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by Alessia Basilicata

Venice Biennale: A Showcase for the American Debut in Global Art. American Storytelling Through Cultural Journals

In 1909, the American Federation of Art began to publish its journal, at the time called Art Progress. In the first publication there is a curious article: “Venice: An Example.”[1] Before analyzing the text, a brief history of the American presence at the Venice Biennale: the national pavilion was constructed in 1930; previously American artists showed their artworks in the international rooms, with some exceptions, such as in 1920[2] when the USA had the opportunity to have a gallery for themselves due to the British choice to not send any artworks to Venice. The pavilion itself had a different kind of organization in comparison with the other national pavilions because it was the first one to be built by a private company; the other national pavilions were led by the government of the country that owned the pavilion. The American pavilion was the ninth to be built on the Giardini; the Grand Central Art Galleries, a nonprofit artists’ cooperative, paid for the purchase of the land, design, and construction, running the pavilion until 1954 when it was sold to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Currently, the Guggenheim Foundation supervises the American pavilion working with the United States Information Agency, the US Department of State, and the Fund for Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions, while, in other countries, the ministry of culture chooses a curator to manage the pavilion for each edition.

“Venice: An example” was not the first text where the Venice Biennale was quoted in the American cultural journal environment, but it is one of the major turning points of the American narrative about it. In the text, Anna Seaton-Schmidt stressed the developing structure of the Venice Biennale in terms of the fact that some nations started to have their own space. The question that ends the article is literally, “Belgium set the good example. When will the United States erect her own galleries?”[3]. Clearly, the author is looking for the United States to attain a relevant position in the Venice Biennale, like the one where the most important European countries already held. Most of the pieces previously written about the International Exhibition of Venice were about artists who showed on that occasion. Indeed, the fact that an artist had the opportunity to exhibit in Venice became as relevant as an award won in other shows: it started from a simple quote in a necrology[4] to be one of the most important things to say about an artist’s career.[5][6]

The increase in interest is made evident by the development of articles about it in the journal Brush and Pencil. The periodical Brush and Pencil was founded in Chicago in 1897 by Charles Francis Browne; he served as editor until 1900 and was replaced by Frederick William Morton. Charles Francis Browne immediately declares his desire to create a monthly magazine, bringing together the main news about the American art world to facilitate American students in the field. The editor's purpose was to create a space for the expression of art scholars with the ambition of communicating the occasions and trends of art, especially the contemporary one.[7] Based on the idea that the founder had in mind the Brush and Pencil started to talk about the Venice Biennale with the point of view of helping artists find their way in the world: at the beginning, it was all about how to find opportunities related to the International Exhibition like the call for someone to design the medals for the winners[8] and the price of the sold artworks.[9]

Hence, during the first decade of the twentieth century the journal shifted its point of view from a purely economic one, always related to money, to the artistic level, highlighting artists who showed at the Biennale and won a prize or garnered some recognition.[10] In 1906, there was another turning point with the publication of several articles about the Venice Biennale where they explained the different steps of the process of building the International Exhibition: from the arrival in Venice of the American artworks[11] to the final awards.[12] It is also useful to analyze the change of the section for this type of information: from gossip pages to the ones dedicated to the exhibitions.

Beginning with the eighth Exhibition, another relevant point started to be discussed: the choices made by the committee. Writing about it is American Art News which explains the list of artworks that will be sent to Venice, alluding to some omissions.[13] There is a growing interest in the American representation in Venice; previously it was not even considered publishing something like the list of chosen artworks.

“This committee […] had a difficult task, and their selection will of course be criticized. The list which follows of the artists selected and the works chosen to represent them will be found interesting to study.”[14] To reinforce this point, the same year they published one of the first actual reviews of the Venice Biennale: at this moment, Americans wrote about the works that won awards or the American artworks shown, while in this example the discussion was about the decoration, the curation, and the quality of the works presented.

“Mr. Whitney Warren […] speaks of the recently closed art exposition at Venice as follows: “There was a wonderful display, in general, of all countries at this exhibition, the finest, I think, of its kind I have ever seen of contemporaneous work, both as regards the works exhibited and the manner in which they were shown. […] As regards the American exhibit, which was in a room by itself, so that it formed a unit, as did all the other countries, it was not up to the mark.”[15]

The same year the Art and Progress started to write about the Venice Biennale with the article written by Anna Seaton-Schmidt, presenting a complete piece about the history of the Biennale as their first publication ever while other American cultural journals had already developed a proper narration of the Italian show.

“The most important event in the art world of Italy since the great days of the Renaissance has been the establishment of an International Biennial Exhibition in Venice. When first proposed the artists of other countries pessimistically insisted that Italy had no modern art.[…] The erection, this year, of separate pavilions by Hungary and the Secession of Munich, have added much to the individuality of their displays, and have enabled the committee to devote many of the small galleries in the Palais to “one-man exhibits.””[16]

During the following decade, in which Europe would experience the First World War, American Art News improved its own storytelling about the Venice Biennale through the publication of a considerable number of pieces that followed and updated the public about each step of the exhibition: from the opening ceremony,[17] to the run of the exhibition[18] to a complete review.[19]

“The figure work of G. A. Renoir does not deserve all the praise that his admirers claim for it. His "Man and Woman on Stairs," among others, are astoundingly insignificant and wear very unartistic clothes; Gustave Klimt, of Vienna, has some individuality, but also much bad taste and a somewhat unsane imagination, if we judge by his “Water Snakes” and “Three Ages.”[20]

The attractiveness of the Venice Biennale intensified year after year: the reviews became more and more structured, pointing out every detail regarding the arrangement, quality of works, and relevance of them, as the former example makes clear. It was not only the Americans; the critics also took a serious look at everything shown because it was not only the presence of the United States that seemed important but also that the level of the artworks exhibited was the same as, or even better than, the European proposals. In a period of growth for the States as an economic power, they were clearly looking for a cultural position with the relevant European countries: it started with the desire to have a space and ended up with the desire to prove that they were as good or better than the other countries.

It is crucial to remember that the nations could exhibit as the owner of a pavilion or through the official invitation from the municipality of Venice. Therefore, the need for a national pavilion was growing stronger, considering that Americans did not exhibit during the tenth edition of the Venice Biennale even if an etching by Joseph Pennell was chosen to illustrate the invitation for the nations.[21] The absence of the American presence at the International Exhibition corresponded to a lack of articles about it, as they did not publicly register their absence. To emphasize this point, it is sufficient to analyze the feedback to the 1920 edition where the United States had, for the first time, their own galleries thanks to the absence of England which experienced difficulties to reacquire the artworks sent to Italy for the eleventh edition due to the World War I, the entire process required years to be done. The twelfth edition of the Venice Biennale was a crucial one for the United States, as Mrs. Whitney had the opportunity to make her dream come true: exhibiting a series of artworks to explain her native country. She had the plan in mind for several years, namely, the idea of creating a show of American art pieces to exhibit in Europe, in different cities, to make Europeans aware of the status of the art environment in America. At the genesis of this project, she had in mind the cities of Paris and London, the two locations that would reach the highest number of art enthusiasts, but, in the end, the Venice Biennale turned out to be the perfect background for her objectives. Hence, this is the proof of the relevance of the Venice Biennale, which was in a position to be considered the best way to start a European tour for Americans. Concurrently, the Americans were concerned with letting everyone know about their presence in Venice, which led to an extensive number of articles and pieces about it.

“The exposition virtually has become a national celebration in Italy. It was founded in 1895 and held biennially until the outbreak of the World War. All the important European Governments have sent exhibits to it and many of them have constructed their own pavilions on the grounds. American artists will have ample space in the main Italian building.”[22]

The quote is from American Art News, it demonstrates the matter changed from the desire to exhibit the highest number possible of artists and artworks to the relevance of having a proper space to arrange a full narrative of the country, which meant that the Venice Biennale was no longer only a location to exhibit art but also achieved a political dimension in which having a pavilion corresponded to one’s international position. Further on, in the same journal, the Venice Biennale would be described as “this important and beautiful display of the modern art of all civilized nations where art at all flourishes.”[23]

In July, the official review was published: obviously a considerable part of it concerned the American experience, full of congratulations to Mrs. Whitney for her idea and her ability to assemble everything for the exhibition. An extensive part was dedicated to Italy: the writer justified the more in-depth look into the Italian section rather than to the other countries because of the large amount of artists and artworks from the country that hosted the event. In this case, every country was addressed with a few lines: from France that was not able to express itself with its choices to some other countries like Sweden, Poland, and the Netherlands that were able to communicate the sense of the nation through the artworks.[24]

Throughout the year, the commentary continued to flourish, which probably meant that American Art News had someone in Italy who was following the progression of the event over the course of several months. “The exhibition as a whole, when one realized the difficulties that pertain to any such undertaking, in the present unsettled conditions in Italy, surprised the visitor by its excellence. Not only was the modern art at Italy shown in its every manifestation in all its various schools of painting and sculpture, but that of Sweden, Switzerland. Holland, France, Russia, Poland and United States, and even the new Czecho-Slovakia, was adequately represented.”[25] The report is more and more detailed: from the display,[26] the description of the works,[27] and an analysis of the sales.[28] Particularly interesting is the involvement of the outside critics: the Catholic Church advised people not to enjoy the Venice Biennale due to the presence of indecent artworks; one of the American Art News author’s sarcastic answer was that they were providing free advertising for the International Exhibition since people were probably more excited to visit it because of the idea of seeing indecent artwork, even if in the religious museums you can also see indecent artworks.[29] In addition, The American Magazine of Art created significant feedback that was related to the envoys in foreign countries: for example, the London correspondent wrote several pieces on the English experience during the Venice Biennale.[30]

In the following years, the American cultural journals refined their way of informing the reader about the Venice Biennale: the relevance of it was growing worldwide, and every two years people could read about it. At the top of this process were American Art News and The American Magazine of Art, where during these decades they developed a way of reporting the feedback from Venice, starting from the comments made by Leila Mechlin.

“Placed side by side it would be hard (or so it seemed to the visitor from “the States”) to tell Italian from American- to differentiate in the matter of nationality.”[31]

After all, when the United States obtained a permanent position in the Venice Biennale they faced a new problem: the national style. International critics agreed that any particular feature let American artworks be distinguishable from the other ones; this matter entailed a discussion on several American cultural journals, they were aware of the problem so the issue occupied their front pages for years. The States entered a new phase: from an occasion for artists to earn some money to the controversy of what the national element that distinguished them from the other countries was. Again, the importance of the Venetian event is shown: it brought up the need for the States to be part of European cultural life and, in a second moment, their lack of reflection about how they wanted to represent themselves and what, about themselves, they wanted to put in the foreground.

In the following years, up until the Second World War, Helen Gerard took the place as the most important envoy in Venice to give feedback about the events in Italy. She developed the impressions given by Leila Mechlin some years before, creating a new way of discussing the International Exhibition. Gerard’s aim was to talk about her experience together with the description of relevant details: she talked about the music, the order of the pavilions, the opportunity to eat there. Her articles became longer over time, expressing every detail and adding illustrations of what she was talking about allowing people to experience the Venice Biennale even if they did not have the opportunity to fly to Italy. The focus stopped being the American presence, her purpose was to write a complete summary with a long list and analysis of the artworks.[32] Her physical presence in Venice helped her to be more aware of the comments about American art; consequently, she was a witness of the Italian king’s compliments to Americans.[33]

Meanwhile, Italy started to find itself in a dark political situation, with several changes to the Venice Biennale (for example, the space for Italian art was increased at the expense of the others); Helen Gerard chose to not express any opinion about that, she just reported on the changes. On the contrary, her colleague, Philippa Gerry, who took Gerard’s place after her death, declared her position clearly: “If the question concerns nationalism in art the answer is that even visitors to the Biennial who praised this picture (House in the Country by Domenico Cucchiari) for its sophisticated charm diluted their praises with regrets that the derivation of its quality was French while the author is Italian.”[34] She put a lot of effort into destroying the idea of Italian art built up by Mussolini, describing how the imposition on Italian artists to create monumental artworks ended up with works not of the standard of quality that the Venice Biennale was used to. The hidden understanding is that Gerry showed how the Venice Biennale became so important as to convert itself into a political discussion; it was not only a space for artists to express themselves and try to make themselves well-known in the European art market but an event where political issues displayed themselves, such as controversy between countries.

The influence of the Venice Biennale in the States was revealed by the way Americans talked about it:

“Internationalism, whether it be in the field of politics or art, is a fertile field for discussion. And discussion is worthwhile, if from it grows anything which applies to the problem of the present day. No country can hide itself behind barriers of prejudice without hurt to itself. What Venice is doing for the cause of art in Europe by holding a Biennial International Exhibition, Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh is doing for America with her annual International Show.”[35]

They legitimized and supported their own International Exhibition comparing, it with the Venetian version even if the International Show in Pittsburgh was not able, in those years, to organize itself in the same satisfactory way as Venice.
Moreover, American cultural journals at the beginning of the twentieth century provided the opportunity for several women to write about art concerning the Venice Biennale, as most of the names quoted in this article belong to female authors.
In conclusion, through the analysis of the articles from several American cultural publishers it is unquestionable how the Venice Biennale grew in international relevance while the United States exploited it to reach a consistent position in the cultural environment.

Alessia Basilicata is working as the gallery director assistant at the Hillsboro Fine Art Gallery in Dublin where she is in contact with the Irish contemporary art environment. She graduated in Ca’ Foscari, with a Bachelor degree in Conservation of Cultural Heritage and Performing Arts Management and a Master degree in Art History and Conservation of the Artistic Heritage.


[1] Anna Seaton-Schmidt, “Venice: An Example.” Art and Progress 1, no.1 (Nov. 1909): 12-13.

[2] “Mrs. Whitney’s Venice show,”, American Art News 18, no. 29 (May 8, 1920): 1.

[3] Seaton-Schmidt, “Venice: An Example.” 12-13.

[4] “The Necrology of Art,” Brush and Pencil 15, no.6 (Jun. 1905): 317.

[5] Edward Brush, “The Work of Vincenzo Alfano,” Brush and Pencil 16, no.1 (Jul. 1905): 2-10, 14-16.

[6] “Venice Exhibition Open,” American Art News 8, no. 29 (Apr.30, 1910): 1.

[7] Charles Browne, “Editors,” Brush and Pencil 1, no. 2 (Nov. 1897): 45-46.

[8] “Art Gossip from the Old Word,” Brush and Pencil 11, no.2 (Nov. 1902): 151-152.

[9] “Gleanings from American Art Centers,” Brush and Pencil 12, no.4 (Jul. 1903): 294-295.

[10] “Art News from the Old Word,” Brush and Pencil 16, no.3 (Sep. 1905): 76-77.

[11] “Exhibition: Past and to Come,” Brush and Pencil 18, no.4 (Oct. 1906): 43.

[12] “Exhibition: Past and to Come,” Brush and Pencil 18, no.5 (Nov. 1906): 51-52.

[13] “Pictures chosen for Venice,” American Art News 7, no.24 (Mar.27, 1909): 1.

[14] “Pictures chosen for Venice,” American Art News 7, no.24 (Mar.27, 1909): 1.

[15] “The Venice exposition,” American Art News 8, no.5 (Nov. 13, 1909): 4.

[16] Seaton-Schmidt, “Venice: An Example.” 12-13.

[17] “Venice Exhibition Open,” American Art News 8, no.29 (Apr.30, 1910): 1.

[18] “Venice Art Exhibit,” American Art News 8, no.31 (May 14, 1910): 2.

[19] “Venice Letter,” American Art News 8, no. 34 (Aug.20, 1910): 2.

[20] “Venice Letter,” American Art News 8, no. 34 (Aug.20, 1910): 2.

[21] “Venice Art Exhibition,” American Art News 10, no.25 (Mar.30, 1912): 1.

[22] “Coming Venice Exhibition,” American Art News 18, no.11 (Jan.3, 1920): 3.

[23] “Mrs Whitney’s Venice show,” American Art News 18, no.29 (May 8, 1920): 1.

[24] “Venice International Display,” American Art News 18, no.37 (Jul.17, 1920): 1-2.

[25] James Townsend, “Am’n Pictures to Venice,” American Art News 19, no.1 (Oct. 16, 1920): 7.

[26] Townsend, “Am’n Pictures to Venice,”: 7.

[27] “The Venice Exhibition,” American Art News 19, no.3 (Oct. 30, 1920): 1.

[28] Edgar Storer, “Italian Letter,” American Art News 19, no.12 (Jan, 1, 1921): 3.

[29] “The Venice Exhibition,” American Art News 19, no.3 (Oct. 30, 1920): 1.

[30] Selwyn Britton, “London Notes,” The American Magazine of Art 11, no.9 (Jul. 1920): 301-302.

[31] Leila Mechlin, “Impressions of the International Exhibition of Venice,” The American Magazine of Art 13, no.11 (Nov. 1922): 464- 470.

[32] Helen Gerard, “Venice International in retrospective,” The American Magazine of Art 14, no.7 (Jul. 1923): 62-71.

[33] Helen Gerard, “Italy’s King likes our art in Venice,” The Art News 22, no.33 (May 24, 1924): 1,4.

[34] Philippa Gerry, “The Venice Biennial,” The American Magazine of Art 29, no.8 (Aug. 1936): 507-512,553.

[35] “Pictures from the Pittsburgh International Exhibition,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 11, no.2 (Feb. 1924): 41- 42.

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