Friday, 22 April 2016



Communication technology has helped internationalize contemporary art, allowing for talented artists from far reaches around the world to exchange dialogues, trends and commerce in a truly global way. This has made a worldly community of art professionals, lovers, and collectors, with accessibility at the tip of the finger through all of our smart devices. There are online databases, apps, blogs, twitter, instagram, dedicated websites and other new developments all the time. This has cinched the art scene closer together whilst it has simultaneously ballooned in popularity. However the thriving global contemporary art scene doesn’t function solely in the virtual realm. The world of art takes on a very physical presence in the form of art fairs and biennial-type exhibitions. The art fairs cover the commercial aspect of the art, where as a biennial is more of a festival that focuses on the art itself.

Art biennials are large-scale bi-annual curated exhibitions that have become huge prestigious events for rising stars and superstars of the contemporary art world. They are often written in the Italian form as biennale. Not all of these exhibitions are bi-annual; they could be annual, triennial, quadrennial, quinquennial and so forth. Lately I have seen these large collaborative festivals colloquially referred to as –ennials; but biennials seem most common. The numerous fairs and –ennials take place on a worldwide circuit reminiscent of grand prix sports tours. Like grand prix events, some –ennials are better regarded and certain well-established ones are the high points of the ‘tour de monde.’ The Venice Biennial might be considered the Olympics of –ennials. With ever increasing internationalism and status associated with these festivals that celebrate the contemporary art scene, there have been more and more of them established from the 1980s onwards. Oxford Art Online has termed this increase The Biennial Phenomenon.

The Central Pavilion for the Venice Biennale

The interior and exterior of the Pavilhao Ciccillo Matarazzo, venue of the Sao Paulo Biennale

The 1990s in particular saw a rise in the number of art biennials. In Canada, La Biennnale de Montreal was founded in 1998 for multidisciplinary arts and a Vancouver International Sculpture Biennale was founded in 2002. An online art market hub called Artnet has even posted an article overviewing the 20 most worthwhile –ennials to visit. Many professionals, artists, and collectors might attend certain –ennials alongside art fairs, like Art Basel or Art Miami. Although the circuit of shows has exploded through the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, many of the most prestigious biennials have roots much earlier. The Biennial Phenomenon was kindled in the first few decades after World War II. Two longstanding biennials are the Venice Biennial and the Sao Paulo Biennial. They were energetic events in the 1950s, akin to the Salon exhibitions in Paris in the 19th century.

Artist Wan Shugang bronzes for the Vancouver Biennale, now public art at English Bay, Vancouver

Canadian talent was represented in the Paris Salons and Canadians were also at the forefront in mid-20th century biennials, especially Jean-Paul Riopelle. The Venice Biennial was established in 1895 but was a revitalized in the 1950s. Sao Paulo was established in 1951 and is still a favourite biennial.

Jean-Paul Riopelle Mid-Century 1949-50 was exhibited in the 1962 Venice Biennale

Jean-Paul Riopelle is arguably Canada’s most well recognized pioneer of lyrical abstract painting. His unique style won him international favour. In 1951 he exhibited in the premiere Sao Paulo biennial, and again in 1955. Jean-Paul Riopelle participated in the 1954 Venice Biennial alongside other Canadians B.C. Binning, and fellow Automatiste and former mentor Paul-Emile Borduas. Incidentally, Emily Carr and David Milne exhibited at the prior Venice Biennial of 1952. It is interesting to consider the diversity of styles that overlapped in contemporary Canadian art around mid-century.

Paul-Emile Borduas Figure aux oiseaux 1954 was exhibited at the 1954 Venice Biennale

B.C. Binning Theme Painting 1954

David Milne Waterlilies and the Sunday Paper 1929 was exhibited in the 1954 Venice Biennale (black and white reproduction)

Emily Carr Old Time Coast Forest 1929 Emily Carr Trust, Vancouver Art Gallery

Since 1958 there has been a specific pavilion devoted to Canadian artists at the Venice Biennials. In 1962 Riopelle was selected to represent Canada, and a sizeable amount of his paintings were displayed. He was awarded an esteemed UNESCO prize for recognition of his work that year.

Jean-Paul Riopelle En Serre 1951 was exhibited in the 1962 Venice Biennale

Jean-Paul Riopelle Gravite 1956 was exhibited in the 1962 Venice Biennale

Jean-Paul Riopelle Hommage aux nympheas- Pavane 1954 was exhibited in the 1962 Venice Biennale

Riopelle and the other Canadians representing the country at these important biennials showed their work alongside familiar artists who adorn the pages of all western art history textbooks. Some examples include Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, and Ben Nicholson from the United Kingdom. Also exhibiting these years in Venice were Willem de Kooning and Paul Klee. Records for the older Sao Paulo biennials were not readily available to me, but likely other artists of importance in 20th century art history were presenting their work there too.

Works by Lucien Freud in the 1954 Venice Biennale

Work by Francis Bacon in the 1954 Venice Biennale

Willem de Kooning took part in the 1954 Venice Biennale

Masters Gallery Vancouver Jean-Paul Riopelle Exhibition and Sale April 23-May, 2016

Riopelle’s paintings delighted visitors alongside the great contemporary artists of his time, and here at Masters Gallery we are as delighted to exhibit Riopelle’s work 62 years after he first participated in the Venice Biennial. I hope that the Canadian art stars of our time will be revered for their contributions on the worldwide circuit of fairs and –ennials just as Riopelle has been.


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