Between the Galleria dell’Accademia and the Santa Maria della Salute lies the 18th century Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. This city palace was supposed to have four floors according to the original design, but was never completed beyond the ground floor and makes a strange impression, and is therefore popularly known as the ‘Palazzo Nonfinito.’
After the traditional Venetian art at the Accademia, we will now look at modern art. A giant leap in time, but by now ‘our’ modern art is already more than a century old. You will find that the ideas about what standards art should meet have changed radically. Vasari, who wrote during the 16th century, spoke of good modern art as depicting ‘accurate depictions of existing persons’. The world of the painting had to correspond to our reality, with a primary demand being that it was the painter’s duty to perfect nature in his painting (also read Vasari quote).
The modern art that sprung up at the end of the 19th century did not use reality as its starting point, but emphasised the characteristic properties of the medium that the painter used, a flat surface and paint, where the suggestion of a peep-show by means of perspective was no longer required. Dali, Klee, Mondriaan and many others painted man’s inner world; his dreams and fears, a metaphysical ‘reality’ or colour as a ‘language’ onto itself that speaks for itself just like music, which is equally abstract. After 1945 the painter no longer needed a subject and, as it were, only painted paint. Nevertheless, you will see at the Peggy Guggenheim that painters like Picasso, but also the man that Peggy Guggenheim was briefly married to, Max Ernst, could not resist making the ‘reality’ of their works recognisable to some degree. To Picasso, one of the great among modern artists, the total abstraction of the Mondriaan (Composition No. 1 with grey and red) on display in this museum is taboo.
In 1949 the palazzo was bought by the fabulously rich Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979). Her new residence had to be big enough to house her collection of art works, to the extent that they were located in Europe. Part of her collection had already been brought to Venice on the occasion of the first biennale after World War II, and put on display in the Greek pavilion. The works she collected cover nearly every artistic movement of the 20th century. Peggy lived in the palazzo on the Canal Grande until her death and had her ashes placed in the garden near the graves of her dogs. The collection comprises about 200 works, which she made accessible to the general public in 1951.
Mirko Basaldella (1910-1969) was an Italian abstract sculptor and painter who was part of the mid-20th century art movement known as the School of Paris. His sculptures often explore the relationship between form and space, and are characterized by their smooth, flowing lines and dynamic compositions.
Basaldella’s sculptures are highly regarded for their technical skill and their ability to convey a sense of movement and energy. They are often characterized by their abstract forms, which suggest natural shapes and forms without directly representing them.
We start in the garden. It features many sculptures by modern sculptors such as Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Max Ernst. It provides a beautiful illustration of how varied modern art really is.
Henry Moore saw sculpture as a means of exploring the relationship between the human form and the natural world. He believed that sculpture should be accessible to everyone and viewed it as a way to express universal human experiences and emotions. Moore often worked in bronze, stone, and wood, and his sculptures frequently feature abstract, organic forms that reflect the natural world. He believed that sculpture should be tactile and engage the viewer’s senses, encouraging them to move around and interact with the artwork. Moore also emphasized the importance of the sculptor’s intuitive and emotional response to the materials and the creative process.
The dining room [room 1] is home to works by, among others, Picasso and Braque. They developed Cubism in close collaboration. This is an important movement that sprung up in the first decade of the 20th century. Cubism exerted a strong influence on many artists including Léger whose work is also present in this room. I will explain why Picasso and Braque were so innovative.
Picasso once described Cubism as follows:
“[…] in Cubism you don’t paint what you see, but what you know to be there.’ The artist, who, as mentioned before, was a painter as well as a sculptor, argued that an early Cubist painting could quite simply be cut into pieces on the basis of its coloured areas, and that those pieces could then be joined together to form a sculpture. […] ‘On one occasion he explained Cubism by pointing at the result of a steam roller driving over a chair.” Translated from: A. Erftemeijer, ‘De aap van Rembrandt Kunstenaarsanekdotes van de klassieke oudheid tot heden’, Becht, Haarlem, 2000 page 427
Even though Braque and Picasso with their Cubism radically broke with the past and the art you saw earlier at the Accademia, they held on to elements from reality. The Cubist works ‘The Clarinet’ by Braque from 1912 and ‘The Poet’ by Picasso from 1911 are next to each other so it’s easy to compare the two.
The painting depicts a traditional still-life subject, a bunch of grapes, but Braque has fractured and reassembled the forms into a complex composition that challenges traditional ideas of perspective and representation. The grapes are represented as a series of geometric shapes, including spheres, cylinders, and cones, that overlap and intersect with one another.
The overall effect is one of fragmentation and abstraction, as Braque seeks to explore the formal properties of objects rather than simply representing their appearances. The palette is already entirely different from that of “The Clarinet” where only the browns existed. In the “bowl and Grapes’ the colour is subdued, with muted greens, browns, and grays dominating the composition.
If you look closely, you can recognise more than you would expect. This room also shows quite clearly how Léger was inspired by Cubism. The difference between Léger and Braque and Picasso is notable: whereas Picasso and Braque were primarily interested in shapes rather than colour, colour clearly plays an important role in Léger’s work.
Marcel Duchamp was also profoundly influenced by Cubism, but in a different way than Léger. His painting ‘Nude, Sad Young Man on a Train’ shows that Duchamp was primarily interested in movement. This would seem like an almost impossible task in a static medium like painting, but you will see that Duchamp succeeded. The painting is one of Duchamp’s early works and is considered to be part of his early Cubist phase. It is notable for its use of muted colors and its stark, angular lines. The painting also contains elements of Duchamp’s later interest in Surrealism, with its dreamlike atmosphere and mysterious, psychological undertones.
In the Kitchen (room 2) hangs a work by the futurist Balla and the title of his work from 1913-1914, ‘Abstract speed and sound’, speaks volumes.
Futurism is an art movement that in 1909 published a manifesto in the French newspaper Le Figaro in which it stated the following:
1 We shall sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and boldness.
2 The essential elements of our poetry shall be courage, during, and rebellion.
3 Literature has hitherto glorified thoughtful immobility, ecstasy and sleep; we shall extol aggressive movement, feverish insomnia, the double quick step, the somersault, the box on the ear, the fisticuff.
4 We declare that the world’s splendour has been enriched by a new beauty; the beauty of speed. A racing motor-car, its frame adorned with great pipes, like snakes with explosive breath… a roaring motor-car, which looks as though running on shrapnel, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace […]
9 We wish to glorify War- the only healthy giver of the world- militarism, patriotism, the destructive arm of the Anarchist, the beautiful Ideas that kill, the contempt for woman.[…]
11 We shall sing of the great crowds in the excitement of labour, pleasure or rebellion; of the multi-coloured and polyphonic surf of revolutions in modern capital cities.[…] Le Figaro, 20 February 1909 Translation: Manifesto of Futurism – The British Library 1912
Movement, dynamic, sound, the modern day, cars, planes and yes, even war was glorified. It is no surprise that many Italian futurists sympathised with the fascist Mussolini. We will meet a fair number of painters from this movement in this museum, such as Severini, Boccioni and Carrà.