While many will come to the Venice Biennale to see new works by some of the greatest artists of our day, others will be here for the more historical sections of Cecilia Alemani’s main show given over almost completely to work by dead women and gender nonconforming artists.
These sections are unusual for an exhibition like the Biennale, which typically aspires to be a survey of the global art scene as it stands right now. But Alemani has taken the step of interweaving these areas of the show, which she has termed “time capsules,” to provide a historical backbone for some of the contemporary art.
Titled “The Milk of Dreams,” its name derived from a Leonora Carrington children’s book, Alemani’s main show aims to broaden the history of Surrealism. Do not come thinking you might see works by Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and others of that lineage—they are not here. Instead, the focus is figures who have not yet received their proper place in the art historical canon, and that is what makes these parts of the Biennale so fascinating.
Within the art world, the tendency to pull artists out of the past and suggest them as underrated people worthy of a greater look is known as making a discovery. That term, however, is a faulty one—it often doesn’t account for the fact that various communities knew just how importance these artists were and continue to be, long before the mainstream picked them up. But in the case of Alemani’s main show, many of the people in the time capsules really are discoveries, in the sense that they have only rarely been shown in an art context, whether because they did not receive a traditional art education or because they worked in an adjacent field.
Expanding the Surrealist lineage is a worthy project, given that most of the movement’s famous progenitors were sex-obsessed straight white men. Alemani makes some important contributions to that project, but she does not go far enough. Almost every artist in these historical sections is a white European or American. Surely there are decades-old aesthetic affinities to be tapped in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Australia, and among Indigenous nations, as well.
There’s also an eat-your-vegetables approach to these sections, which feature works packed into vitrines inundated with wall text. (Some of these pieces are lesser objects by important artists, which doesn’t help either.) But that does not mean that they are not intellectually stimulating and that there aren’t people worth greater study along the way.
To offer a close look at the sections, below is a look at six of the most intriguing inclusions.