The title of Cecelia Alemani’s Biennale comes from a children’s book. Written and illustrated, with ink and wash drawings, by the Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, The Milk of Dreams is tender, dark, charming and slight. Composed of short vignettes that, dreamily, follow no logic—odd transfigurations take place; misplaced heads recur—it seems as much written by children as for them. An early copy is exhibited at the Giardini in a suitably pint-sized gallery, along with equally unlikely books for children by Claude Cahun and Paula Rego, a suite of publications that mark, however lightly, the centrality to this Biennale of what might be called an uncertain innocence. It warrants examination.
Early Surrealism was deeply influenced by Freud’s provoking notion that our most indelible early experiences are invariably harrowingly sexual, and that dreams and free association offer access to them. These psychoanalytic resources were deployed in art that was meant, quixotically, to expose a moribund culture’s hypocrisies and overthrow bourgeois society. Many of the founding Parisian Surrealists were active members of the Communist Party; the conflict between Trotsky and Stalin was a driving issue. At the same time, they promoted fairly aggressive mayhem, actual or assumed madness seeming a sensible response to the regimented slaughter of World War I. Surrealism celebrated the art of schizophrenics, of people uncorrupted by or constitutionally unsuited to official Western culture, and of children. Women occupied an uncertain place in the movement, part force of nature, part submissive muse. Tribal artwork from colonized places all over the world was avidly studied—and bought and sold. None of this was innocent, nor intended to be. And little of it bears up as a program of cultural renewal. Particularly troubling are the equations implied, then and now, by linking all these unalike producers of art.
The dominance of women in this Biennale is unquestionably cause for jubilation. Its importance can’t be exaggerated. Similarly momentous is its embrace of artists from beyond the cosmopolitan centers of the West. Alemani’s commitment to the relationship of human bodies to technology and to the earth provides a shape for her show that is clear and flexible, a kind of miracle for an undertaking of this scale. The mini-exhibit within the Giardini of historical work—Alemani calls it a “fulcrum”—by the likes of Carrington, Cahun, Leonor Fini, Carol Rama, Dorothea Tanning and Remedios Varo is a curatorial triumph, illuminating and timely. So is the extended lineage of art that keeps its antennae up to the wisdom of the natural world and its divines.
Still, the connection established between art by children and by women and others who having been marginalized feels pretty uncomfortable to me. I find the wispy ladies disposed in shadowy settings in paintings by Carrington, Varo et al. haunting but musty—visual narratives that hoard their secrets, as other people’s dreams tend to do. More robust and satisfying but nonetheless whimsical, the paintings on view by Golden Lion awardee Cecilia Vicuna are an uneasy hybrid of magical realism and political commentary; in one, we see (with the help of a wall label) strikers facing police violence who, fleeing, become sacred animals—black panthers, jaguars, wild buffalos—and are joined by a naked woman and a dwarf Lenin. A similar blend of history, allegory and fantasy animates tapestries by Violeta Parra, a Chilean singer-songwriter whose visual art grew out of her music. Her embroideries, lively and folkloric, are inspired by pre-Columbian art and depict national struggles, such as Chile’s bloody engagement in the War of the Pacific. Grandma Moses meets environmental collapse in the beguiling, lucid little paintings of California-based painter Jessie Homer French. One features an oil rig ablaze against an azure sky, while gorgeous fish swim in oblivion below; in another, wolves and deer cavort in a wintry clearing that is studded with hazard signs and labeled Chernobyl. Whatever their individual strengths, taken together these works show women pulling their punches, addressing urgent issues sweetly and appealingly, flaunting their (false) naivete.
Things get much more visceral, and to my mind more compelling, with paintings and photographs that directly address the complications of innocence, making childhood, and parenthood, their subjects. The Swiss artist Miriam Cahn contributes paintings that are alternately woeful, languid and terrifying, in which babies drift downward through deep water or are born in a pool of blood. Cahn presents graphic sex, skeletons visible beneath the flesh, and an infant held uncertainly by grasping hands, its eyes wide with fear. Equally gripping are British painter Paula Rego’s big pastel drawings on paper of brutish, raging mothers and squalling children enacting the darkest of fairy tales, bursting out of the frame into deep reliefs and freestanding sculpture. In Aneta Greszykowska’s black and white photomontages, closely connected to Surrealist precedent, a mother and her daughter share melancholy and painfully ambivalent mutual concern.
To be sure, mythic figures and gruesome fairy tales are not the exclusive precincts of women. At the Danish pavilion, Uffe Isolotto produced a shamelessly gothic tableau that includes a female centaur lying on her side and staring, glassy-eyed, into space. The whiff of piety that hangs over work like this is skewered deliciously in Jim Shaw and Marnie Weber’s collaborative off-site installation at Squero Castello, a funhouse of horrors that mingles sculptural monsters, paintings, photo mashups and a video with the venue’s assorted antiques. Countering the dreamy trans-historicism that prevails in this Biennale, Shaw and Weber introduce wicked takes on contemporary politics, as in a painting showing the former president and his wife perched on an escalator descending into a flooded lobby where his henchmen bob disconsolately, Michael Cohen prominent among them. The visual language may be cartoonish, but it is far from childish.
Perhaps the most optimistic—yet wholly unsentimental—perspective on childhood at the Biennale is offered by Francis Alÿs’s absorbing multi-screen video installation in the Belgian Pavilion, which shows children around the world engaging in ordinary play, from jump rope and snowball fighting to the ancient game of mancala. In one, a little boy pushes a tire up a hill with ferocious tenacity, having outrun other kids to get hold of it; the camera pulls back to show the bleak immensity of the hill, then zooms in to see the boy inserting himself into the tire and tumbling ecstatically the whole long way back down. All the play on view is live and involves furious competition and negotiation. And joy.
Elsewhere in Venice, Marlene Dumas’s bravura survey at the Palazzo Grassi offers several wry glimpses of childhood, notably a full-length portrait of a naked little girl glaring at us angrily, her hands smeared with color. Called The Painter, the often-reproduced image depicts the artist’s daughter; brought into the world by Dumas and reborn in this painting in a way that only art can, she is granted her full complement of power. Women, Dumas seems to say, can be assumed to know a thing or two about the damage done by recourse to dubious notions of innocence.