History of the Venice Biennale

It was the city’s mayor and art connoisseur, Riccardo Sellvatico who conceived the idea of an art biennale in Venice in the 1890s. In the 19th century, as Venice increasingly lost its significance as a trading city, he sought other means, by which the city could retain its status as the Queen of the Adriatic.

In 1893 the local government decided to hold an international art biennale and established a committee consisting of some of Europe’s most significant artists to define the artistic profile. The first Biennale was held in 1895 in the Palazzo d’ Esposizione, which was specially constructed for the purpose. The Biennale was a success from the start with high visitor numbers, and the number grew at subsequent Biennales. Interrupted only by major world political events, since 1895 there has been a Biennale every second year in Venice.

In the first 20 years of the Biennale’s history, the works exhibited reflected almost exclusively the official art of the day: for example, salon art and national romantic painting. However, the 1920s witnessed the emergence of more modern artistic trends at the Biennale in the form of Impressionism, Symbolism, Die Brücke etc. The Biennales of the 1950s introduced a number of artistic movements of great importance for the history of art: for example, Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism and Surrealism. There were also a number of centrally curated separate exhibitions.

Despite being one of the most prestigious and established artistic events ever, during the 1960s the Venice Biennale came under attack in many political artistic debates. At 1968, by way of protest against the Biennale, this criticism culminated in an occupation by students and artists of the Italian academy of art. They accused the Biennale of being about commerce rather than culture. In the same year, the controversial artistic movement, Situationist International broke into the Biennale area and created the “Pavilion of Rebellion”.

During the 1970s the Biennale undertook to reform itself and to take on board some of the criticism. For example, they introduced a theme for the Biennale’s joint exhibition, which also aimed to be an indicator for the pavilions, and they appointed a curator for the joint exhibition. 1980 witnessed the introduction of the Aperto exhibition, an exhibition element for younger artists. This is also when they started to make use of the Arsenale complex, which is adjacent to the Giardini di Castello.




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