2nd September 2018 About Art & Discussion

What is a Biennale or even a Biennial? A short history

Venice Bienniale official landscape pic

Melissa-Galley-Avatar-Profile-Pic.jpg#asset:26753:icon114By Chelsea Moore   I   5 min read

Where does the word come from?

Biennale comes from the Italian word 'biennial' meaning every other year, and is used to describe large-scale international contemporary art exhibitions. It's a generalisation for an event that happens every two years, not an event in itself! Hundreds happen internationally all throughout the calendar year.

Where did it all start?

It is believed that the tradition has it's roots with the 'Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce'. The Society, founded in Great Britain in the early 1800's was instrumental in the support of Britain's various manufacturers in arts, crafts and industry. Under the leadership of its charismatic leader Henry Cole it gained the support of Prince Albert.

Inspired by an event showcasing the best of manufactured products in France, Cole expressed the importance of organising a similar event in Britain. Prince Albert and Henry Cole started to develop the idea of the 'Great Exhibition'. However, instead of just showcasing Britain's goods, they wanted all nations to participate, as a means to create and encourage competition and expose British design to foreign nations.


Photo CreditThe Victoria and Albert Museum

To house the Great Exhibition, it was decided that a specially designed building in the heart of London was required. It was designed by Joseph Paxton - measuring 1,850 feet (564 m) long, 108 feet (33 m) high, it consisted of a highly innovative glass and iron structure. Constructed in only 9 months - it was manufactured in Birmingham and constructed in Hyde Park in 1851. It used 300,000 sheets of glass, earning it the nickname Crystal Palace.


Photo Credit: The Victoria and Albert Museum

The Great Exhibition was the first attempt at a representation of All Nations, however Britain sought to prove its own superiority and over half of the 100,000 exhibits were from Britain or the British Empire.

The first floor consisted of raw materials and produce, the next floor above displayed machinery that transformed the raw produce into manufactured states. Alongside these machines was the final product - clothes, leather, furniture, buildings and human enjoyments. The final floor consisted of models of fine art and sculpture. The Great Exhibition ran from May to October and within that time around six million people visited the Crystal Palace (about a third of the entire population of Britain at the time).


Photo Credit: The Victoria and Albert Museum

The success of the Great Exhibition spurned others to try to recreate its magnificence and in 1895 Venice held its own incarnation of the Great Exhibition - instead the focus was purely on art!

The biggest of the Biennales - Venice

To celebrate the silver anniversary of the Italian King Umberto I and Margherita of Savoy, the Council of Venice decided to begin hosting a biennial exhibition of Italian Art. Following on from several successful national exhibitions organised after the unification of Italy in 1861, this 'Great Exhibition' would invite a selection of artists from around the globe as well as those just native to Italy to showcase the finest art.

Following its premiere in 1895 it became an increasingly celebrated event and the roster of artists which were chosen and invited to display artworks included names such as Gustav Klimt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Gustave Courbet whom all displayed in 1910. Nowadays, 57 Biennale's on, it has become a major honour to be selected to exhibit at the Biennale and the event draws crowds from around the globe - with hundreds of thousands travelling to Venice to see the host of exhibitions.


Photo Credit: The Venice Biennale. A map of the Giardini and Arsenale, and other exhibition displays situated throughout Venice.

The Venice Biennale still takes place in its original 1895 location at The Giardini - a large park on the Eastern Side of Venice. Within the Giardini, a central pavilion brings together the works of many national artists in the main curated exhibition. The theme for the 2017 Biennale was 'Viva Arte Viva', which saw 120 artists invited from 51 countries to display their artwork in response to the theme "A journey from inferiority to infinity".

The Giardini also hosts 29 permanent national pavilions which were built at different periods by the various countries participating in the Biennale. These house the work of the participating countries' chosen artists and are managed by their Ministries of Culture. Countries that don't own a pavilion in the Giardini are usually exhibited in other venues across Venice. This number is continuously growing - in 2005, China exhibited for the first time, whilst in 2007 we saw the African Pavilion and Mexico, in 2009 the United Arab Emirates and in 2011, India.

Alongside the Giardini in the Arsenale, a fringe exhibition houses younger artists and artists of a national origin not represented by the permanent national pavilions.


Photo Credit: The Telegraph. Lorenzo Quinn's hands sculpture for the 2017 Biennale.

The UK's Biennale

You'll be happy to know that Venice hasn't taken all the limelight and the UK still hosts its own Biennale...

Liverpool Biennial (English spelling without the e) is the largest international contemporary art exhibition within the UK. Founded in 1998, the Biennial has commissioned over 340 new works of art and presented over 480 from around the world.


Photo Credit: Liverpool Biennial

Previous Biennials have had themes, of which include Habitat (2014), Hospitality (2012), and Touch (2010). This years theme is: 'Beautiful World, where are you?' and it invites artists and the public to reflect on a world in social, political and economic turmoil. Over 40 artists from 22 countries are displaying their work across Liverpools 18 locations, ranging from leading art galleries, theatres, museums, and civic buildings, just a decade on from Liverpool's year as Europeans Capital of Culture. Running from 14 July - 28 Oct the Biennial is a great opportunity to discover artists and cultural venues you might not have been to before.


Photo Credit: Kurimanzutto

This year my personal favourite display is Haegue Yang's 'The Intermediates' (2015 - ongoing) in Tate Liverpool's Wolfson gallery (ground floor). Yang lives and works in Germany and South Korea. Yang uses a range of mediums such as paper collage, performing art and large scale multi-sensory installations. This immersive installation questions the definition of paganism with the use of a juxtaposing wallpaper of modern history and pagan heritage. Suspended ribbons represent folk traditions such as maypole dancing whilst wildlife recordings from the British Library's sound collection play.

Tate Liverpool also houses displays by Dale Harding, Kevin Beasley Brian Jungen, Duane Linklater and Annie Pootoogook and a political film by Joyce Wieland.

Other displays you should definitely check out before 28th October 2018 are Bluecoat, Open Eye, Walker Art Gallery, and Victoria Gallery & Museum. All exhibitions are free to attend so no excuses!

“Today, in a world full of conflicts and shocks, art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions. Art is the last bastion, a garden to cultivate above and beyond trends and personal interests. It stands as an unequivocal alternative to individualism and indifference.” - Christine Marcel (Curator of 2017 Venice Biennale)