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Gymnastic rings used for a performance by the dancer William Forsythe (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

The preview for the Venice Biennale ended this weekend, and after the news media, collectors and dealers left, I wandered to the back of the Arsenale, the ancient former rope factory where part of the main exhibition always unfolds. Calm having descended, the public was now welcome (for $25.50 a ticket), but almost nobody was around. Suddenly I came upon a garden I don’t recall having explored before.

It contained a tumbledown brick pavilion with rusting metal doors, open to the breeze and tucked in the shadows. The smell of jasmine and honeysuckle filled the warm air. Inside, 200 gymnastic rings had been hung close together, at various heights, like clustering vines, for a performance some nights earlier by William Forsythe, the dancer. A young woman was clambering from one ring to another, and at being discovered, mid-climb, she smiled shyly, as if acknowledging a shared secret.

Organized by Daniel Birnbaum, this 53rd version of the venerable Biennale is tidy, disciplined, cautious and unremarkable. If any show can be said to reflect a larger state of affairs in art now, this one suggests a somewhat dull, deflated contemporary art world, professionalized to a fault, in search of a fresh consensus. It has prompted the predictable cooing from wishful insiders, burbling vaguely about newfound introspection and gravity.

The Biennale’s ostensible theme is “making worlds.” Mr. Birnbaum has explained in a news release that this means “an exhibition driven by the aspiration to explore worlds around us as well as worlds ahead,” which hardly explains anything at all, of course, while implying that a regrettable inattention to worlds beyond the art world had prevailed. The main show is smaller than the Biennale two years ago, which in virtually every respect seemed more substantial — high-minded and dead serious in light of novelty-addled excess. Part of the Arsenale this time is given over to an advertisement for Abu Dhabi. A prize went to Tobias Rehberger, the stylish German artist, for designing a new cafe. So much for gravity and introspection.

Mr. Birnbaum has also said his show is “about possible new beginnings,” to which end he has included works by the Gutai group, Japanese avant-gardists from the 1950s and ’60s; Lygia Pape, the Brazilian artist who came to prominence around the same time; and Gordon Matta-Clark, the short-lived American iconoclast of the 1970s. The art crowd gladly talked them all up, as if they were news. Devising quasi-utopian projects of hippie-ish experimentalism by often fugitive means, they aimed to engage more than an art audience and to spread joy. They saw themselves as liberationists, optimists, fabulists and troublemakers without exactly being ideologues, who shared an almost alchemical knack for transforming scrappy materials and tests of sensual awareness into fine modernist forms.

Here they bring cool pleasures to several parts of the Biennale’s main exhibition. Pape’s moonbeams of gold thread — a large, ethereal concoction in a vast darkened gallery, titled “Ttéia,” from 2002, two years before Pape died — counts among the few coups de théâtre on view.

But the Biennale is meant to be a survey of new art, and while conscientious young artists now dutifully seem to raise all the right questions about urbanism, polyglot society and political activism, their answers look domesticated and already familiar. They look like other art-school-trained art, you might say, which is exactly what Pape and Matta-Clark and the Gutai group didn’t want their work to look like, never mind that the art market ultimately found a way to make a buck off what they did, as it does nearly everything, eventually.

Here, notwithstanding how far-flung their origins, almost all the artists in Mr. Birnbaum’s show seem to have prominent galleries behind them in New York and Europe, which is not necessarily a problem, but it’s hardly proof of larger worlds being explored, either.

As for the national pavilions, video and film works from Canada (Mark Lewis), Serbia (Katarina Zdjelar) and the Netherlands (Fiona Tan) play for the spotlight. But Bruce Nauman commands center stage unlike any American representative since perhaps the young Robert Rauschenberg, 45 years ago.

A miniretrospective of Mr. Nauman’s career now occupies the American pavilion. It spills over into university buildings on the other side of the Grand Canal, where a new work, “Days/Giorni,” is split between two large rooms. Rows of paper-thin, white loudspeakers, twin gantlets, broadcast voices intoning the days of the week in syncopated varieties (English at one site, Italian at the other).

It claims center stage partly because, among the usual competitors, Britain’s entry, Steve McQueen, has phoned in his work, which is a video about the Biennale’s leafy Giardini in off-season. Claude Lévêque, representing France, has constructed an inexplicable monstrosity in the form of a cross-shaped prisonlike cell with black flags blown by electric fans, of no apparent meaning. Germany, eschewing nationalism, abdicates its pavilion to a British artist, Liam Gillick, who has installed bare pine kitchen cabinets. It is the lamest German entry in decades, by wide consensus.


Michael Kimmelman
New York Times

No show in Europe at the moment bids to be more spectacular, or ends up being more exasperating, than “Picasso and the Masters,” sprawling here through the Grand Palais. If there’s good news to the financial meltdown, it’s that maybe bloated blockbusters like this one should become harder to organize.

Not that anyone in Paris seems discontented with the exhibition. From morning to night, long lines inch through the front doors to pay obeisance to this endlessly popular Spaniard, who was ahead of his time not least in churning out so many works to satisfy what has become the cultural industrial complex of the early 21st century.

Next door, a fine show of Emil Nolde hardly attracts a soul, sadly. FIAC, the art fair that shared quarters in the Grand Palais these last several days, was populated by shell-shocked dealers murmuring worriedly amongst themselves about the bygone customers whom not so long ago they had blithely turned away or gave five minutes to decide whether to buy a picture.

Picasso, in such straitened times, remains at least a reliable brand for exhibition organizers, who especially seem to love these compare-and-contrast affairs because they guarantee boffo box office. Just a couple of years ago, Madrid had a pair of such shows, the Guggenheim in New York yet another.

The Grand Palais, never mind the accompanying displays at Orsay (Picasso and Manet) and the Louvre (Picasso and Delacroix), trumps those events, gathering together hundreds of Picassos along with far-flung trophies that inspired or ostensibly inspired him: pictures by Cranach and Titian, Poussin and Ribera, Chardin and Zurburan, El Greco and Courbet, Degas and le Douanier Rousseau. The list goes on…

Let it first be said that Picasso, having taken on history as if fated to do so from childhood, embraced such extravagant comparisons — which isn’t to say he survives the competition altogether intact. “Art is not the application of a canon of beauty,” he once said, “but what instinct and the brain imagine quite apart from the canon.”

The canon, in other words, remained his starting point but increasingly became his crutch. His achievements were Promethean and unparalleled in the last century, but having said that, as the show proves almost despite itself, Picasso ended up often mired in vain, backward-looking riffs on grander achievements.

Perhaps it’s as the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once put it, talking about Picasso’s failure to appreciate Bonnard. “Picasso had no heart,” he said. That’s pretty harsh.

On the other hand, there are his copies of Velazquez’s “Méninas.” From the 1950s, they tinker with variations on his familiar devices — the fractured, faux-childish faces; the swift, sketchy brushwork; the primary colors set often against black; the clattery scaffolding of faceted planes and accordion space — to produce what looks clever but finally cartoonish when considered against the grave dignity and humanity of the original. Granted, comparing anything with “Las Méninas” is unfair, but then, Picasso invited the comparison, and from it one gets Cartier-Bresson’s point.

Even that remark about the canon, as it happens, recalls what a century before one of Picasso’s canonical heroes, Delacroix, wrote: That great art derives both from humility before the past and a conviction that “what has already been said is not enough.”

Picasso’s later career, you might say, was a one-man wrestling match with the limits of his own enormous genius in relation to history, and his failures were, humanly speaking, as compelling as his accomplishments, but that interpretation requires from an exhibition not blind hero worship but, as Delacroix had it, a little humility. The show here lacks this altogether, substituting swagger for judgment, bluster for nuance, and in art, as in politics and finance, we’ve had enough of that approach already.

It is as if the traveling of priceless art from far-flung places and the clout that made it happen were enough — that we are supposed to feel grateful for what’s over-the-top about “Picasso and the Masters” — whereas the show’s excess is exactly what gets in the way of our standing peaceably and intimately before a picture.

The best blockbusters make you forget their blockbuster-ness. The Louvre happens to have an Andrea Mantegna show that’s big and marvelous and includes other artists on whom Mantegna depended or whom he influenced, some of them mediocre, some great. Crowds look closely and slowly. The show promotes that. The art rewards it.

At one point at the Grand Palais, I braved the throng and plunged as if into a strong headwind, anchoring myself before a late Picasso portrait. Against a bright orange and red backdrop, a bearded figure with large, hooded, almond eyes and what looks like a long blond wig, returned my gaze. He’s the picture of a proud, weary man with a slight identity crisis. The work appears to have been done in a flash. The date was July 31, 1971. It’s catchy, electric.

But something was missing. It will become clear, I thought, with a little more time, before a tsunami of fellow visitors swept clean the gallery.

We tend to judge exhibitions as we do one another, according to their regard for individuals. We’re awed by flash and fame. But we’re really looking to make some deeper connection, even just one, beyond the bluster and hype, that feels lasting and true.

It was those almond eyes, I realized later on the street outside, thinking back on that portrait. They were hollow.

Michael Kimmelman
New York Times

For months the Piccola Lirica company has been staging “Tosca” here, as its slogan says, “in miniatura.” The other night I stopped by to see it. It lasted about as long as some Italian governments: in just 90 minutes Scarpia was dead, Tosca had hurled herself off the parapet…

In America one of the few bright spots for classical music now is said to be opera, with younger crowds attracted by trendy marketing and new works often dealing with topical issues. But it’s another story in the country of Verdi and Puccini, where, like Mimi, opera has been dying forever. When the soprano Cecilia Bartoli recently told a German newspaper that “opera in Italy is a museum with dusty exhibits,” she echoed the composer Luciano Berio, who in exasperation a dozen years ago called Italian opera administrators “cretins” and said half the Italian opera houses should be closed because production standards had fallen so low…

Enter Piccola Lirica, which advertises itself as youth-friendly, meaning it hires fresh-faced singers and shrinks grand operas like “Tosca” from “Godfather” to “Pinocchio” length. It’s the CliffsNotes version of Puccini, fondly abridged.

“When opera was born, there was no cinema, no TV, no fast food,” said Rossana Siclari, the company’s director, a thin, wide-eyed, 40-something Calabrian. We talked before the performance over proseccos at one of the tables in the theater’s lovely little whitewashed cafe, which doubles as the lobby.

“Our society wants everything quickly,” she said. “Everything changes in the world.”

Gianna Volpi, who condensed “Tosca,” stopped by. She supplied brief narrative links to make up for cuts, and even added a happy ending: the dead lovers reappear for a postmortem smooch. “We’re giving the audience more, not less,” Ms. Volpi said.

That’s a matter of opinion.

But with 200 performances scheduled for this year alone, her “Tosca” may become the most often performed opera production ever in Italy, albeit without a costly cast and orchestra in a theater seating thousands. Piccola Lirica employs five singers; the theater, Teatro Flaiano, where Anna Magnani, Monica Vitti and Aldo Fabrizi once performed, seats just 170.

Toscanini lamented three-quarters of a century ago that the advanced age of patrons for his NBC Symphony spelled imminent doom for classical music. But “the opera audience constantly renews itself, just at an older age,” Mr. Vergnano said about the current demographics of the Italian scene.

He has a point about the serious music audience generally. Then he added, “I’m always surprised in these days of the Internet, television and special effects to see that people are still moved to tears at an opera, just as they were 150 years ago.”

Which is the real issue. Stripped of spectacle, Piccola Lirica’s “Tosca” proved that immediacy and a little genuine pathos can suffice for a casual evening at the theater. Never mind that the orchestra was a quartet of eager young electronic keyboard players making sounds that seemed to emanate from tin cans and string — or that there hasn’t actually been an opera company of distinction in Rome for years.

From the Castel Sant’Angelo, where the opera’s last act takes place, to the ancient neighborhood around the Teatro Flaiano, mobbed in the autumn evening with tourists and Romans doing what they always do, dodging traffic, looking at one another and the city, it briefly seemed as if not much had actually changed since Puccini’s day, that opera was still in the bloodstream here. Clearly Italian opera is like Rome, which is always said to be over the hill but remains indispensable.

It survives every attempt to save it.

Michael Kimmelman
New York Times