The Venice Biennale takes a surreal turn, not for the better

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VENICE — We need to talk about Surrealism. Honestly, it’s not a conversation I particularly want to have. But the movement, which Sigmund Freud unintentionally spawned and wisely disavowed, is everywhere just now.

It is the major theme at this year’s Venice Biennale, where Surrealist aesthetics dominated not only the main exhibition but a series of shows around the city, including the Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s “Surrealism and Magic: Enchanted Modernity.” The movement was also the subject of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s winter extravaganza, “Surrealism Beyond Borders.”

A great Venice Biennale unfolds, against all the odds

Emerging out of Dada, Surrealism was shaped into a movement in the 1920s by poets and artists in the orbit of André Breton, who took up Freud’s theory of the irrational unconscious, proposing it as a path toward liberation. The term itself was coined in 1917 by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The world was falling apart, but Apollinaire expected Surrealism, he wrote, “to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness.” None of that really panned out. Confronted by its own political naivete, embarrassed by self-indulgence, Surrealism withered after World War II.

Nonetheless, it lives on, both in the art world and popular culture. For many people, “surreal” is synonymous with “wow” — an automatic response to anything not completely anticipated, like standing in sunshine, or being invited to a party. Meanwhile, Surrealist aesthetics have been subsumed by today’s technophiles, who employ software to realize any random vision, no matter how concocted, then mint it as an NFT (more on that shortly).

I like Magritte, I love Surrealist poetry. Dalí on a good day can be spellbinding. I am all for the “child’s mind,” for unfettered imagination and for dreaming. But when I’m forced to see a lot of Surrealist imagery at once, I’m reminded that, fundamentally, I loathe it.

That’s because Surrealism (I’m generalizing) is too programmatic. It turns something that should hinge on reality — imagination’s rocket fuel — into something artificial, contrived and ultimately ridiculous. Surrealism makes me feel trapped. At the Met’s recent Surrealist show, I panicked and all but ran for the exit.

In Venice, it was worse. One incident defined the experience. At the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, I was walking through the run of galleries showing “Surrealism and Magic” (through Sept. 26) when I came upon “The Pleasures of Dagobert,” a 1945 painting by Leonora Carrington. Carrington, who was a lover of Max Ernst, also features in the Biennale’s major exhibition, organized by Cecilia Alemani and titled “The Milk of Dreams” (after a children’s book Carrington wrote).

I was ready to move past it when a gallery attendant ensnared me and proceeded to deliver a five-minute lecture on the picture’s complex symbolism. Her spoken dissertation flowed so continuously that I couldn’t excuse myself without being rude. So I listened. I looked. It was all extremely informative. But the more she unpacked the picture’s “meanings” — which ranged from the autobiographical to the metaphysical via the political — the more preposterous Carrington’s picture seemed.

The year was 1945. This — this far-fetched allegory — was Carrington’s response?

“For all of us,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges in his 1952 essay collection, “Other Inquisitions,” “allegory is an aesthetic error.” Borges may or may not have been right. But if you wanted to make his case, you could do worse than point to the laborious enigmas and allegorical overkill of “The Pleasures of Dagobert.”

The Peggy Guggenheim exhibition, organized by Grazina Subelyte, tries to show how Surrealism was rooted as much in the occult and in alchemy as in Freud’s theories. One of the pillars of occultism, which flourished in Europe from around the turn of the century, was the idea that magical correspondences existed between things in different categories, such as gods, plants, perfumes, constellations, precious stones and numbers. Everything referred to something else in a universe characterized by infinite duality.

Hence the contagion of symbolism in the works of Ernst, Carrington and the show’s other artists, among them Remedios Varo, Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning and Kay Sage, all of whom also appear in “The Milk of Dreams.” Many Surrealists positioned themselves as seers who could, through painting, illuminate the darkness and chaos of history.

It’s not clear to me that we should take their claims any more seriously than the claims of tarot card readers or astrologists. “Every aspect of this picture is rife with symbolism,” crows the wall label beside Ernst’s “Attirement of the Bride.” The very thought is exhausting.

Exhausting, too, was the process of getting into one the Biennale’s most talked-about exhibitions: the German artist Anselm Kiefer’s wholesale takeover of part of the Doge’s Palace, or Palazzo Ducale, at one end of St. Mark’s Square. Long lines snaked out into the square. Once admitted, you had to negotiate a fixed route before reaching the palace’s Sala dello Scrutinio, where Kiefer’s massive, multipaneled paintings cover the walls.

In 1577, the Sala dello Scrutinio was almost destroyed by fire — the third conflagration at the palace in less than a century. After that, some of Venice’s greatest painters, including Tintoretto, Palma il Giovane and Andrea Vicentino, were commissioned by the Senate of the Republic to repaint the room’s walls and ceilings with scenes evoking the glory of Venice.

Kiefer, who lives in Paris, specializes in works on a grand scale. In 2019 he was invited to fill the Sala dello Scrutinio. He has done so with works that transpose the glory of “La Serenissima” (“the most serene republic,” as Venice was once known) into fire-scorched destruction.

Kiefer emerged in the 1980s with work that spoke to the traumas of recent German history. Combining painting with sculptural assemblage, he draws heavily on literature and mythology. His Venice show (through Oct. 29) is titled “Questi scritti, quando verranno bruciati, daranno finalmente un po’ di luce,” a quote he has taken from the 20th-century Venetian philosopher Andrea Emo. It translates to “These writings, when burned, will finally cast a little light.”

A bleak thought — and Kiefer in a nutshell. Like Ernst and his fellow Surrealists, the German sees himself as an artist-seer. He, too, deals in alchemy, myth and cosmic dualisms. His paintings set plunging perspective lines against surfaces of dense materiality. The perspective lines read as allegories both for the implacable vectors of modern history and the train tracks that took millions to their deaths during the Holocaust.

The works in the Doge’s Palace (including one that seems to show the palace itself on fire beneath a winged lion, the symbol of Venice) are thick with paint, lead and other metals glistening silver and gold. Attached to their surfaces are wheat, ladders, model ships, clothes and shopping carts filled with blocks of coal.

Kiefer’s themes are big: chaos and order, negation and rebirth. He is no Surrealist. But in the context of this Biennale’s driving emphasis on magic and the occult, his show reminds us uncomfortably of his infatuation with alchemy, the fantasy of turning base metals into gold or historical debacles into spiritual rebirth.

For a while in the 1990s, Kiefer fell out of favor, suspected of having succumbed to delusions of grandeur. That changed, and he is now an undisputed living master. But I’m not sure this Venice exhibition will help his reputation. It smacks of megalomania. I’m in awe of Kiefer’s ambition. He’s an incredible artist. But taking over the Doge’s Palace in Venice? Ugh. It feels like too much.

Running parallel to this year’s Biennale at the Palazzo Giustinian Lolin is an exhibition of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. The works, most of them moving digital images, are installed on screens that populate a sequence of large, ornately decorated rooms that the organizers have pathetically dubbed the “Decentral Art Pavilion” (through June 20).

Will NFTs transform the art world? Are they even art?

NFTs are supposedly all the rage in the art world. Don’t believe it. The actual interest is minimal. Without exception, the works showcased in the Decentral Art Pavilion were banal, tasteless and pointlessly surreal. They were so disparate, so random that there’s nothing I could say to generalize — except that the ambiance was somewhere between that of a particularly bad high school art exhibition and a video game expo.

Never mind. One of the great pleasures of the Venice Biennale is negotiating the city’s bridges and byways as you move from one exhibition to the next. After Kiefer’s show in the Doge’s Palace, I made my way to the museum of the Palazzo Grimani, which has two shows (through Nov. 27): one by Kiefer’s compatriot Georg Baselitz, the other by the Californian Mary Weatherford.

The real reason to visit the Palazzo Grimani, it has to be said, is the magnificently reinstalled collection of antiquities in a specially designed room known as “La Tribuna,” dating to the late 16th century. It is one of the most beautiful sights in Venice.

Weatherford’s suite of paintings with neon lights attached are her response to Titian’s great late painting, “The Flaying of Marsyas.” Unfortunately, they suffer from the same blight as Kiefer’s: They’re ponderous, repetitive, hubristic. As the mortal Marsyas discovered when he challenged the god Apollo and was skinned alive for his trouble, there are some things you shouldn’t try to compete with. The Doge’s Palace is one. Late Titian is another.

Georg Baselitz is an overrated hack. Art collectors fell for him — but you don’t have to

Where Weatherford and Kiefer are brooding and dense, Baselitz — generally not my favorite artist — has shown his most attractive side in a suite of decorative paintings installed on the building’s piano nobile, or first floor. Bright and airy, in thinly painted colors with lots of white space, they fill niches once reserved for family portraits.

Some blockish sculptures, in charred wood, round out the exhibition, which is titled “Archinto” (after another painting by Titian, his enigmatic portrait of a half-veiled Archbishop Filippo Archinto in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). The suite of works will remain on long-term loan at the museum.

Baselitz’s uncharacteristically light touch in “Archinto” pointed the way to what was, for me, the pick of the exhibitions in Venice this year: a career survey of the South African painter Marlene Dumas at the Palazzo Grassi (through Jan. 8), which establishes her beyond doubt as one of our most vital living painters.

Dumas paints head portraits and bigger, sometimes multi-figure compositions — many of them sexually explicit — in diluted oils. Her style is as transparent as watercolor. She lets you see every brushstroke, and thus every decision (including every omission). Her head portraits can seem facile, but they have the directness of Édouard Manet’s portraits — stark transitions, bleaching light. Some of her figure paintings are reminiscent of Auguste Rodin’s erotic watercolors. Her frank close-ups and unusual angles suggest the unfolding physical surprise of sex.

Dumas is fundamentally in love with reality, but she allows herself expressionistic touches and a good deal of sly humor. She tends to work from photographs, which can kill some of the immediacy of her portraits. But the habit seems to free her to communicate more in the way of feeling and poetry.

Every room in this beautifully installed show, titled “Open-End,” is a revelation. Dumas, you begin to feel, is constantly seeking to surprise herself. In this, her work is different from the elaborate concoctions of the Surrealists and digital artists minting NFTs, who instead set out to surprise and manipulate the viewer. Where Surrealists like Carrington and Ernst were exhaustingly performative, Dumas is simply frank. Her work reminds us that true intimacy never palls. It is always surprising.

The 59th Venice Biennale of Art runs through Nov. 27. Info at labiennale.org.

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