“A Selection of Works by the Finest Modern Masters of Bianco e Nero”: The Print Rooms at the Venice Biennale, 1899-1901
In 1901, Vittorio Pica praised the organisers of the Venice Biennale for devoting “one or two small rooms” to “a selection of works by the finest modern masters of bianco e nero”. The exhibitions organised in 1899 and 1901 presented—for the very first time in Italy—some of the leading names in European graphic art, building on the success of the sizeable exhibit of Dutch etchers in the 1895 and 1897 iterations, as well as of prints by James McNeill Whistler and Vittore Grubicy de Dragon. The sections dedicated to prints and drawings, starting in 1895, played a key role in sparking an interest in prints—and the international Etching Revival—in the Italian art world of the early 20th century.
This article attempts to outline the story of the graphic arts sections in the exhibitions of 1899 and 1901, examining the background, proposals, organisation, and selection of artists, as well as the artistic reception. An analysis of archival materials from the ASAC in Venice and of correspondence between Vittorio Pica and Secretary General Antonio Fradeletto helps identify their strategies and approach—which paralleled Pica’s activity as a critic—to promoting the development of printmaking and public familiarity with the art. It sheds light on the pioneering role played by these first few Biennales in building critical knowledge of intaglio as an original language in modern Italian art, and in introducing a range of practical and aesthetic concepts that reflected the latest currents in contemporary printmaking. These early Biennales marked a turning point in the history of Italian graphic art, introducing an exhibition model that grew in popularity, spreading knowledge and appreciation of prints.
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