he re-worked Thomas Mann’s brilliant novella to make his extraordinary late opera, Death in Venice. This summer’s outstanding revival of the piece at Garsington, which featured Steuart Bedford, the conductor of the original premiere, served to remind the audience how far Britten went in transforming Mann’s work into a manifesto for his quirky (perhaps sexually-frustrated) idea that the power of idealized (male) beauty can operate on the mind as a creative impulse rather than a physical urge.
Surely the most instrumental moralist of all, when it comes to Venice, is John Ruskin, the greatest (even if occasionally the maddest) British commentator on the aesthetic marvels of the place. Ruskin would have agreed with the idea that art is a form of knowledge (the greatest, in fact, and indeed the source of all true moral wisdom). But he certainly didn’t see decoration as a problem. Instead, he united the two kinds of aesthetic impulse that often appear to be in opposition: on the one hand, the urge to look at surface and determine the formal qualities of beauty, and on the other, the desire to find a political or moral message in the whole. Ruskin believed that the totality of Venice had to be seen as a single artwork in a state of gradual decay from the point when it had been an artistic expression of an united Christian state and a manifestation of its shared moral values. The neoclassicism that gradually encroached upon the wonders of Mediaeval and early Renaissance Venice were, he felt, incipient symbols of the waxing corruption of modernity. By paying careful attention (and no commentator could ever be more solicitous than Ruskin) to the vestiges of that earlier golden age (the ancient stones of Venice), he believed that there was available access to the moral strength of the past, a ready example from history for the new maritime empire of Great Britain that was shaping to fill the place of its greatest forerunner.
The Stones of Venice (1851-53) is a deeply vexing and often difficult read because it moves back and forth from fantastically insightful local commentary about the monuments that most moved Ruskin to passages of peculiar pseudo-philosophical speculation. Sarah Quill has done something marvellous in her newly revised volume, Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited. She has created a readable patchwork from the many key passages of Ruskin’s original so that the reader is led on a tour of the city’s innumerable sites of interest, and alongside further extracts from Ruskin’s letters and reproductions of his most important watercolours, she has given us hundreds of her own photographs, which beautifully record Venice as it is today. Literature on Venice abounds but this is one volume that will be a delight for those already infatuated with the place, and it is a requirement for anyone drawn by the Biennale for the first time.
‘Invisible Beauty,’ sponsored by the RUYA Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Iraq, is at the Ca’ Dandolo and ‘The Union of Fire and Water,’ curated by Suad Garayeva for YARAT of Baku, Azerbaijan, is at the Palazzo Barbaro. Both run until 22 November 2015.
By Matthew Scott
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