The 1962 Venice Biennale

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Susan Schreibman and Elizabeth Tobey

Original Source: The 1962 Venice Biennale. Original text created for The Thomas MacGreevy Archive by Susan Schreibman and Elizabeth Tobey © 2003.

© Susan Schreibman and Elizabeth Tobey, 2003. All rights reserved.This text is available only for the purpose of academic teaching and research provided that this header is included in its entirety. For any other use please contact Susan Schreibman

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The 1962 Venice Biennale

'It goes without saying that it was heartening for an Irishman to see our own Tricolour waving as bravely as any of them in the Italian sunshine.'— Thomas MacGreevy

MacGreevy's promotion of Jack B Yeats's painting continued after the painter's death in 1957. In 1962 MacGreevy served as Foreign Commissioner of the Irish contingent at the Thirty-First International Biennial Exhibition of Modern Art in Venice, commonly called the 'Venice Biennale', which featured a retrospective of Jack B Yeats's late paintings. MacGreevy was aware of the import of this opportunity. Although Yeats's paintings had been exhibited widely at home and abroad, predominantly in one-man shows in the twenty years preceding his death, the majority of exhibitions had been mounted in Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States. The Biennale offered a unique opportunity to make Yeats's work known to an international audience, and to be shown alongside other major European and American artists. And as the first major retrospective since Yeats's death, it was an ideal venue to showcase his late, and as many critics have argued, greatest paintings.

Thus the Biennale served the dual goal of showcasing Yeats as an Irish artist (as the Biennale displays work in national pavilions) as well as one who transcends national boundaries. It is amongst the most important exhibitions of modern art, held every two years in the Giardini Pubblici, in one of Italy's most prominent art cities. The Biennale was inaugurated during a great period of international expositions and world's fairs, and honored the silver wedding anniversary of the Italian King, Umberto I. Artists from thirteen countries participated in the first Biennale of 1895, exhibiting in a single pavilion. By the first two decades of the twentieth century, countries with the largest artistic contingents, such as Britain, France, and the United States, built their own pavilions in a variety of architectural styles, which often reflected national aesthetics, with smaller countries sharing a pavilion (Denvir 10-12).

The Biennale gradually transformed from a salon exhibiting mainly academic painting into a showcase for the most cutting-edge modern art. For the first twenty-five years of its history, the offerings at the Biennale were fairly conventional examples of realist, figural nineteenth-century painting, and organizers did not encourage modernist trends. For example, Pablo Picasso's Acrobats was rejected for exhibition in 1905 ( 'Focus on the Biennale' 1). However, beginning in the 1920s, the Biennale began to exhibit the works of Post-Impressionist artists such as Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse, and in the early 1930s, included works by Futurist artists (Alloway 95, 108). During the 1930s and early 1940s, when Italy was controlled by the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, art that glorified the regime received top honors. The Biennale was suspended during the years 1944 and 1946 due to the war.

In 1948, the exhibition resumed, with a new focus on modern and contemporary art. The juries began to award the major painting prizes to well-established modern artists, such as George Braque (1948), Raoul Dufy (1952), and Max Ernst (1954). The artistic climate in Venice at the time was conducive to contemporary art, due in part to its Galleria d'Arte Moderna and the presence of the modernist art collector, Peggy Guggenheim, who moved to Venice from the United States shortly after the war, exhibiting her groundbreaking collection at the 1948 Biennale ('Focus on the Biennale' 1).

During the Second World War, most European artists had been cut off from one another, with few opportunities to see each other's work due to closings of museums and galleries. Paradoxically, some national art scenes flourished, such as in the United States and Ireland. It was, in fact, during the war years that Irish artists, cut off from their traditional exhibiting opportunities in the United Kingdom, began exhibiting at home, founding the Irish Living Art Exhibition. During the war was also the period in which Jack Yeats received the most recognition at home, most importantly, at the 1945 National Loan Exhibition which exhibited paintings by Yeats by and large owned in Ireland. What the post-war Venice Biennales offered was the opportunity for the resumption of the exchange of artistic ideas and styles (Alloway 137-40). Attendance was remarkably high, averaging close to 175,000 people for each exhibition between 1948 and 1962.

The idea to take advantage of the opportunities the Biennale afforded to promote Yeats's work originated with MacGreevy. In December 1959 he planted the seed by sending a letter to the Department of External Affairs inquiring if it were possible for the work of a deceased artist to be represented at the Biennale (TCD MS 8148/290).When the letter exists in Thomas MacGreevy's papers at Trinity College Dublin (in manuscript, typescript, or published form), it is noted by Trinity's document reference number (four digits) and a document number (one or two digits) preceded by the notation 'TCD MS'. N Nearly a year later, in November 1960, Bernard P Manning, a solicitor with Whitney, Moore & Keller (Yeats's solicitors) wrote to Victor Waddington, the art dealer who began representing Yeats in 1943 (and continued to represent him after his death, that) 'Dr McGreevy thinks it might be possible to have Mr Yeats as the country's representative at the next Biennale at Venice in 1962' (TCD MS 8151/217). MacGreevy was in a unique position to facilitate this. As Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, and one of Ireland's foremost art critics, his opinions would have had considerable sway with officials in the Department of External Affairs who oversaw the Irish contribution.

MacGreevy's lobbying paid off. On 24 November 1961, the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of External Affairs formally requested that MacGreevy act as Commissioner to the exhibition (TCD MS 8150/1). At the time, he was in what was to be his penultimate year as Director of the National Gallery of Ireland, and suffering from poor health, having had two heart attacks in 1956 and 1957. At the time he was approached by the Department of External Affairs, he was suffering from an acute case of intercostals fibrositis, and was unable to do much more than the physio-therapy prescribed by his doctors and send a few letters off to Waddington and the Department of External Affairs to set the wheels in motion (TCD MS 8150/7). The fact that he took on the task of serving as Commissioner for the Irish contingent is a testament to his loyalty to Yeats, and of his resolve to make sure that Yeats was granted the international recognition he deserved.

As Commissioner, MacGreevy was involved in all phases of the exhibition, from deciding which pictures would be included and arranging for their transport and insurance, to hanging them, producing an exhibition catalogue, and arranging publicity (A detailed record of MacGreevy's involvement with the exhibition can be found in MacGreevy's papers at Trinity College Dublin, (TCD MS 8150). MacGreevy had to mount the show within a very tight time frame. In less than six months he had to decide which pictures would be included, and then oversee the requests from their respective owners (both public and private). The limited time frame certainly shaped his choices. Early on, MacGreevy, in consultation with Waddington, decided not to include any paintings from the United States as both men felt there was not enough lead time to have the paintings shipped. The additional freight and insurance also influenced their decision.

One of MacGreevy's first acts as Commissioner was to petition the Biennale Committee to double the space allotted to the Irish exhibition (which was contained within the Italian Pavilion, as were other smaller countries which could not afford their own pavilions) as he felt the 20 metres of wall space was insufficient to show the scope of Yeats's achievement (TCD MS 8150/7). It seems the Committee was not able to accede to his entire request, although he managed to secure 28 metres. MacGreevy thus chose to focus on 'the last brilliant phase' of Yeats's career. Eventually, 22 paintings were chosen from the more avant-garde paintings of the 1940s and 1950s (TCD MS 8150/3; MacGreevy, 'International Exhibition,' 8). Only one painting, Low Tide, probably a view of the River Lee, Cork, dated from 1935. About two thirds of the paintings were completed in the 1940s, and a third from the 1950s, including the enigmatically titled That We May Never Meet Again, one of Yeats's final paintings. MacGreevy dates the painting 1955 in TCD MS 8150/42a, but Hilary Pyle Yeats's biographer and bibliographer, dates it 1954 in the Catalogue Raisonne N It is a personal and moody portrait of two men against a landscape which features one stark tree in the middle distance and which seems to respond to Beckett's two tramps waiting by a leafless tree for Godot to arrive. MacGreevy's decision to focus on the later works, known for their broad strokes of paint and impressionistic use of color, was most certainly linked to his desire to promote Yeats as an innovative modern artist which would help to begin the process of creating an international audience which he was convinced Yeats's work deserved. As co-executor of Yeats's estate, MacGreevy was aware of the difficulties Waddington was experiencing in selling Yeats's paintings. Waddington, a tireless supporter of Yeats, was frustrated after the painter's death at his paintings not fetching the prices he felt they deserved. At several points in late 1960 Waddington was forced 'to purchase paintings in order to keep them out of the auction rooms because . . . the last two pictures offered in Dublin by auction did not realise their reserves' (TCD MS 8151/215). One of the greatest handicaps in promoting Yeats's work was his ban on all reproductions as specified in his will. The Biennale was thus an ideal venue for maximizing international exposure to Yeats's work.

MacGreevy borrowed paintings from a number of public galleries and private collectors in England and Ireland, including the National Gallery of Ireland, the Dublin Municipal Gallery, London's Tate Gallery, and the Musé e National de Art Moderne in Paris. There was no aspect of the exhibition that he did not handle. In a rather amusing exchange with Lord Moyne, he not only reassured the owner of Left Left, that the painting, a 1948 oil of two clowns, one black and one white, one male and one female, dancing in a swirl of movement, would be safe from damage during transport and from exposure to the hot Italian summer (TCD MS 8150/35). He also personally wrote to Professor Umbro Apollonio, Secretary of the Biennale Committee, of Moyne's insistence that the elegiac title of Left Left be recorded in full in the exhibition catalogue:
Left left
We left our name
On the road
On the road
On the famous road
On the famous road
On the famous road
Of fame
. The title of the painting used in this essay is taken from Hilary Pyle's Catalogue Raisonne. Interestingly, the Exhibition Catalogue lists the title as: Left leftWe left our nameOn the road, on the roadOn the famous road, on thefamous roadOf Fame N

MacGreevy went to Venice during the week of May 20, 1962, to oversee the hanging of the paintings. He was assisted by Victor Waddington's son, Leslie, a recent graduate in art history of the Ecole du Louvre in Paris. (TCD MS 8150/60 and; 8150/62) MacGreevy and Waddington spent several weeks getting the balance between paintings correct. As MacGreevy writes in the second of the two articles published in the Irish Press, ' Jack Yeats in Venice: O bello! bello' , which publicized the exhibition in Ireland: 'In hanging the pictures I had worked, as I always do at the National Gallery, by trial and error, for I have often found that pictures which, away from each other, seem made to hang together, flatly refuse to play when brought into immediate proximity.' One day an Italian colleague looked in on the hanging and remarked 'You have hung them in a rhythm of colour'. MacGreevy felt that Yeats would have been pleased by the comment.

A development of the post-war Biennale was that each exhibiting country financed the publication of a catalogue, in addition to the comprehensive catalogue offered by the Biennale's organizers. (Alloway 141) The Irish catalogue, titled Jack B Yeats: 1871-1957, was small, and in keeping with Yeats's wishes, contained no reproductions. It was elegantly simple, with a two-toned brown cardboard cover. It contained just one illustration, a full page black-and-white photograph taken of the artist late in life. It also contained a list of the works exhibited (reproduced at the end of this article), a short bibliography, a list of major exhibitions, and a short essay by MacGreevy that appeared in English, Irish, Italian, and French. It was a sharply-condensed version of an essay that MacGreevy wrote in 1951 for the catalogue of an international traveling exhibition of Yeats's work that was organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston which was never published. Two typescripts of this essay may be found in TCD MS 8149/25. N The Biennale catalogue essay, which sketched a brief biography of Yeats's life, also staked a claim for Yeats as an avant-garde artist. MacGreevy argued that the presence of human and animal figures in Yeats's painting did not preclude an abstract sensibility: As a born draughtsman he could afford to take Ingres' famous dictum lightly and so, to an ever more marked degree, his pictures became great colour harmonies. He was conscious of the significance of the movement towards the abstract in painting but, as he could depict the human figure, and animal figures too, with sensitive mastery he saw no reason to exclude them from his pictures. He also made a claim for Yeats's style which resists categorisation with regard to movements, artistic and political: Often his choice of subject was determined by national sentiment. This, however, was never at the expense of the artistic integrity which was inculcated by his father as in literature by his elder brother. Strongly individualist in character the young Yeats adhered to no particular art movement. This claim is interesting, as it shows a shift in MacGreevy's critical positioning of Yeats from his monograph published some twenty-five years earlier. He seems to have internalized Samuel Beckett's reservations as articulated in Beckett's Irish Times review of Jack B Yeats: An Appreciation and an Interpretation, in which Beckett argued for Yeats's genius purely on aesthetic ground. By 1962 it seems that MacGreevy consciously attempted to meld his position with that of Beckett's, and with great economy of words, made a case for Yeats's individualism which was not only of Ireland, but, as Beckett wrote many years earlier, 'with the great of our time' (A Centenary Gathering .73)

MacGreevy's objective of gaining more exposure for Yeats's art was well-fulfilled, as there were 154,000 people in attendance at the 1962 Biennale (Alloway 193). Thirty-three countries exhibited more than three thousand works, of which approximately half were submitted by Italian artists (Lavagnino 3). Despite the preponderance of Italian entrants, the juries awarded the major prizes to foreigners: the French painter Alfred Manessier won the top prize for painting and Alberto Giacommetti (Switzerland) captured the prize for sculpture. Critics praised the exhibition of the paintings of Ashille Gorky, and Louise Nevelson's fantastic sculptures, made from found pieces of wood, which occupied entire rooms of the American pavilion (Gendel 53, 54). The Austrian painter Frederick Hundertwasser's highly-ornamented paintings also received much notice (Melville 285-287). An Italian reviewer in Il Popolo called the exposition 'a Biennale of Symbolism,' referring to the work of the deceased French painter, Odilon Redon (Giannelli 5).

Some reviews of the 1962 Biennale indicated that a number of critics believed the show to be somewhat of a disappointment. An article in the British art journal, The Studio, offered the perspectives of artists and critics, who felt, among other things, that the work in the Italian pavilion was mediocre, that Manessier's paintings were too large and decorative, and that Louise Nevelson had been unfairly denied a prize (Hodin 98-102). An Italian reviewer for the Corriere della Sera remarked that while passing through the various pavilions, 'the greater sentiment that remains is of tiredness and boredom, boredom for the continual, repetitive impression of the old and false: but also often the feeling of the worthless and the damaging' (Borgese 3). Some of the disappointment with the 1962 Biennale may have been due to the enormous expectations placed upon it. During the first few Biennales immediately after the war, there was an explosion of artists and artistic styles, many of whom whose work had not been seen since the late 1930s. By 1962, however, most of the art that was shown had the feeling of being over familiar, as it was still showcasing the work of a slightly older generation of artists whose careers had been interrupted as a result of the war (Alloway 146). In addition, by the early 1960s, Expressionism had run its course, and there was a return to figurative art. In this respect, Yeats's work anticipated that return. MacGreevy noted the difference between Yeats's work and many of the other entrants. In 'Jack Yeats in Venice' MacGreevy noted that Yeats's colorful paintings stood apart from the nearby predominantly monochrome works of Redon and Giacometti (8).

During the Biennale's opening, MacGreevy stationed himself near Yeats's paintings in order to explain them to visitors. The President of Italy, Antonio Segni, 'lingered' on his visit to the Irish section, impressed by Yeats's work, particularly the 'winged' horse in For the Road, and the nimble donkey in Of Ancient Lineage. Another Italian visitor felt that the foliage in Music in a Marshy Place was worthy of French Impressionist Claude Monet. One German attendee wished to take the group of paintings to Germany which had never hosted an exhibition of Yeats's paintings (MacGreevy 8). Clearly the Biennale was providing Yeats with the exposure MacGreevy felt his work deserved. But MacGreevy was not only delighted that Yeats's paintings appealed to foreign dignitaries and critics, but also to ordinary folk. In 'Jack Yeats in Venice,' he recounts the story of two cleaning women who enthusiastically praised the beauty of the paintings. Since Yeats himself held an egalitarian view that art should be part of the lives of all people, he would have been delighted with their response.

Besides MacGreevy's own articles written for The Irish Press, there was little mention of Yeats's work in the international press. Two notable exceptions were the New York-based Art News which singled out Yeats's work within the Italian Pavilion as having created 'a distinctive and vital pictorial personality out of traditionally Romantic Impressionist means' (Gendel 53), and Daily Telegraph (London) which reproduced Yeats's Men of the Plain (Romantic Trends). At the Biennale, MacGreevy once again took on the position of Yeats's advocate and interpreter where he was able to demonstrate that Yeats was not only a great Irish painter, but belonged with the most innovative modern and contemporary artists of his day.

List of Yeats's Works Exhibited at the Venice Biennale:
Low Tide
Streedagh Strand
Homage to Bret Hart
Three Sisters
Two Travellers
Above the Fair
Men of the Plain
Through the reeds
Men of destiny
'Left left/we left our name/On the road, on the road/On the famous road, on the/famous road/of Fame'
Queen Maeve Walked upon this strand
Music of the morning
The last dawn but one
Of ancient lineage
On the move
For the road
Musique dans un Maré cage
In Glory
That we may never meet again
The student of drama
Works Cited
Alloway, Lawrence. The Venice Biennale, 1895-1968; from Salon to Goldfish bowl. Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, 1968.
Borgese, Leonardo. 'La XXXI Biennale d'Arte a Venezia: Un Principio di Speranza in Un Panorama di Noia', Corriere della Sera. 18 June 1962: 3.
Denvir, Bernard. 'Echoes in the Giardini', Art and Artists 214 (1984): 10-12.
'Focus on the Venice Biennale: How it All Started', The Art Newspaper 49 (1945): 1.
Gendel, Milton. 'The Venice Bazaar, 1962', Art News 61 (1962): 21-23, 53-54.
Giannelli, Silvano. 'Personaggi e Proposte della XXXI Biennale di Venezia: Tra Sironi e il simbolismo,' Il Popolo. 16 June 1962: 5.
Hodin, J.P. 'Biennale of Venice: A Critic's and Some Artists' Views', The Studio 164 (September 1962): 98-102.
Jack B. Yeats: A Centenary Gathering. The Tower Series of Anglo-Irish Studies III. Dublin: The Dolmen Press Ltd., 1971.
Lavagnino, Emilio. 'Varia ma senza sorprese: la Biennale d'arte di Venezia', Il Messagero di Roma. 17 June 1962: 3.
Jack B. Yeats: Irlanda. Ireland: Alex Thom & Company, Ltd., 1962.
MacGreevy, Thomas. Personal papers. Trinity College, Dublin.
---. 'Jack Yeats in Venice (2) : O bello! bello!', Irish Press. 13 July 1962: 8.
---. 'International Exhibition of Modern Art: Yeats in Venice', Irish Press 12 July 1962: 8.
Melville, Robert. ' Exhibitions: The Venice Biennale', Architectural Review 132 (October 1962): 285-287.
Pyle, Hilary. Jack B. Yeats: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings. London: Andre Deutsch, 1992.
'Romantic Trends in Art at Venice Biennale', London Daily Telegraph. 6 October 1962: 15.