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Venice shows get off to a strong start with surrealists

So potently provocative is director Cecilia Alemani’s vision for a feminised Venice Biennale that, almost a month before the event, the effect was already pronounced in the city’s early-launching off-site shows.

Alemani’s exhibition The Milk of Dreams, titled after a fairy tale by the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, will include just 21 men out of 213 names. It prioritises “women and gender nonconforming artists” who are challenging “the figure of men as the centre of the universe”. National pavilions follow her lead — almost all will show women artists — and, as has never happened before, female artists have snagged many of the city’s prestigious historic private venues, transforming our experience of some glorious sites.

A tiny canvas, “Kissed”, hangs alone on the vast piano nobile loggia at Palazzo Grassi. The sky is reflected on a woman’s face, paler and darker reds blend into the contours of a couple. The colours glint down the grand staircase, but you have to draw close for the image to cohere. Flamboyant yet restrained, Marlene Dumas’ games with pictorial legibility are as seductive as her inky, fluid, sensual brushwork.

Dumas’ show is the first devoted to a woman artist at François Pinault’s neoclassical palace. She engages with the space to stage a drama of opposites — architectural monumentality disquieted by painterly intimacy. Her subjects, love and death, are ambitious, but her best pieces tend to be small, concentrating a voluptuousness which plays on all the senses, distorting scale for emotive effect. Lips breathe on giant petals touching skin in “Scent of a Flower”. “Tombstone Lovers”, ghostly as a fading grave sculpture, captures stone-cold texture, but impassioned drawing carries the heat of erotic memory. A toxic-hued rodent fills the picture plane in “Rat”, painted during the pandemic, suggesting fear, disgust, distrust.

‘No Belt’ (2010-2016) by Marlene Dumas © Marlene Dumas

A portrait of Baudelaire is a tribute — throughout, Dumas achieves in paint the queasy atmosphere of Les Fleurs du Mal. A wildly flailing woman/insect illustrates Baudelaire’s “Le Desespoir de la Vieille” — “foolish me as I flutter desperately to escape the claws of old age”. Peering through the Grassi’s arches, “Time and Chimera” pairs a flowing golden female form with a tall black silhouette: “Rigid Death, as old age tapping on the shoulder of supple Beauty,” Dumas says.

Her history paintings, focused on emblematic, forsaken individuals, disturb — their undertow is collective guilt — especially with a romantic convergence of beauty and terror. In “No Belt” a teenage pin-up lifts his shirt, proving no bomb beneath. In “Blindfolded”, we enjoy the sumptuous painted white circle illuminating a Palestinian prisoner — himself deprived of sight.

For Sabine Weiss, who died in December aged 97, photography was “an alibi, a pretext to see everything”. Tre Oci, the fantasy art-nouveau villa whose ornamental three-arched, balconied windows cast patterns of light from the Giudecca canal, is a glorious backcloth for Weiss’s largest retrospective, The Poetry of the Instant. Her rhythmic lines and traceries of luminosity and shadow make the everyday lyrical and the glamorous human. Bare trees and glistening pavements on a Paris avenue are illuminated by a single cigarette lighter. A gawky, bewildered 22-year-old Yves Saint Laurent stares out from among 13 models attired in his theatrical flared Dior gowns.

‘Gitani. Sainte-Maries-de-la-Mer, Francia’ (1960) by Sabine Weiss © Sabine Weiss

Weiss’s show is a revelation about how the last survivors of the humanist school of photography (Doisneau, Brassaï) fought to express the life of the individual in Europe’s interim, as she saw it, “between the bunker and the skyscraper”, between war and globalisation. The mood is nostalgic yet hopeful, and Weiss’s portraits of surrealism’s ageing luminaries as weathered, enduring, vulnerable old men — Giacometti, Breton — are unforgettable.

Surrealism and Magic, the Guggenheim Museum’s Biennale show, began as an exploration of the women in the movement, thus overlapping with Alemani’s focus on Carrington and female surrealists. In fact, outstanding loans (connections to the New York Guggenheim help) force an honest historical reading which transcends gender themes, making the show something bigger than the whimsical title implies — a stunning, timely interpretation of personalities, philosophies and politics interacting during European crisis.

Starting points are the gender-fluid nude “The Child’s Brain” and the double-head “Metaphysical Muse” made during the first world war by de Chirico. They consecrate him as father of surrealism, and that shocked, shattered response to mechanised destruction drove and shaped the movement. Compellingly, the flash points are war, trauma, displacement, political threat. In 1938, Paul Delvaux’s eerie nude appears like a ghost in a cemetery in “The Call of the Night”, and Wolfgang Paalen paints, using candle smoke and soot, the visionary, burnt-out “Orages magnetiques”.

‘Portrait of Max Ernst’ (1939) by Leonora Carrington © Estate of Leonora Carrington/ARS/DACS

Reunited for the first time since they were made together in 1939-40, when the artists were refugees, are Carrington’s cross-gender avian/woman “Portrait of Max Ernst” and Ernst’s hybrid, sexualised animal/human figures “Attirement of the Bride”.

The best, last section, “Invisible Dimensions”, addresses the aftermath of horror as inner terror: Yves Tanguy’s angular, alienated landscape “Fear”; Dalí’s melting hollows revealing explosions and bombs in “Uranium and Atomica Melancholia Idyll”, painted after Hiroshima. Standout is the mysterious, austere, half-ruined scaffolding rising in a bleak industrial scene, “Tomorrow is Never” by Kay Sage — one of the greatest women surrealists, too little known.

The Guggenheim tries to balance excavation of women’s achievement with the global picture. And Venice itself, it seems, will do this, because a fightback story is emerging. At the city’s institutional spaces, the planned shows are devoted to famous male artists and sponsored by galleries led by bullish male dealers — among them Lisson’s Anish Kapoor at the Academia, White Cube’s Raqib Shaw at Ca Pesaro and Gagosian’s Anselm Kiefer at Palazzo Ducale.

Works by Anselm Kiefer are currently presented at the Palazzo Ducale © Georges Poncet

To those, including me, who have recently felt Kiefered-out by an artist who essentially produces — overproduces? — one painting, a charismatically nihilistic wasteland, the Ducale is an answer: historic setting, and now our tragic moment of European war, changes everything. It is only one room, but the floor-to-ceiling heavy, charred, scarred surfaces, brown, black, ochre, sometimes pierced by flames or an apocalyptic afterglow, encrusted with resonant material objects — heaped shopping trolleys, stranded shoes, a ladder to nowhere — is the most moving Kiefer presentation I have encountered.

Kiefer says his oeuvre is inspired by Paul Celan’s concentration camp poem “Death Fugue”, its leitmotif “black milk of dawn we drink you at night/we drink you mornings and noontime we drink you evenings”. Macho, assertive, immersing us in destruction, the Ducale show is likely to ripple as a dark undercurrent to the Biennale’s “milk of dreams”.

On the evidence so far, Venice 2022 promises to be the most stimulating, serious edition this century.

palazzograssi.it, treoci.org, guggenheim-venice.it, palazzoducale.visitmuve.it

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