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A Persisting Format: Bienials and Bi-annuals

Giancarlo Hannud is an art historian based in São Paulo and part of the curatorial team of the 28th Bienal de São Paulo: In Living Contact.    “Why is it that the Bienal takes place only every two years?” This rather vacuous question is known to have been posed by many of São Paulo’s residents, capital city of the homonymous Brazilian state and one of the largest cities in the world, apropos of its bi-annual[1] contemporary art exhibition known simply as the Bienal de São Paulo. In the light of an internationalized art scene and its major players, such a question would strike one as being somewhat dull-witted. However, if examined in connection with its specific social context and the mythical – perhaps even heroic – locus the Bienal de São Paulo occupies in the minds of the city’s inhabitants – not only are bakeries, restaurants and newsagents named after the Bienal, but the Universidade de São Paulo has a department devoted to studying the place it occupies in the local imaginary – this question sets the scene for the worthwhile tracing of parallels within a wider art-historical tradition going back at least to the seventeenth century. These, in turn, betray a remarkably long-lived, and possibly worn out, tradition of art exhibiting: namely a gathering of recent artistic products routinely created by the same artists and seen by the same people – the art world – whether in Venice, Kassel, or São Paulo. As art-historian Oriana Baddeley said in one of the conference cycles proposed by the 28th Bienal de São Paulo: in living contact, “Who are the biennials for? Who are their audiences? Who are the parties involved in the dialogue? (…) Who is this art world? What is this art world? If that is the only audience for biennials, is it really worth being involved in that activity at all?[2]”.
 The questions proposed by Baddeley are, undoubtedly, of fundamental importance if we are to engage in issues dealing with prevailing exhibition formats. I would, however, like to pose a different set of questions dealing with the so-called biennial phenomenon: where do these art-events stem from? In what historical currents do they find their place? Why is it that this nearly four-century-old exhibitory configuration is still accepted by the art world, whatever the term may mean, with an approving nod? Could it be its innate adaptability to different social and geographical contexts and its lack of formal compromise[3]? Is it, perhaps, due to its role as the traditional legitimizer of contemporary art, judiciously orchestrating ever-changing libro d’oros of a Grand Tour artistic aristocracy, or, to put it candidly, as the highest stance of the oft-ignored academic drive, or academicizing spirit, of contemporary art?    
 The Bienal de São Paulo, founded in 1951, is the third oldest art biennial in the world – the first being the Venice Biennale, which dates its institution to 1895. Founded by Italian-Brazilian industrial magnate Ciccillo Matarazzo, it was part of what can, with the help of nearly sixty years of hindsight, be perceived as an unofficial educational-cultural project undertaken by the Brazilian elite. This movement of sorts – perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it a humanising ethos – can lay claim to the founding of a great number of the country’s museums and artistic institutions such as the Museu de Arte de São Paulo – MASP (1947), the Museu de Arte Moderna – MAM (1948), and theFundação Armando Alvares Penteado – FAAP (1947), among others. The Bienal de São Paulo counted as some of its initial aims not only the desire to make contemporary art available in São Paulo but also to shape the city into an international cultural and artistic centre. Or as Lourival Gomes Machado, the Bienal’s first curator, in spite of the fact they were not yet called that, stated in the opening pages of the exhibition’s catalogue, and which provided the subtitle of the 28th Bienal:
 “By definition, the Bienal should fulfill two major tasks: it should place Brazilian modern art, not in simple confrontation, but in living contact with the art of the world, and at the same time the Bienal should strive to position São Paulo as a world artistic center.[4]” 
 As has been amply pointed out, its aims have, one way or another, been attained, and its “destiny”, as it were, has been fulfilled and thereby its reason for existence has largely been undermined. It would appear that new questions should now be sought for this most aged, by Brazilian standards, of institutions.
 What the curators of the Bienal’s 28th edition, Ivo Mesquita and Ana Paula Cohen, sought to do was just that, investigate what the role of such an institution should now be in a country, and more precisely in a city, such as the one it occupies, at the same time as putting forward questions and doubts regarding the sustainability of such institutional and exhibitory genres. However, it was above all an event, a place to go to, a place to be in rather than a locus to see works exhibited in; it was never intended to be a traditional, “academicizing”, biennial exhibition. Most of the negative criticism of the 28th Bienal de São Paulo: in living contact failed to take this into consideration, so that in the end they viewed, criticized, censured and finally denounced the exhibition on entirely mistaken grounds, judging it on what it was not, rather than on what it was. Nevertheless, what interests us here are not its past or future aims, nor its successes or failures, but merely its institutional lineage.
 The model for the Bienal de São Paulo was clearly enough the Venice Biennale, which exhibited artists, both Italian and foreign, in a “by invitation” structure. It was founded by Riccardo Selvatico, mayor of Venice from 1890 to 1895, by means of a Venice City Council resolution, in order to celebrate King Umberto I and Queen Margherita di Savoia’s silver anniversary. It soon becomes clear that there was, from the Bienal de São Paulo’s genesis, an appreciable notional difference between itself and its inspiring event; while one was privately funded the other was state-patronised. There is little need for us to go into the minutiae of the dissimilarities between the two, yet what is plainly intelligible is that a state-patronised exhibition will in most cases be rather more vexed by fears of scandal, as we shall see later on, and public spurnings than a privately-funded one, generally preferring a supposedly encyclopaedic approach over an experimental one. It comes as no surprise that Venice would eventually opt for the national pavilion solution, creating the fictional notion of seeing everything the world has to offer in one place; a strategy that had been thoroughly perfected through fifty years of use in World Expositions as we shall soon see. This distinction between the state-patronised Venice Biennale and the privately orchestrated Bienal de São Paulo should be taken into careful consideration, even if only to substantiate enquiries into the role and influence of state over culture, in the case of Venice, and the intriguing instance of private powers over both culture and state, in the case of São Paulo. 
 It is usually ignored but in its initial editions the decorative arts played a role of paramount importance in the Venice Biennale, and unlike what supposedly occurs today, it was what one could term an “academic” exhibition, rather than an “avant-garde” one, if one can still use such terms with impunity. This is so true that it will suffice to say that in 1910 the Biennale organizers had a Pablo Picasso canvas removed from the exhibition from fear of causing a scandal; Picasso would be exhibited for the first time at the Biennale only in 1948. Venice was exhibiting artists such as Adolphe Monticelli, John Lavery and Pierre-Auguste Renoir in its 1910 edition, it is thus small wonder that fear of the scandal a Picasso might create was to be found among the exhibitions’ organizers.
 These general characteristics – official, state-patronised exhibition, an academicizing drive, and the encyclopaedic approach – would seem to pair the Venice Biennale with at least two typically nineteenth-century event genres: the official Paris Salons and World Expositions. The latter would seem to yield engaging equivalencies with the Biennale in its all-encompassing spirit and the former in its legitimizing aspirations. It would indeed be very helpful to study these relations more thoroughly, for all that, my only wish here is to sketchily trace some of these interdependencies and suggest possible parallels and lines of descent.
  The Paris Salons have an exceptionally elongated and somewhat fragmented history, commencing with the institution of the Paris Academy and its many restructurings. To relate the history of the Academy’s first years would be beyond the scope of this short text, so a brief treatment of its creation will suffice here. As from the inception of the Académie royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1648 and the formulating of its constitution in 1663 and subsequent reforms in 1667 by one of its initial protectors, Jean Baptiste-Colbert, the Academy had as part of its project the exhibition of works produced by its members. Following Colbert’s centralizing adjustments the Academy eventually became the single most important artistic institution in France[5]; not only was it a professional association of masters, but it was also a place for artistic theoretical dispute, the teaching of the artistic trade, and the exhibition of works produced by its members, as mentioned above. The exhibitions consisting of academy’s members’ works should in theory have been held every two years following 1667, yet, due to financial complications a long hiatus can be noted, lasting from 1683 to 1699. Finally in 1737 these exhibitions became regular affairs and the practice of public, Academy – and thus State sponsored – at first annual, and subsequently bi-annual exhibitions, would prevail for the next hundred and fifty years[6], in spite of some complications and further restructurings during the French Revolution, which would, among other things, permit foreign artists to exhibit their work in the previously French-only exhibition.
 These exhibitions, known to the world plainly as the Paris Salons due to their being held at the Salon Carré, sometimes expanding onto both the Grande Galerie and the Salon d’Apollon, in the Louvre, would gradually loose their importance, and in 1881, with the creation of the Société des Artistes Français, which took over the coordination of the Salon, the French state withdrew from its organization. I do not wish to create a direct link between the end of French state-patronised Salons and the beginning of Italian state-patronised Biennales. It seems obvious enough there was never any coordinated or conscious wish to continue the tradition established by the Salon in the newly inaugurated Biennale. Nevertheless, it would appear to be slightly naïf if one were to ignore the historical and institutional implications inherent in such closely related particulars. 
Concerning World Expositions we must be extremely cautious not to mistake their inclination towards the encyclopaedic with the academicizing efforts of the Academy and the Paris Salons. It would seem that these fairs were born out of the industrial bourgeoisie’s desire to embrace the world, to understand it in their own terms – undoubtedly conventional and provincial despite its worldliness – and pass judgement on it. Entire mock cities were constructed within the hosting cities for these expositions, each country erecting its own pavilion in order that they may better convey the national qualities inherent to each national realm. Inside the pavilions products were exhibited in four different categories: manufacturing, machinery, raw materials, and fine arts. This great, international, world-mirroring event, had, since its first edition, the London Crystal Palace Exposition of 1851, become the place to see a microcosm of sorts of the World; one specifically designed to impress and to boggle rather than to accurately convey, but a microcosm nevertheless. Some of the subsequent expositions were held in Paris (1855, 1867, 1889 and 1900), London (1862), Vienna (1873), Chicago (1893), and San Francisco (1915), Brazil having a national pavilion of it’s own in every edition following the London Exposition of 1862. The goal of such participations was, as is made abundantly clear in the catalogue of the Brazilian Empire’s – Brazil was a constitutional monarchy as from its independence in 1822 up until 1889 when a Republic was declared – 1862 participation, was to “occasion the Empire to be known and duly appreciated for its specimens and products”. This same desire, it would seem, can be easily detected in the chain of events that led to the establishment of the Bienal de São Paulo and the building of the Brazilian Pavilion in the Giardini occupied by the Venice Biennale in 1964[7].
 It is only natural that as a culturally colonised and persistently colonisable country, Brazil would import or accept the imposition of European – English, but above all French – civilizational structures and institutions, and develop them locally throughout the course of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Brazil the span of time occupied between the setting in motion of World Expositions and the initiation of the Venice Biennale was specked by manifestations of institutions and events echoing these European archetypes. This can be best exemplified by cultural instances mirroring both the Paris Salons and the World Exhibitions emerging in Brazil during the second half of the nineteenth-century: the Academia Imperial de Belas Artes founded in 1816 and the Exposição Nacional Brasileira, its first edition taking place in 1860. The former is a quintessential specimen of a Paris Academy importing effort and if the “Academy phenomenon” designation were not a simple a fictional concoction, as such terms usually are, it would easily have fallen within the reach of the term. It was an academic institution catering for the education of sculptors and painters. It also hosted and organized the bi-annual art exhibitions, or Salons, initiated in 1829 and eventually made into regular affairs in 1840, and distributed various prizes. The latter marks not only the local preparation for the supposedly international, however mostly European, World Expositions, but also the emulation of such encyclopaedic fairs. If in World Expositions the hosting city’s élite and middle classes could inspect the products of the world, in the Exposição Nacional the local gentry could have access to the products it had produced itself and revel in the accomplishments of their own “civilized” society; a function I would say has not been entirely eradicated from like events in our own days.
 It would seem to me that all of these events and institutions – Biennials, Salons, the Paris Academy, World Expositions – are mere tributaries of a larger, more all-encompassing, watercourse. Born as they were at the beginnings of industrial societies they cater in their particulars for the necessities of their own age and not our own. The previous century, as well as our own, has made it abundantly clear that such strategies are not appropriate for our needs and desires. For in this watercourse we are engaged in an instrumental view of art and world, one leaving scarce room for questionings, dualities, and that culturally most characteristic of our attributes, relativism.
 As we saw at the beginning, asking why a bi-annual art event takes place every two years is not as dull as it may at first sound. Historical, social and even political reasons seem to answer this question, or perhaps create further ones. Some of these reasons would appear to point towards a necessary revision of the “two in two years” biennial format, after all we are not here dealing with revealed truths or sacred texts, but rather with a discipline that in most cases thrives on the destruction, or perhaps less eloquently, the questioning of received mores and truths. There is no given element demanding the abolishment of traditional, four-century-old, exhibitory formats, and I would be the first, being somewhat of a traditionalist in these matters, person to defend their continual survival. Nevertheless, a field as interested in politics, philosophy, sociology, law, economy and the like, as contemporary fine arts is, should, I believe, be rather more aware of its own historical antecedents than it would seem it is. Heads sometimes have to topple and palaces occasionally have to fall if we are to assert the intellectual vitality of our times. If we are to continue with institutions and traditions such as the ones above, we have to carry them on from a well-informed and critical viewpoint rather than out of a facile and righteous reverence for our dead.    (From issue 14 Sao Paula Art Dossier.  For more see,[1] I shall here be using three different designations for exhibitions taking place every two years: bi-annual, biennial, and Bienal. When making use of Bienal I will have in mind solely the Bienal de São Paulo; when using biennial I will mean all of the events generally grouped together, even if rather loosely, under the Biennial phenomenon tag, including exhibitions such as Documenta as well as triennial; and finally, when utilizing bi-annual I will simply mean an event which takes place every two years.
[3] One has only to consider the enormous range of events gathered under the biennial phenomenon tag to realize that this term means, at the best of times, very little indeed.   [4] Gomes Machado, Lourival, “Apresentação”. IN: I Bienal do Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, 1951, pg. 14.
[5] The influence exerted by the format of the Paris Academy not only in France, but also around the world, was so great, and the desire to imitate it so prevalent that by 1790 there were more than 100 functioning Academies in the world, including ones in Mexico and Philadelphia. The proliferation of such institutions basically undertaking the same task could appropriately enough, and not without irony, be termed the Academy phenomenon.
[6] It is interesting to note that a series of lectures on art and its practice were held at the Academy throughout the year. It was in these conferences that artistic theories that were to shape French, and to a certain extent, Western art, for the following century would in due course be devised: hierarchy of genres, the quarrel between poussinistes and rubenistes, etc. These were initially intended for continual publication – its essence being not that much different from our own conference cycle publications found at biennials around the world – nevertheless, only one series was published, and the practice was discontinued. [7] It is worth noting that even though the Brazilian Pavilion was only erected in 1964, Brazil had been part of the Venice Biennale ever since its 25th edition in 1950 with an exhibition including works by artists such as Alfredo Volpi, Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, Cândido Portinari, Victor Brecheret, and others.  

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