The Venice Biennale in Italy is one of the world’s biggest art exhibitions and, to some degree, always reflects the times in which it’s organized. The Biennale is never devoid of political happenings, and each year promises new controversies, all with more mounting evidence that art can’t be divorced from the world in which it’s created. With an exhibition now on view in Venice surveying the Biennale’s long and storied history, below is a look back at the top 10 controversies to have taken place at the art festival since its founding in 1895.
10. Giorgio de Chirico decries a fake painting (1948)
Following World War II, most countries were unable to participate in the Venice Biennale due to financial constraints so organizers created mini-exhibitions to fill the empty pavilions. One such presentation was a three-person show devoted to Italian metaphysical painting that included work by Giorgio de Chirico. Included alongside works by Carlo Carrà and Giorgio Morandi was a painting by de Chirico that the artist himself insisted was an “indecent fake.” (The accusation was complicated, as de Chirico was known to make verifalsi, or “true fakes,” that involved copying his own paintings.) He then went on to protest the Biennale each time an edition was presented, staging an “anti-Biennale” to stick it to the organizers in 1950, 1952, and 1954. After de Chirico got an Italian court to declare that the painting attributed to him was indeed a fake, he finally started exhibiting again at the Venice Biennale in 1956.
9. Yayoi Kusama makes an unofficial entry (1966)
When Yayoi Kusama displayed her Narcissus Garden, a sprawling sculptural installation composed of 1,500 shiny orbs placed on the ground, it attracted a lot of attention—but the work was never meant to be part of the Biennale at all. She had not been invited by officials to show at the exhibition and had not sought permission either. So when she started peddling the orbs to visitors, the police got involved and forced her to shut down the work. Although the Venice Biennale version of Narcissus Garden was short-lived, the work is now one of Kusama’s most well-known pieces, having been exhibited more than 40 times over the past five and a half decades.
8. The African Pavilion comes under fire (2007)
These days, it’s widely known that Sindika Dokolo and Isabel dos Santos, a married couple with holdings of African art, have been accused of suspect business dealings—after exposure earlier this year of the “Luanda Leaks,” a cache of 700,000 emails featuring alleged evidence that the Angolan collectors engaged in corrupt deals. But back in 2007, when controversy swirled around their connections to the African Pavilion, accusations of the sort were less prevalent until an Artnet News report by Ben Davis revealed to much of the art world that Dokolo and dos Santos had been facing such allegations for years. (Dokolo vehemently denied the accusations of corruption.) After the report came out, artist Barthélémy Toguo dropped out of the Biennale, and curator Robert Storr, who that year oversaw the Biennale, claimed he was not aware of the allegations when he made the decision to spotlight Dokolo and dos Santos’s collection.
7. Student protests lead to arrests (1968)
The tumultuous year of 1968 was marked by student protests around the world, and the arts were deeply impacted. In May of that year, as students took to the streets in Paris, filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and others shut down the Cannes Film Festival in solidarity with the protests. One month later, the protests hit the Venice Biennale, where, on opening day, demonstrations involved turning works around, away from public view, and occupying pavilions. As the day went on, the protests grew more intense, and police arrested students demonstrating in the St. Mark’s Square. Ultimately, the protests served to move the Biennale in a more overtly political direction in the coming decades—which, in turn, led to future controversies.
6. Gregor Schneider claims censorship of a big sculpture (2005)
When Gregor Schneider showed at the Venice Biennale in 2001, he won the Golden Lion for his work in the German Pavilion. When he returned in 2005, he became the subject of a scandal. That year, as part of the Biennale’s group exhibition, Schneider had intended to show Cube, a 50-foot-tall sculpture draped in black fabric that was meant to look like the Kaaba, the site of a pilgrimage for Muslims; it was to appear in St. Mark’s Square, one of Venice’s most popular tourist destinations. But the Biennale’s organizers, including Rosa Martínez, rejected the work for “political reasons,” according to contemporaneous reports, fearing that it would incite anti-Islamic violence. Details of the work were subsequently replaced by black pages in the Biennale’s catalogue. (And ultimately, the work was shown well after the Biennale’s run, in 2007, at the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Germany, though not after a diplomatic battle in the artist’s home country too.)
5. A bizarre painting is decried as immoral by Catholic church (1895)
At the first Venice Biennale in 1895, a jury awarded the top honors went to Giovanni Segantini and Francesco Paolo Michetti. Yet critics and the public had focused more intently on Giacomo Grosso’s painting Supreme Meeting, which featured a group of nude women lounging around an open coffin. (The work was destroyed in a fire while in transit to the United States following the Biennale’s run.) With its strange and unsavory subject matter—and its unusual color palette—religious officials felt it was immoral to show the painting and tried to seek its removal. When the work was later cordoned off in its own room, it became a sensation and, in the end, Grosso’s painting was given a prize after a popular vote to determine the best work in show.
4. Mosque by Christoph Büchel sparks debate (2015)
Christoph Büchel is no stranger to controversy, but few works of his have inspired as much furor as The Mosque (2015), a piece made for the Icelandic Pavilion in 2015 that involved transforming a former Catholic church into a functioning mosque. Almost immediately, the work stoked ire. Critics were divided on its function: Did it offer “art world liberals an inflated sense of superiority,” as Hrag Vartanian put it in a widely read Hyperallergic essay? Or did it inspire mutual understanding, as Andrew Russeth wrote in ARTnews? Officials targeted it for bureaucratic reasons: politicians were afraid it would provoke anti-Islamic violence, and Catholic church representatives claimed the space had never been deconsecrated. In the end, it was shut down after just a few weeks on view. But that did not keep Büchel from returning to Venice with grandiose gestures—in 2019, he showed a boat that had sunk with African migrants on board, killing 1,100.
3. Gran Fury strikes a nerve with posters about AIDS (1990)
The 1990 edition of “Aperto”—a now-defunct section of the Venice Biennale’s main exhibition that was given over to emerging artists—lives on in infamy. For many, it is remembered for featuring works from Jeff Koons’s lurid “Made in Heaven” series, in which the artist is shown fornicating with his then-wife in graphic detail. But the show was also associated with two works by the artist collective Gran Fury made in protest of the Catholic church’s disdain for homosexual relationships and the promotion of safe sex. One poster featured an image of Pope Paul II flanked by texts tearing into the moral implications of decrying sex between two people of the same gender, reading, “AIDS is caused by a virus and a virus has no morals.” Facing outrage from some conservative commentators, Biennale officials said they would pull the work from the show—but then made the decision to reinstate it days later.
2. Robert Rauschenberg takes eyes away from Europe (1964)
Robert Rauschenberg being anointed as the first American artist to win the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale counted as a major event in the art world and beyond. It signified a major shift, as attention moved away from Europe to the new art-world center of New York (where Rauschenberg lived and worked). But it was also followed by allegations that a group including art dealer Leo Castelli, Jewish Museum director Alan Solomon, and others had worked together to rig Rauschenberg’s win. As proof, some claimed that Castelli had personally placed a U.S. juror on the committee so that an artist from his home country had a better chance of winning; others focused on the small amount of works Rauschenberg had on view to win the prize. The specter of that controversy was still present two years later, when, at the 1966 Venice Biennale, curator Henry Geldzahler faced a similar outcry over the showcasing of work by Roy Lichtenstein, which some said was being unfairly elevated in an attempt to promote Pop art. Geldzahler responded by saying, “The prize and jury system must be abandoned.”
1. An entire Biennale is held in solidarity with the people of Chile (1974)
In 1974, in place of traditional art exhibition, the Biennale held various events and programs to protest Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean dictator who came into power in 1973 following a U.S.–backed coup d’état. With thousands being tortured and imprisoned under his reign, a protest Biennale was arranged instead. But critics hated it, with leftist writers accusing the Biennale of elitism for putting up political posters in place of artworks. Some even wondered whether the Biennale was on its death knell. Today, however, the 1974 edition is considered a rare and important happening: in 2015, ahead of the Biennale he curated, Okwui Enwezor remarked, “I see 1974 as an antidote to this negative residue: one of the only instances of Venice confronting a contemporaneous catastrophe, and mounting a radical critique, at that moment.” He added, “I mean, can you imagine doing that today?”