A Biennial for the Youth
The Paris Biennale, in its full name, Biennial and International Exhibition of Young Artists, was founded in 1959 as a non-profit association subsidised by the French state. With a clear international orientation, it was placed under the joint patronage of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, created the same year by president Charles de Gaulle and assigned to the writer André Malraux. One of the objectives of the new-born Ministry was to ensure France’s cultural influence abroad, at a time when the epicentre of the Euro-American art world was in the process of being relocated on the other side of the Atlantic. The creation of an international biennial in the French capital was thus part of a strategy to bring the country back to a competitive position in the cultural realm.
To assert its unique position in the expanding field of international cultural events, the Parisian event focused on youth—participating artists were aged twenty to thirty-five years old. The artists’ participation was not based on the degree of recognition or the successful development of their careers, but rather on the potential their emerging practice could embody. Accordingly, the organisers stressed the absence of pressure—no need to endorse the role of “geniuses,” as the general delegate Raymond Cogniat specified in 1963—and insisted on the Biennale’s prospective character, as the showcase of a vanguard in the making. The event was clearly oriented towards disciplinary cross-fertilisation and in addition to “traditional” expression means (painting, sculpture drawing, graphic arts and even medals), it also paid attention to contemporary music, experimental poetry, cinema and scenography since its first years of existence; photography, architecture and urbanism were introduced in 1967, and video and performance art became important protagonists in the 1970s.
The Biennale lasted four weeks, generally between September and October, a relatively short time if compared to the three or four months of São Paulo or Venice Biennale. Its organisers had nevertheless the ambition to create an international platform whose influence would persist throughout the year, enabling artists from different geographies and backgrounds to remain in touch. “The laureates count on us not to remain isolated and to maintain, or even extend, the relationships they have been able to establish thanks to the Biennale,” general delegate Raymond Cogniat wrote in 1963. “This activity has eventually become permanent and seems to be as important to us as the Exhibition itself because it fulfils the vocation of influence and diffusion that defines the Paris Biennale.”
Considering the important network of official institutions and organisations that administered the training and professional debuts of young artists in socialist Eastern Europe (from art schools to youth salons, studios and clubs), it is not surprising that the Paris Biennale was well perceived by socialist leaderships, who saw in it an opportunity to promote the quality of their emerging art in a Western context. On the other hand, the 1960s (until 1968) were characterised by a generalised relaxation in domestic and foreign affairs, resulting in an intensification of cultural diplomacy that was also favoured by the abandonment of the socialist realist doctrine. This atmosphere can explain the high level of participation of socialist Eastern European countries in the Biennale since its first edition: Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and non-aligned Yugoslavia officially participated from 1959, Romania and Czechoslovakia were incorporated in 1961.
5th and 7th Paris Biennale–Biennial and International Manifestation of Young Artists (1967 and 1971). Covers from the exhibition catalogues
National Representations between Eclecticism and Idiosyncrasy
The time span discussed here (approximately between 1965 and 1973) corresponds in the case of the Paris Biennale with successive operating systems applied to the selection and display of artworks: from a traditional model based on national participations (1965–1969), to a hybrid and experimental format (1969–1971), and finally, a centralised and internationalised system (1973 until 1977). This diversified picture provides a rich insight into the history of Eastern European participation, especially in relation to its adaptability and response to these changing formats, both at the level of state organisation and individual involvement. It should be pointed out, however, that this text is not intended to separate these individual and collective experiences of participation between an official and an unofficial realm, or between state-managed and self-driven artistic presence in Paris, but rather to show the high level of interaction between these two fields—and all the intermediate ones, which proliferate even more when dealing with international (and transnational) events. The Paris Biennale is instead contemplated as a changing arena in which artistic proposals and their protagonists were exposed, discussed and defeated in relation with a wider socio-political context—and, we could say, continue to be so through its ongoing process of historicisation. We should also specify that the particular situation of each country of the so-called Eastern Bloc makes it difficult to articulate a general vision on Eastern European participation without resorting to a problematic generalisation. Since the length of this text does not allow us to address each context in a detailed manner, the examples mentioned here should be contemplated with their specific social and political coordinates in mind.
Under Raymond Cogniat (from 1959 to 1965) and Jacques Lassaigne (from 1967 to 1969) as general delegates, the Biennale relied on the traditional system of national representations. In this scenario, the participation was a matter of cultural diplomacy and participating countries were responsible for appointing a commissioner, him- or herself in charge of selecting the artists. In the case of socialist Eastern Europe, the role of national commissioner was mostly assigned to members of the Artists’ Unions or to art critics with a teaching position in a university or fine arts academy, and they generally differed from one edition to another. A notable exception was the Hungarian participation, with the position of national commissioner being held from 1961 to 1969 by Sándor Hemberger, Head of Department at the Institute of Cultural Relations (KKI). This continuity, which was not an isolated case in Hungarian cultural politics, showed the authorities’ willingness of keeping national participation to international exhibitions into a strictly controlled framework. As a matter of fact, the profile of Hungarian artists exhibited at the Paris Biennale was also clearly defined: most of them were already well inserted in the national art circuit through their participation in salons and group shows organised by the Studio of Young Artists, and a significant number had received the Derkovits scholarship, a prestigious state-funded award reserved to Hungarian artists less than thirty-five years old. In that context, the Paris Biennale was thus part of a training programme aimed at consolidating young artists’ careers both nationally and internationally, and it was not rare that such participation was followed by the acquisition of works for institutional collections.
A closer look at the national sections in the Biennale’s catalogues is quite revealing in what concerns the commissioners’ orientation and degree of openness and, behind them, that of the cultural institutions in charge of organising the participation. For instance, the selections realised by national commissioners from Poland, Czechoslovakia or Hungary between 1965 and 1969 provided an insight into current artistic trends, from expressionism, informel or post-informel art, surrealism, new figuration, object-based art and textual compositions. However, they looked more like a “catch-all” exercise than a reasoned selection justified by a concrete aesthetic or ideological positioning—a characteristic which, in the context of the Paris Biennale or international exhibitions alike, did not differ much from other national participations. Alongside this tendency to offer a kind of sampling of artistic developments, one can also detect essentialist statements, especially coming from Romanian or Czechoslovak commissioners, who did not hesitate to exalt national idiosyncrasy as a motor for creation. In 1969, Romanian artists Ion Stendl, Teodora Moisescu Stendl, Radu Dragomirescu and Radu Stoica jointly presented a work titled The Four Elements: a monumental environment articulated in four vertical pieces (earth, air, water, fire) that combined painted and sculptural elements. According to Ion Frunzetti, who wrote the introductory text for the Romanian selection, they aggregated a series of “spatial symbols” that primarily referred to the local heritage. The statement of the Romanian art critic highlighted the mythical/symbolic and extra temporal dimension of the environment, which “wrap[ped] the viewer in a spatial and psychic atmosphere” to celebrate the life of the human collective in contact with natural elements. In conclusion, Frunzetti affirmed that “[f]or those countries in which folklore is indicative of living art, references to a mythical world can only add an element of poetry and unity to any artistic creation.”
Two years later, in 1971, the same four artists participated (this time, separately) in the exhibition Romanian Art Today at Richard Demarco’s gallery in Edinburgh, which also crystallised essentialising discourses seeing art through the prism of a supposed Romanian identity and culture. On this respect, Piotr Piotrowski’s comment according to which “the nationalisation of the avant-garde was the price of its appearance in the West” can be applied to Romanian participation to the Paris Biennale from 1965 to 1969. In fact, both exhibitions required the articulation of an interpretative framework intended to promote their work in an international context, which privileged a narrative based on the exaltation of roots, folklore and cultural idiosyncrasy—often at the expense or even against the artists’ will. Beyond such strategic positioning, the fact remains that the environment exhibited in Paris by Stendl, Moisescu Stendl, Dragomirescu and Stoica made a strong impression on the Biennale’s international jury for visual arts, who awarded it the prize for foreign artists groups.
1969, a Turning Point
The 6th Biennale in 1969 showed an impulse towards forms of organisation beyond the national frame, with an internal distribution based on disciplinary fields and a focus on collective work. For the first time, the Musée d’Art Moderne was used as a venue—previous editions had been exclusively held at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, located in the same architectural complex originally designated as the palace of the museums of modern art—in particular for the display of team works and architecture, and monumental sculptures were displayed in the outdoor space between the two museums.
One of the singular sections of the Biennale was in fact the one dedicated to “team works” (“travaux d’équipe”), which not only displayed collectively conceived projects, but put also an accent on their multidisciplinary and transnational dimension. The teams were asked to present their contribution through cyclotone, a projection of slides on a circular screen, accompanied by music or scale models of limited size. Czechoslovakia was the first Eastern European country present in the team works section in 1967, with two projects. One of them was a model of an Espace de relaxation [Relaxation Space] (undated) based on the principles of organic architecture, led by architect Miroslav Masák. It derived from a proposal first presented at the Symposium on Free Time and Architecture in Liberec (1966), dedicated to the idea of free time and leisure as a central issue in post-industrial societies. The topic of leisure was in fact “a perfect platform for connecting to colleagues in the West, for sociologists and architects alike” and the team works section at the Paris Biennale was one of the spaces that propitiated interdisciplinary dialogue on this issue and more generally, functioned as a catalyst for experiences at the confluence of art, architecture, science and technology, in resonance with other events in Europe such as—to name a few—the Sigma Festival in Bordeaux, or the New Tendencies exhibitions in Zagreb. Masák was inspired in fact by the collaborative multidisciplinary methodology implemented at the Paris Biennale, which could have been the starting point for the methods applied by the SIAL—Sdružení inženýrů a architektů Liberec [Association of Engineers and Architects in Liberec], founded in 1969.
Poland joined the team works section in 1969 with two projects directed by Jan Berdyszak and Krzysztof Wodiczko, and Czechoslovakia exhibited no less than four collective proposals led by Mira Haberernová, Stanislav Zippe and Stano Filko, the latter with two projects. One of Filko’s projects, the environment Cosmos was actually realised and was enthusiastically described by French art critic Pierre Restany as one of the few “happy surprises” of the Biennale.
The team works section also responded to a demand for collective organisation around progressive goals, emphatically expressed by general delegate Jacques Lassaigne: “Today, a natural movement pushes artists to gather among themselves, to complement or contradict each other in order to go beyond the expression of individual feelings and meet the collective demands of a new society that is being forged.” If, on the one hand, a sort of utopian wind seemed to be blowing over the Biennale, on the other, the event was fustigated by a significant number of artists and art critics (French or residing in France) for perpetuating a bourgeois and elitist model. The 6th Biennial was in fact a sounding board for political statements and claims in the wake of the social movements of May 1968 in France, but also in relation to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact troupes, in August 1968. While this was not apparent in the official programme, it was more visible in the so-called “Manifestations annexes” of the Biennale or side events. Present in the Biennale with a series of sculptures, Slovak sculptor Jozef Jankovič also participated in the collective exhibition “Jeunes artistes à Paris,” aimed at showing a selection of young Paris-based artists. Although we have no photographic documentation of his work, art critic Raoul-Jean Moulin’s testimony allows us imagine it: “In 1969, one year after the Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia, he had made on the ground, reliefs of human bodies which were in the colours of the Czechoslovakian flag (blue, white, red like ours) and on which the public had to walk to gain access to the hall, it had caused diplomatic upheavals. And the work was called August 68, it was clear.” Moulin, who was involved in the Biennale’s organisation between 1967 and 1975, first as a the person in charge of the catalogue and then as a member of the International Commission, played an important role of mediator between artists from Eastern Europe and the Biennale. In 1969, he also invited Slovak artist Alex Mlynárčik to exhibit at the festival he organised in the town of Châtillon near Paris. Mlynárčik’s allegorical homage to Gustave Courbet (Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, 1969), whose position in favour of the Commune insurrection in 1848 was well-known, also had a special significance in the light of Czechoslovakia normalisation.
Beyond the National Framework: A Transitional Biennale
After the turmoil that accompanied its 6th edition, the 7th Biennial in 1971 was a transitional one, and also the first with Georges Boudaille as general delegate. On the one hand, it was still organised around national participations, on the other, commissioners were invited to follow several thematic lines established by a commission of young French art critics: conceptual art, hyperrealism and interventions. As evidence of the limits of this new procedure, a “fourth option” was eventually added to gather all the proposals that did not fit within the three trends—which turned out to be, in fact, most of the works on display.
While hyperrealism was completely left aside by Eastern European commissioners, the conceptual art and the intervention sections (respectively curated by Nathalie Aubergé, Catherine Millet and Alfred Pacquement, and Daniel Abadie) included an important selection made by Yugoslav commissioner Jerko (Ješa) Denegri. In change, the Romanian, Hungarian and Czechoslovak official delegations were absent, reflecting the uneasiness of cultural authorities in the face of the organisers’ attempt to modernise the Biennale through its thematisation, a project that thwarted their intention to keep control over the artists involved. To compensate for this absence, however, some artists participated at the invitation of the French general curatorship (commissariat general). This was the case for Romanians Horia Bernea, Paul Neagu—as “NEAGU’P”—and Sherban Epure who exhibited in the interventions section curated by Daniel Abadie, thus circumventing the official intermediation of the Union of Fine Artists. On this occasion, Horia Bernea was awarded the François Stahly prize for his large wall installation Essay on Space/Iconography after Knowledge, a display of forms—designated as “entities”—conceived as non-representational traces of an inaccessible knowledge of the world. The prize consisted in an artist residency in Le Crestet, in southern France, and was completed by a subsidy that was actually donated by the Fondation pour une entraide intellectuelle européenne [Foundation for European Mutual Intellectual Assistance], a fact that reflects the complex picture of public and private organisations that supported Eastern European artists abroad. As Magda Radu reports, Bernea’s residency in Le Crestet (which took place in 1974) was the occasion for the articulation of new reflections about his practice that distanced him from Western orthodox conceptualism, emphasising the need to materialise art in a way that would provide a sensible and mystical rather than analytical knowledge.
In addition to the thematic lines, the 1971 edition also included the famous Section des Envois [Mail Section] organised by young art critic and historian Jean-Marc Poinsot. Initially modest in its intentions and means, to “provoke an experimental and confrontational activity,” the initiative played a crucial role in the dissemination of mail art and the concepts underlying its practice. Participants from Eastern Europe included Czech Petr Štembera, as well as Hungarians Endre Tót and Gyula Konkoly. Alex Mlynárčik also appeared in a small historical section bringing together what Poinsot considered pioneering contributions. Klara Kemp-Welch has signalled that the Section des Envois represented “a watershed moment” for Central and Eastern European artists, since the focus on distance communication enabled them to send artworks without requesting permission to the cultural authorities; furthermore, the institutional context of the Biennale contributed to legitimise the value of experimental works on paper and encouraged artists to follow this path. On this respect, Poinsot’s initiative in 1971, based on the inclusive principles of mail art, could be seen as anticipatory of the elimination of the national commissioners implemented in the Biennale’s three following editions.
Towards a Centralised Model
After the 7th edition’s ambiguous format—still involving national commissions while introducing curatorial lines that proved to be too exclusionary—, the 8th Biennale adopted in 1973 a centralised model, based on an International Commission composed by about ten members—including general delegate Georges Boudaille—and a network of international correspondents. These privileged intermediaries between the local scenes and the organisation were invited to submit artists’ files that would be evaluated by the International Commission, hence the term “centralised” Biennial, since the Commission was in fact the only one to decide the Biennale’s contents. The correspondent’s task of “clearing the ground” was particularly unrewarding, since they were neither paid, nor invited to defend their choice. After the 8th Biennale, the correspondent’s ambiguous position was internally discussed by the members of the Commission, who differed regarding their number—one or more for each country—, remuneration—impossible to assume for the Biennale, it was taken care of by some of the countries concerned, but in most cases not—and status—officially recognised or not. In the context of these discussions, held in 1974 and 1975, the opinion of Commission member Ryszard Stanisławski differed from that of his colleagues. The Polish curator and director of the Museum of Art in Łódź wanted the correspondents to be chosen more strictly, and suggested that their proposals should be accepted outright. He provoked a discussion “on the substance” and requested to have it recorded in the minutes of the meeting. Stanisławski did not indeed support the operating system of the Biennale, and proposed reconsidering it after the 9th edition. Other members of the International Commission estimated, coinciding with Boudaille’s view expressed in 1973, that “by sharing the weight of decisions,” the committee they constituted would risk “evading its responsibilities and becoming a ghost committee.”
The system of correspondents, which was not without limitations—in particular, the exclusionary character of a selection based on personal affinities—nonetheless resulted in a significant presence of artists from Eastern Europe and the diversification of their profiles. In 1973, fourteen artists from Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia exhibited: György Jovánovics, Péter Legéndy, Guyla Pauer, Tamás St. Auby, Artyści Anonimowii [Anonymous Artists], Druga Grupa [Second Group], Milan Knížák, Zorka Ságlová, Jana Želibská, Ana Lupaș, Eugen Tăutu, Mircea Spătaru, Sherban Epure and Goran Trbuljak.
For the first time, the reference to “Eastern European art” clearly appeared in publications produced by and around the Biennale, within two main frames. First, the region was considered as being part of the industrialised countries where contemporary art developed in accordance with the modernist canon—unlike the Third world countries. Second, Eastern Europe was associated with Spain and South America, since according to Georges Boudaille artists from these regions privileged “works with a social or political content,” the subtext being that political contents were related with non-democratic regimes. László Beke reported this view in the Hungarian magazine Müvészet [Art], observing that the Biennale he visited did not reflect the same impression. It can thus be suggested that the “denationalisation” of the selection process in the context of the Biennale de Paris was accompanied, in the case of the Eastern European participants, by the search for other forms of identification based on common economic or political features.
We should precise, however, that if national commissions were evicted from the selection process, the state institutions were actually still solicited to contribute to artists’ travel or production expenses, since the Biennale couldn’t afford such costs. This led to awkward or uncomfortable situations, the Biennale—in the person of Boudaille—having to mediate with cultural administrations in order to exhibit artists who were not necessarily supported by them and, in some cases, had to renounce to participate for economic reasons. Following that line, it must also be said that the system of correspondents also made the situation of artists more precarious, in the sense that communication became more random and subject to the vagaries of the postal services (themselves exposed to state censorship)—and no longer to diplomatic channels relayed by the embassies.
At the same time, the use of correspondents as intermediaries did not prevent artists from submitting their work by other means. In the case of Sherban Epure, who also participated to the 8th Biennale in 1973, it was his friend, the Spanish sculptor exiled in Paris, Jose Subira Puig who, after a trip to Romania with his family, brought the artist’s works to Paris in his own vehicle, hidden under his son’s seat. Epure’s pieces on view in Paris presented his long-term project S-Bands, documented through a slide installation and a film, Sherban Epure, “Bandes-S” (1973) directed by Daniel Medvedov.
Developed since 1968, the S-Bands (for “Sherban’s Bands”) reflected the artist’s parallel involvement in the fields of visual art and science, in particular mathematics and cybernetics. They were bands of paper with printed coloured stripes, folded according to certain methods, using algorithms. Based on geometry and colour variables, the S-Bands were a source of improvisation and their declination in multiple combinations resulted in nonrepetitive abstract artworks of two or three dimensions. Epure’s work certainly resonated, although not consciously, with other experiments carried out at that time in the field of computer and cybernetic art, as well as architecture; as a matter of fact, a few weeks after the 8th Paris Biennale, he also participated in the Sigma 9 Festival in Bordeaux, which contributed to situate his work on a map of pioneering practices at the intersection of art, science and technology. Retrospectively, the S-Bands were also related with the local tradition of the “shtergars,” woven and decorated textiles produced in certain regions of Romania, as well as with handicraft production from other parts of the world. If, on the one hand, Epure’s clandestine participation to the Biennale had no direct repercussions on his situation in his country, on the other hand, the presence of Romanian artists at the Biennale could be exploited by the Romanian authorities as a sign of liberalisation and participation in the détente process. Meanwhile, the state of marginalisation he and his family had suffered from several decades eventually led the artist to emigrate to the United States in 1980, with his wife and lifelong collaborator Letitzia Bucur.
Throughout its history, the Biennale de Paris has been the theatre of an interlacing of artistic relations through which the apparent separation between the official and unofficial spheres was constantly altered and intervened by factors such as friendship, solidarity, alternative diplomacy, personal mobility, economic resources (including awards and grants, which would constitute an entire field to explore), and much more. Its impact should be measured not only through the spaces of visibility and relationships that were created on site, or within the specific time frame of its occurrence, but also through its delayed and delocalised echoes and its indirect effects on artists and cultural agents who learned about it, discussed it, critically or not, or were inspired by it.
Perhaps one of the most astonishing traces of these not always detectable repercussions are the notebooks in which Slovak artist Július Koller, who never participated in the Biennale, carefully hand-copied catalogue contents in the 1970s, as a means of informing himself and sharing this information with his inner circle, thus socialising the traces of an event he had not directly experienced.
Juliane Debeusscher is an art historian and a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona and the University Grenoble Alpes.