Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sleeping Beauty in Venice

La Bella Addormentata
(Venice, Italy) The Royal Ballet of Flanders (Koninklijk Ballet Vlaanderen) presented a dazzling performance of Sleeping Beauty by Pyotr Tchaikovsky to a full house at La Fenice on Tuesday night. The holiday spirit descended upon a theater full of enchanted faces as we watched the classic fairy tale by Charles Perrault come to life.

From Wanted in Rome (I don't know why Venice is listed under Rome, but so it is:)

Royal Ballet of Flanders. In The Sleeping Beauty, choreography by Marcia Haydée.  

Building on the solid foundation of Petipa and Tchaikovsky, Marcia Haydée has chosen to concentrate on the dramatic content of the work. She has added depth to the character of Carabosse, transforming her into a much rounder character who actually carries the piece.  
Nonetheless, Haydée’s Sleeping Beauty is also faithful to Petipa in the sense that it represents a struggle between good and evil, and it is Carabosse, the personification of evil, who is eventually defeated. New company director Kathryn Bennetts and Marcia Haydée have aimed to restore this well-known fairytale ballet to its former glory, whilst answering the question of why a company that privileges a contemporary repertoire should choose to revisit this classical romantic piece.  
The reason is, as Marc Haegeman puts it in Danceviewtimes, that this is not an “old-fashioned and dusty museum piece" but a work that “still inspires today’s artists as well as audiences. And what’s more, it takes an academically schooled company like the Royal Ballet of Flanders – the only one left in Belgium – to dance it."  

The Evil Fairy Carabosse
photo at Koninklijk Ballet Vlaanderen
We all know the story of Sleeping Beauty, the beautiful Princess Aurora blessed with good wishes at her christening from her fairy godmothers. The evil fairy Carabosse arrives and, angry at not being invited, curses the baby Aurora and says she will prick her finger at age 16 and die. However, the Lilac Fairy, who has not yet given her blessing, softens the curse and says that instead of dying, Aurora will sleep for 100 years until she is awakened by the kiss of a prince. 

Most of us know that story, but many of us do not even know where Flanders is. With all the focus on the European Union lately, perhaps we should review some history, especially because the headquarters of both the Europe Union and NATO are based in Flanders. This is from a Flanders tourist website:

Map at Principia Cybernetica
Belgium, officially the Kingdom of Belgium, is a state in Western Europe. It is a founding member of the European Union and hosts the EU's headquarters, as well as those of several other major international organizations such as NATO. Belgium covers an area of 30,528 square kilometres (11,787 sq mi), and it has a population of about 10.8 million people. Straddling the cultural boundary between Germanic and Latin Europe, Belgium is home to two main linguistic groups, the Dutch-speakers, mostly Flemish, and the French-speakers, mostly Walloons, plus a small group of German-speakers. Belgium's two largest regions are the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders in the north and the French-speaking southern region of Wallonia. The Brussels-Capital Region, officially bilingual, is a mostly French-speaking enclave within the Flemish Region. A small German-speaking Community exists in eastern Wallonia.

Many things go on up there in Flanders that affect the lives of all of us who live in Europe, and the US, too, so it's probably a good idea to know exactly where it is. The Royal Ballet of Flanders is located in Antwerp, about forty minutes by train from Brussels. If you just skimmed the above description, please go back and read it again, slowly. 
Photo Ballet van Vlaaderen

Now that we've established some geographics, I think that Marcia Haydée's decision to develop the character of Carabosse, the evil fairy, really worked. I loved when the green magical curtain came down, and then, on top of it, down came another black gossamer curtain that Carabosse draped around himself (the sex of the evil fairy was ambiguous; but since it was played by a man, I will use the masculine pronoun). Especially chilling were Aurora's childhood interactions with the Lilac Fairy. Aurora grew up, playing with dolls, seemingly happy and protected by the Lilac Fairy, while waiting in the background, unseen, was Carabosse fluttering his black gossamer curtain. If Aurora was not conscious of the curse awaiting her, the audience most certainly was. 

The costumes by Pablo Nunez were ravishing, with fine details that made each character stand out -- Nunez and Marcia Haydée were also responsible for the lighting. Benjamin Pope conducted the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice, expertly transporting Tchaikovsky's vibrant notes to our ears. Pablo Nunez must be some kind of genius because in addition to the costumes and lighting, he was also was responsible for the whimsical sets, creating a fairy tale wonderland on the stage of La Fenice. The dancers were superb. The members Royal Ballet of Flanders come from all over the world. The night I saw the performance, Aurora was played by Altea Nunez from Spain, the Prince by Ernesto Boada from Cuba, Carabosse by Yevgeniy Kolesnyk from the Ukraine and the Lilac Fairy by Maria Seletskaja from Estonia. 

The way things are going on the planet, I had been worried that humanity might be losing its ability to even perform traditional ballet, but after witnessing the Royal Ballet of Flanders, I am happy to report that not only is ballet alive and well, there were plenty of young people from the Royal School of Ballet in Antwerp and the Centro Artistic L'étoile in Pisa livening up the stage. 

Photo Ballet van Vlaanderen
It was such an enjoyable evening, that I was surprised to read the following article in the New York Times by Rosyln Sulcas dated March 14, 2011 entitled Tough Passage for Flemish Ballet Troupe:

The Royal Ballet of Flanders is today one of the best companies in Europe. It has dynamic, top-notch dancers and a repertory that achieves, with effortless flair, the balance between traditional and modern that every ballet troupe seeks. In the last six years it has toured the world, won awards and garnered rave reviews. It is, surely, considered a jewel in the Belgian cultural crown.
Or is it? In October the Flemish Culture Ministry announced that the company would merge with the Flemish Opera, with both under a state-appointed administrator, or intendant. As the ballet company’s artistic director, Kathryn Bennetts, sees it, this would mean a loss of artistic autonomy, hamper international touring and mire her already underfinanced company in greater practical and financial difficulties.
“I am absolutely outraged at the minister for making such an ignorant and arrogant decision,” she said on Belgian national television after the announcement. “The minister of culture,” she went on, referring to Joke Schauvliege, “shouldn’t pretend to know anything about the arts — she doesn’t.” Ms. Bennetts declared that she would resign if the merger occurred.

Photo giornaledelladanza
Kathryn Bennetts is Australian:)

Needless to say, Ms. Bennetts did not resign. I don't know the current status of the company, but I think that the Royal Ballet of Flanders is a national treasure of which Belgium should be proud. They should travel all over the world, spreading good will, culture and delight, inspiring humanity with some the finest qualities that mankind has to offer.

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Friday, December 9, 2011

Antonín Dvořák at La Fenice - New World Symphony

Excerpt - Symphony No. 9 in E Minor "From the New World" - 3. Scherzo

(Venice, Italy) The Czech composer Antonín Leopold Dvořák arrived in America in 1892 and gave classical music a jolt. Please listen to the above clip if you have not already done so.

Convinced by the philanthropist, Jeanette Thurber, to head her newly-created National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City, Dvořák's task was to help Thurber realize her vision of creating an American school of classical music composition. Dvořák, already hugely successful in Europe, was hired to create the national music of the United States of America itself because it was not doing it organically. 

Thurber's dream was that her conservatory would eventually become a federally funded national institution with branches throughout the United States, its headquarters based in Washington, D.C. Needless to say, her dream did not come true, but it certainly started out on the right path, with Dvořák quickly building a strong foundation.

La Fenice (The Phoenix)
Unfortunately, Dvořák and his wife left America before the spring 1895 term at the conservatory was finished, but not before he had inspired the New World with a composition or two. According to Wikipedia, apparently Jeanette Thurber had not paid him his salary, and he was homesick for the Old World, where he was greatly appreciated. During his short time in the United States, Dvořák knocked off not only From the New World aka Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, Op. 95, but also his last solo concerto, Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104 (among other works), both of which we heard last night, December 8, 2011, at La Fenice, Venice's own opera house. Conducted by Alberto Veronesi, the Orchestra Filarmonica della Fenice produced a deeply moving concert, starring the dynamic Russian cellist, Nina Kotova. 

Whether or not it is true that Jeanette Thurber did not pay his salary, according to his own letters, Dvořák was mightily impressed with America when he first arrived, not only with the way he was treated by Jeanette Thurber, but also with her generosity and willingness to expose both rich and poor to the world of music. His contract was for a substantial amount of money, and from what I've read about the man, I seriously doubt that he would have gotten on the boat without a decent advance. We can imagine that there is much more to the story -- especially since Thurber herself was the daughter of an immigrant violinist from Copenhagen who married a millionaire. 

Dvořák's daunting task was to help the United States create their own national music. (I have struggled to format the following letter from Dvořák to friends in Prague to make it more readable, but am afraid you will have to decipher it yourselves.) Here is an example of one jewel of a sentence you will find if you take the time to read: "Imagine how the Americans work in the interests of art and for the people!"


Parker House, Boston (Hotel)

27. XL 1892. 

Dear Sir, Esteemed Madam, 

I have been wanting to write to you for a long time but have 
always put it off, waiting for a more suitable moment when I could 
tell you something of particular interest about America and 
especially about the musical conditions here. There is so much 
to tell and all so new and interesting that I cannot put it all down 
on paper and so I shall limit myself to the most important things. 

The first and chief thing is that, thanks be to God, we are 
all well and liking it here very much. And why shouldn't we 
when it is so lovely and free here and one can live so much more 
peacefully and that is what I need. I do not worry about any 
thing and do my duty and it is all right. There are things here 
which one must admire and others which I would rather not see, 
but what can you do, everywhere there is something-in general, 
however, it is altogether different here, and, if America goes 
on like this, she will surpass all the others. 

Just imagine how the Americans work in the interests of 
art and for the people! So, for instance, yesterday I came to 
Boston to conduct my obligatory concert (every thing connected 
with it being arranged by the highly esteemed President of our 
Conservatory, the tireless Mrs. Jeanette M.Thurber) at which the 
Requiem will be given with several hundred performers. The 
concert on December 1st will be for only the wealthy and the 
intelligentzia, but the preceding day my work will also be per 
formed for poor workers who earn 1 8 dollars a week, the purpose 
being to give the poor and uneducated people the opportunity 
to hear the musical works of all times and all nations'! 
That's something, isn't it? I am looking forward to it like a child. 

Today, Sunday, I have a rehearsal at three o'clock in the 
afternoon and wonder how it will come off. The orchestra here, 
which I heard in Brooklyn, is excellent, 100 musicians, mostly 
German as is also the conductor. His name is Nikisch and he 
comes from somewhere in Hungary. The orchestra was founded 
by a local millionaire, Colonel Higginson, who gave a big 
speech at my first concert (a thing unheard of here), spoke of 
my coming to America and the purpose to be served by my stay 
here. The Americans expect great things of me and the main 
thing is, so they say, to show them to the promised land and 
kingdom of a new and independent art, in short, to create a 
national music. If the small Czech nation can have such musi 
cians, they say, why could not they, too, when their country 
and people is so immense. 

Forgive me for lacking a little in modesty, but I am only 
telling you what the American papers are constantly writing. 
It is certainly both a great and splendid task for me and I hope 
that with God's help I shall accomplish it. There is more than 
enough material here and plenty of talent. I have pupils from as 
far away as San Francisco. They are mostly poor people, but 
at our Institute teaching is free of charge, anybody who is really 
talented pays no fees ! I have only 8 pupils, but some of them 
very promising. 

And then not less so are the entries for the competition 
for prizes offered by Mrs. Thurber. 1000 dollars for an opera, 
1000 for an oratory, 1000 for a libretto, 500 for a symphony, 
and, for a cantata, a piano or a violin concerto, 300 dollars each. 

A great deal of music has come in from all over America and 
I must go through it all. It does not take much work. I look at 
the first page and can tell straight away whether it is the work 
of a dilettante or an artist. 

As regards operas, they are very poor and I don't know 
whether any will be awarded a prize. Besides myself there are 
other gentlemen on the jury for each kind of composition five 
of us. The other kinds of composition such as symphonies, 
concertos, suites, serenades etc. interest me very much. The 
composers are all much the same as at home brought up in the 
German School, but here and there another spirit, other thoughts? 
another colouring flashes forth, in short, something 
Indian(something a la BretHarte). I am very curious how things will 

As regards my own work, this is my programme: On 
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 9-11, I have compo 
sition ; twice a week orchestra practice from 4-6 and the rest of 
my time is my own. You see that it is not a great deal and Mrs. 
Thurber is very "considerate" as she wrote to me in Europe that 
she would be. 

She looks after the administrative side herself has a secretary 
also a founding member of the co-operative (very wealthy), a 
Mr. Stanton, an intimate friend of Mr. Cleveland, whereas Mrs. 
Thurber is a Republican-, but in matters of art they get on very 
well together and work for the good of our young and not yet 
fully developed institute. And so it is all right. The second 
secretary is Mrs MacDowel and she is mainly in charge of the 

And now something about our domestic affairs. We live in 
17th street East, 327 (only 4 mins. from the school) and are 
very satisfied with the flat. Mr. Steinway sent me a piano imme- 
diately-a lovely one and, of course, free of charge, so that we 
have one nice piece of furniture in our sitting-room. Besides 
this we have 3 others rooms and a small room (furnished) and 
pay 80 dollars a month. A lot for us but the normal price here. 

We have breakfast and supper at home and go to a board 
ing-house for dinner. 

I must stop. My kind regards to yourself and your wife, 
I remain, Gratefully Yours, 

Antonin Dvorak. 

My wife, who is with me, asks to be remembered to you.
Dvorak to Mr.and Mrs Hldvka in Prague.
Jeanette Thurber
Apparently Dvořák, the son of a butcher, found his inspiration for the new national classical music of the United States of America in Native American and African American music, which Carnegie Hall and New York City embraced, but which the critics in Boston most definitely did not. (There is a great joke about the people who came over on the Mayflower here in Europe, which I will tell you in the future:)

From Humanities, November/December 2003, Volume 24/Number 6; Scott Eithier's excellent write-up of Dvorák in America by Joseph Horowitz: 

The New York press was filled with articles about his arrival. Americans were impressed that Dvorák, the son of a Bohemian butcher, had worked his way up--with a little assistance from Johannes Brahms--to become one of Europe’s most respected composers. Journalist Henry Edward Krehbiel, who would become one of Dvorák’s most loyal supporters in the press, wrote in Century magazine that Dvorák’s life was “a story of manifest destiny, of signal triumph over obstacle and discouraging environment. To rehearse it stimulates hope, reanimates ambition, and helps keep alive popular belief in the reality of that precious attribute called genius.”

Just as America was taken by Dvorák, Dvorák was equally fascinated by America. In particular, he was captivated by the music and culture of African Americans and American Indians. “I suggested that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants,” he writes in Music in America. “I was led to take this view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans.”

Harry Burleigh
One of Dvorák’s students at the National Conservatory was the young African American singer and composer Harry Burleigh. Burleigh sang for Dvorák many of the spirituals and plantation songs he had learned from his grandfather.

Dvorák’s interest in American Indian culture began in Europe, when he read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha, in Czech translation. During his first year in New York he accompanied Jeanette Thurber to a performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Dvorák was fascinated by Buffalo Bill Cody, the sharpshooter Annie Oakley, and the Indians in war bonnets who reenacted Custer’s Last Stand and battles between settlers and Native Americans.

...When the symphony premiered on December 16, 1893 at Carnegie Hall with Anton Seidl and the New York Philharmonic, audiences and critics received the work warmly. When the work was premiered in Boston two weeks later, however, the reception could not have been more different. The critics and composers of the Boston establishment were in an uproar.

“Such Negro melodies as I have heard I should be sorry to see become the basis of an American school of composition,” composer George Chadwick wrote in the Boston Herald.

Amy Beach, another Boston composer, applauded the attempt to create a national music, but felt that African American melodies were not “fully typical” of the country. “The African population of the United States is far too small for its songs to be considered ‘American,’” she wrote.

Well, we can imagine how well THAT went over with the folks up in Massachusetts -- a fortune was spent to hire the most important composer in Europe at the time -- a Czech and son of a butcher -- who comes to America and tells the white folks that the best music they've got was created by native American Indians and imported African slaves! And THEN he creates a brilliant symphony called From the New World based on that music! 

Let's listen to another excerpt from From the New World. I am playing them out of order for effect; this is the Largo, which actually comes before the Scherzo that you listened to there at the top of the post. The piece is a little long, so listen to as much as you like -- I am sure most of you will recognize the tune.

I will leave you with a little anecdote from one of  Dvořák's students:
...Another time he surprised us with the question: who 
of us knows what Mozart is? The mysterious question 
caused much cudgelling of brains and many views were 
put forward about Mozart's significance. They were, 
however, only the usual commonplace phrases such as: 
Mozart is a classic-
a composer of opera 
of symphonies 
Haydn's successor 
Beethoven's antipode 
a precursor of Romanticism 
and similar more or less senseless sentences. To 
all the answers the Master shook his head and the 
enigma remained unsolved. 
"Now that just shows how little sense and feeling you 
have for music. Do you mean to say that not one of 
you can guess?!" he asked, raising his voice. 
Nobody replied. ...
Dvorak's temperament boiled over: 
Seizing the nearest pupil by the shoulder, he dragged 
him to the window and here pointing with one hand to 
the sky and with the other shaking the pupil by the 
sleeve asked him once more: 
"Now do you know? Do you see it?" 

The pupil was in obvious embarrassment: 
now throwing an inquiring look at the Master, 
now gazing at the sky, he finally stuttered: 

"Excuse me, sir, I don't see anything." 

"What? You don't see the sun?" 

"I see it!" 

"Why then don't you say what Mozart is ?" 

And turning away from the window-
seriously, loftily and with tremendous 
enthusiasm, Dvorak pronounced this significant 

"Well, remember: Mozart is sunshine!" 
From the article.' "From Dvorak's School" by Josef Michl
Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Monday, December 5, 2011

Sofia Taliani's Soul Kitchen Music Feast

Sofia Taliani (Italy)
(Venice, Italy) The dynamo known as Sofia Taliani has brought together musical friends from all parts of the globe and combined them into a smorgasbord of sound. Sofia Taliani's Soul Kitchen Music Feast is an ongoing project that last took place on October 31, 2011 at 11:30 AM, just before lunch. The setting was the Toffolo shipyard canteen, run by Piero Fortunato, on the island of Giudecca, giving the performance a unique Venetian flavor. Combining classical, opera, world-music, jazz and contemporary music, Sofia initiated a bunch of Venetians, local residents and visitors from all over Europe, children and grownups, into her multicultural world. The place was packed, so full that it was standing-room only.

Jennifer Cabrera Fernandez (Mexico)
Sofia's bio:  Sofia Taliani was born in Rome. A singer, pianist and composer who grew up musically in London and Vienna. Her music is a very personal fusion of classical, jazz, folk and contemporary. 
I asked Sofia how she would describe herself, where her heart was, and she told me she felt "Mediterranean."

I found myself seated in the Austrian contingent with a group of people who knew Sofia from her days in Vienna, plus some members of the Volker Nemmer fan club. Volker plays the piano -- very, very well.

Volker Nemmer (Austria)
The show kicked of with Sofia Taliani herself playing the piano and vamping it up. Sofia is vivacious and gutsy, a joy to listen to and fun to watch, full of positive energy. The performances took place in the center of the canteen, with the audience -- itself a hodgepodge of humanity -- packed comfortably into the remaining space. After Sofia came Jennifer Cabrera Fernandez from Mexico. Jennifer is a dancer and percussionist, and combined both her talents in a riveting performance. David Boato from Italy on trumpet took us on an Autumn Leaves journey through deft jazz riffs and improvisations.

David Boato (Italy)
My favorite performer was Dudu Kouate from Africa on percussion, but percussion like I'd never heard or seen before. Using an assortment of rhythm instruments and noise makers, he took us on a different, more exotic journey into the jungles of Africa, into another culture, into an beautiful, untamed land. Birds sang, wild animals stalked, and water lapped onto the shore. If you closed your eyes and used your imagination, you were actually there in the jungle.

Dudu Kouate (Africa)
Liesl Odenweller is a classically trained soprano from the United States who lives in Venice. I've heard Liesl sing before, but not like this. With a wink and a smile, she transformed herself into a femme fatale and slunk around the piano, chortling clear, sweet notes of delight.

Liesl Odenweller (U.S.A.)
The show wrapped up with variations on Erik Satie's Vexations, the performers -- many of whom had never worked together before -- feeling each other's vibes and improvising their way into an euphonic ensemble. 

From Wikipedia:

Vexations is a noted musical work by Erik Satie. Apparently conceived for keyboard (though the single page of manuscript does not specify an instrument), it consists of a short theme in the bass whose four presentations are alternatively heard unaccompanied and played with chords above. The theme and its accompanying chords are written using strikingly eccentric and impractical enharmonic notation. The piece is undated, but scholars usually assign a date around 1893 on the basis of musical and biographical evidence.

Judging by the appreciative applause of the audience, Sofia Taliana's Soul Kitchen Music Feast was a banquet for the ears and eyes. After the show, the Fortunato family offered up a typical Venetian menu to the line of people flowing out the door.

All the images you see were taken by Stefania Gallucio. Here is a YouTube clip from Sofia Taliana's Soul Kitchen Music Feast back in June. Enjoy!

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Finissage - 54th Venice International Contemporary Art Festival Wraps Up

The Black Arch by Richard Duebel
Photo: La Biennale
Winner Ex Aequo Professional Photo Competition
(Venice, Italy) The 54th Venice International Contemporary Festival closed on Sunday, November 27, 2011 with a Finissage weekend filled with stimulating conversations, much success and goodwill. Since opening in June, more than 440,000 visitors made their way through the physical manifestations of contemporary imaginations, adding their energy to the World of Art.

Harald Szeemann
Part of the Biennale's program has been a series of conversations open to the public called Meetings on Art down at Teatro alle Tese in Arsenale. On Saturday, the topic was Let's Talk About Us - Blockbuster or Betablocker, and brought together all the past curators of Biennale except for Harald Szeemann, who died in 2005. Szeemann originated the curator position here in Venice back in 1999, and was also the curator in 2001 -- in fact, he is credited with inventing the profession of "independent curator" itself. The Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has acquired the Harald Szeemann Archive and Library:

As the largest single archival collection ever acquired by the Getty Research Institute, the Harald Szeemann Archive and Library is an essential and significant resource for the study of 20th century art and art history. Perhaps the most famous curator of the post-World War II era, Szeemann was an ardent advocate of modern and contemporary art, from Dada, surrealism, and futurism, to conceptualism, postminimalism, performance art, and new forms of installation and video art. 

Sguardi volti verso l’opera “Turisti” di Cattelan by Giulia Iacolutti
Photo: La Biennale
Winner Ex Aequo Professional Photo Competition 

It was fascinating to hear about La Biennale from the curator's point of view. From President Paolo Baratta:

In the last three meetings we have decided to put ourselves on the line by summoning all the curators of past editions of the Art Biennale and their illustrious colleagues to discuss what has been done and what might be done in the future. The Biennale has gone through many phases in the past 116 years since its foundation, and the role of its curators has varied accordingly. The new course - which began in 1999 when the newly-nominated President chose Harald Szeemann as curator - was in this sense distinguished by a profound transformation of the Form of the Exhibition, which, for the first time ever, became an international exhibition, clearly distinct from national participations, autonomous and uninvolved in the selection for the Italian pavilion. The three pillars that still characterize the Art Biennale today were thus being delineated: the curator, the national Pavilions and the public to whom the Meetings on Art are expressly dedicated.

To put that into simple English, in 1999 Paolo Baratta decided that he wanted a curator that would be in charge of the Biennale itself. That curator was Harald Szeemann. The national pavilions are mostly located at Giardini, and are like little nations with diplomatic privileges. The curator has no control or power over them, and that includes the Italian pavilion. They can do whatever they like -- they don't even have to pay attention to the theme if they don't want to. However, there is another part of Biennale which is housed mostly at Arsenale, with touches at Giardini and other venues around town. That falls under the guidance of the curator, whose mission is not to view art from the point of view of a single nation, but to look at art from an international point of view, choosing their own theme. This year's theme, chosen by Bice Curiger, was IllumiNATIONS.

The curators that took part in the discussions were:

54 - 2011 - Bice Curiger (Switzerland)

53 - 2009 - Daniel Birnbaum (Sweden)

52 - 2007 - Robert Storr (USA)

51 - 2005 - Maria de Corral & Rosa Martinez (Spain)

50 - 2003 - Francesco Bonami (Italy)

The discussion, Blockbuster or Betablocker: Biennale curator, museum curator was a tribute to Harald Szeemann who used the term "betablocker" (a drug that improves the heart's ability to relax) to indicate works of art that serve to calm, anesthetize, relax.

Visitors by Bertram Kober
Photo: La Biennale
Winnder Ex Aequo Professional Photo Competition 
There were comments about the difference between the Venice Biennale, "the mother of all Biennales," and Art Basel in Switzerland, an art fair which takes place right about the same time as the Venice Biennale. One curator said it was the difference between going to the botanical gardens versus going to a garden shop to buy plants. At Biennale, you cannot buy the art directly from Biennale, although in the past you could. It was said that Biennale was a "caring" institute, not to make money --  it would be as if a hospital dealt only with flu and colds to turn a profit. Many of the works are site-specific, and thrown away when the Biennale is over. Biennale is a place for artists to have free expression, to release their desires into society. Artists anticipate the wishes of society. Society has its own desires and wants to celebrate its own history or break ties with history -- modern man tidies things up and can create a well-ordered society. Art is unpredictable.

The curators agreed that artists are already ahead of the rest of the world, and that a curator is not an artist (though some curators are failed artists and failed poets). The World of Art is a great amplification system, and art world people can explain what is happening to the general public. A great curator is more like a great editor -- a concept I, personally, can understand as I have encountered more than one editor who thought they were an author. The best editors are geniuses at getting the best work out of an author, providing a safe environment where you feel free to create, and thoughtful feedback that opens your imagination.

Someone mentioned that John Waters said: "Another corrupt pavilion." I didn't catch which pavilion it was in reference to. Paolo Baratta said that we know that some pavilions are corrupt institutions and that we let them do it. The abuse is immediately evident. And I thought, that's true! Anyone with any intelligence can spot the corruption right away, so the impostors who think they are getting away with something are really walking around naked to the eyes of the Art World People, wearing nothing but the Emperor's New Clothes.

Dorfles infinito e lo sguardo a Ghirri  by Monica SilvaPhoto: La Biennale
Winner Ex Aequo Professional Photo Competition
Paolo Baratta has very strong ideas about what the Biennale is and what he wants from a curator. He said that with Biennale you try to get close to the point where the ineffable becomes expressed. Where the individual creates. We don't want to be regarded as a machinery that does what you expect. He said the curator of the Biennale is a daring explorer, not a historian. He or she must make mistakes, and break something that might or might not be. It must be a single figure, an individual. A committee is already compromised. There will be transparency through personal choices. Baratta said that you live only if you are free to chose, and that he will fight against committees and democracy. Choice and freedom of choice is the only way to keep alive. After listening to what the curators had to say, Baratta said that he was more convinced than ever that the curator of Biennale is a special animal with drops of genius who must have courage and character.

Perhaps you can see why they just tried to get rid of Paolo Baratta! I have made no secret of my deep admiration and respect for the President, especially when so many people in the world today do not have any courage of conviction, and are afraid to speak strongly.

For those of you who would like to read about the drama, which ties to the government of Italy itself -- which just collapsed and is being rebuilt with a new Prime Minister, Mario Monti -- here are some links:

FlashArt Online: Giulio Malgara will replace Paolo Baratta as President of the Venice Biennale 

The Art Newspaper: Unpopular choice for Biennale president withdraws

Hollywood Reporter: Baratta has received the support of culture minister Lorenzo Ornaghi, virtually assuring he would continue in the role.

The Art Newspaper: Interview with Paolo Baratta: Putting the wings back on the lion

GalleristNY: Venice Biennale President Paolo Baratta on Conflicts of Interest, Politics and the ‘Biennale Bus’

I don't know Giulio Malgara, but many people have told me that he is a nice guy, so I would assume the uproar is about his qualifications as the President of La Biennale -- Malgara is a food importer, known for bringing Quaker Oats and Gatorade (which are owned by the American company PepsiCo) to Italy, and for founding Auditel, a company that collects TV usage statistics. Apparently Silvio Berlusconi often gave political appointments to his friends who had no experience with the job they were given -- another reason why the government had to collapse. However, I do know how much passion Paolo Baratta has put into the job. Over the years, I have watched La Biennale -- in all its sections -- transform into a vibrant institution that truly nurtures and respects creative individuals with all their eccentricities instead of trying to stomp them into conformity.

Paolo Baratta
Photo: The Art Newspaper
We must remember that the idea for La Biennale as a permanent important meeting point for the World of Art was initiated in 1893 by Riccardo Selvatico, who was the mayor of Venice, as well as a playwright and poet. As we all know, the World of Art is a different world than the Everyday World, and it often makes the Everyday World uncomfortable. The Everyday World sometimes becomes so overwhelmed by what the World of Art is telling them that they try to destroy the World of Art -- even to this very day. Understandably, some creatures from the Everyday World long to become part of the World of Art and even try to force or manipulate their way in. Or worse, they try to force the World of Art people into their world, blocking artists in every way imaginable so that they are pushed into the Ordinary World just to survive. That is not nice, nor does it serve any useful purpose. It is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That is part of the drama that just played out here in Italy, as you will see if you read the links.

It might be difficult for Americans to understand the deep desire of Italy to allow artists the freedom to create because the job of Minister of Culture does not exist in the United States. We do, however, have the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, which, scarily, is part of the US State Department. To me, the US government does not have the respect for artists, writers and other creative people that the governments of Europe and other parts of the world have, and I fear that the country will pay a great price for it. It is impossible to suppress all the artists. Impossible. All it does is make them stronger. Artists are the soul of a country, and you cannot exist very long without a soul.

Italy, a civilization that is thousands of years old, understands that it is wiser to let artists communicate their visions rather than suppress them. Venice herself understands that the reason she is still standing for all these centuries is because of the visions of extraordinary people from her past, combined with dynamic thinkers of the present, that ensure a rich and fertile future.

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog 

Despite Severe Sanctions Cat Bauer Refuses to Stop Imagining

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say 
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say 
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Monday, November 7, 2011


(Venice, Italy) For the first time in the history of the Venice Biennale, the revenue earned by the institution itself equals the public funding for the entire 2011 financial year -- SIXTEEN MILLION SIX HUNDRED THOUSAND EURO (€16,6 million). The Art Biennale is currently Italy's most visited art show -- 384,446 people have visited the exhibition as of yesterday, Sunday, November 6, 2011. Established in 1895, the Venice Biennale is one of the most prestigious cultural institutions on the planet.

More sponsorships, more visitors, and more merchandising were factors that have added to the positive results. Not only the Art section, but also the Cinema, Dance, Music and Theater sections have been especially dynamic this year, attracting creative, energetic, intelligent visitors from all over the world. 

WE HAVE BECOME NUMB TO NUMBERS. We have become so used to hearing fantasy figures about how many trillions of dollars, euros and monopoly money are wasted... on insane military manueveurs, collapsing banks, bailouts, the European Union going down, the US broke and powerless,... and other oddities... Wall Street bankers and corporate soldiers reaping millions and millions of dollars in bonuses, spitting the crisis in everyone's face... Iran and its fashionable new nuclear bomb, defiant,... Israel going insane and taking it out on Palestine,... Italy thugging it out with this one and that as its short Prime Minister -- who is basically just a businessman and all that entails -- cannot understand why he cannot have some old fashion bunga bunga like everyone else.. , Sarkozy behaving like a soap-opera Napoleon shouting vive la France! and Merkel playing the part of the stout German matriarch... the formerly-eloquent Barack Obama rendered speechless... and everyone looking to a bemused China to figure the whole thing out -- nothing but a bunch of hired actors playing a role.. and so much funny, funny money -- so many bogus mathematical formulas no one can understand because they are not based on reality... so many crazy Goldman Sachs numbers based on nothing but the research of some mad scientist they've got hidden in a cupboard... crazy to even Goldman Sachs... to such an extent that they have gone nuts and started beating up Occupy Wall Street's little People's bank. 


The PHYSICAL REALITY, the actual figures of 16,6 million euro and 384,446 people might seem like peanuts. But if it is based on accurate accounting, actual human presence, and real ticket purchases, it is a valid measure. I believe we need to readjust our thinking and get back to reality: how many tickets did you sell? How much did each sponsor contribute? How much did that exhibit cost? How much did you pay the artist? Does the artist have real-life, artist-suffering credentials, or was he/she created by his/her government? How much did you pay for that tote bag? Enough with all this posturing and bullying by bankers and the lot. REALITY CHECK: YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU WHEN YOU DIE. Therefore, you'd better lighten up and find something you can take with you when you die, and you'd better do it fast.

For me, this year's Venice Biennale -- in all its sections -- has been a physical manifestation of some of the highest qualities that humanity has to offer. 

People's Republic of China
Photo: La Biennale
As we come to the final days of the Art Biennale -- it closes on November 27 -- I sincerely feel that this year's theme -- ILLUMInations -- has been reflected not only in the art, but by the presence of illuminated visitors from nations all over the globe. Venice herself has been more vibrant and alive thanks to creative energy of La Biennale. Spaces and places long dormant and asleep have opened their doors and welcomed a wave of humanity through their doors. Local businesses -- restaurants, hotels, mom and pop shops, luxury fashion stores -- even the gondoliers -- have felt the kiss of Biennale energy upon their cheeks, allowing Venice to keep her head above water while much of the world outside appeared to be sinking. 

Urs Fischer
Photo: Peter Dobey for Hyperallergic
With so much dire news currently enveloping our planet, it's reassuring to know that kindred spirits, working together, are still able to illuminate the darkness -- and make a profit!

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Tintoretto and The Light

The Last Supper (1592-94) by Jacopo Tintoretto 
(Venice, Italy) This year's 54th Venice International Contemporary Art Festival, ILLUMInations, stars three paintings by an ancient master, Jacopo Tintoretto, who would have been 493-years-old this year. Bice Curiger, the curator remarks:

...His compositions are audacious and fly in the face of classical Renaissance rules, while the light in his paintings, rather than being cool or harmoniously integrated, is "ecstatic" and at times almost feverish. [...] The presentation of Tintoretto at this year's Biennale is not meant as an espousal of some notion of "classical timelessness." Far from seeking to trace superficial formal analogies between Tintoretto and art of the present, it concerns a form of pictorial energy that is altogether "anti-classical" but is also the kind fueled by the friction that results from letting a reckless Old Master become involved in a contemporary context.

If we look at the Last Supper, we can see that Tintoretto was a bit of a radical:

From Wikipedia:

The Last Supper (1592-1594) is a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Jacopo Tintoretto. It is housed in the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, northern Italy.
Different from usual depictions of the Last Supper, the work does not portray the apostles in the centre of the scene which is instead occupied by secondary characters, such as a woman carrying a dish or the servants taking the dishes from the table. Tintoretto's Last Supper incorporates many Mannerist devices, including an imbalanced composition and visual complexity. The ability of this dramatic scene to engage viewers was well in keeping with Counter-Reformation ideals and the Catholic Church's belief in the didactic nature of religious art.
The setting is also similar to a Venetian inn. Also personal is the use of light, which appears to come into obscurity from both the light on the ceiling and from Jesus'aureola.

The Stealing of the Dead Body of St. Mark (1562-66)
According to Paolo Baratta, the President of Biennale, Meetings on Art are conversations, open to the public, which "are intended to confirm the role of la Biennale di Venezia as an institution open to knowledge and the spirit of exploration, worth a pilgrimage." Judging by the crowds that were there on Saturday, October 29, there are still plenty of people making the pilgrimage late unto the season -- there were 22,242 visitors for the week of October 16 to 22, making ILLUMInations the most visited exhibition in Italy.

Creation of the Animals (1550-53)
Please forgive the brevity of this blog, but I seem to have twisted my wrist!
Ciao from Venice,