“Finding Modernism in Venice” an essay by Katherine R Sloan


Canals filled with turquoise water instead of streets bustling with cars and bicycles come to mind when I think of Venice. Joseph Brodsky’s essay Watermark (1993) resonates deeply with the visitor, as does a watery dream conjured by Robert Altman: I was immediately reminded of his film, 3 Women (1977) upon arrival. Brodsky only visited Venice in December for he longed to celebrate the beginning of a new year with “a wave hitting the shore at midnight.” He explained “that, to me, is time coming out of water.”  Brodsky also described the city as being “part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers” and he described the canal-side structures as “upright lace.” Brodsky, born in Leningrad, was exiled from his homeland due to his “having a worldview damaging to the state, decadence and modernism, failure to finish school, and social parasitism . . . except for the writing of awful poems” (Brodsky went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987). He thought of Venice as the closest incarnation of Eden and “the greatest masterpiece our species produced.”

Famous Russian and American Poet and Essayist, Joseph Brodsky, visiting Venice, Italy.

Venice is known for its extreme beauty and is home to, according to Napoleon, one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe: The Piazza San Marco. Recently, when I visited, the square filled with water from the Adriatic Sea due to seasonal high tides/acqua alta accompanied by a storm; we were up to our knees in water and unable to visit the inside of the glorious Basilica (a tour only lasts ten minutes). Saint Mark’s Basilica is one of the most visited attractions in Venice and is one of the best known examples of exquisite Italo-Byzantine architecture in the world. Napoleon actually stole the three bronze horses from the cathedral in hopes of giving them a home in Paris but they were returned.

Saint Mark’s Square is also the home to the Palazza Ducale (Doge’s Palace), St. Mark’s campanile and, of course, numerous museums. The Doge’s Palace houses the enclosed Bridge of Sighs, which was named by Lord Byron. In Venice, one is surrounded by examples of the Byzantine as well as the Romantic poets but Venice is also overwhelmingly dedicated to Modernist art and poetry. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of Europe’s premier destinations devoted to modern art and is located in a quiet section of Venice called Dorsoduro in incredibly close proximity to Santa Maria della Salute. I visited the museum on an overcast, slightly rainy day and was immediately impressed and slightly overwhelmed by the palace, its sculpture-filled courtyard and rooms dedicated to some of the world’s greatest Modernist achievements.

Mrs. Peggy Guggenheim, the famour art collector, sociate and bohemian, photographed by David ‘Chim’ Seymour at her palace on the Grand Canal, Venice, Italy, 1950.

The Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Sculpture Garden at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on the Grand Canal is filled with works by Alberto Giacometti (Standing Woman, 1947 and Woman Walking, 1936), Jean Arp (Amorpha-Fruit, 1946), Max Ernst (In the Streets of Athens, 1960) and Ellsworth Kelly (Curve XXV, 1980) among others. Peggy Guggenheim’s ashes are interred in a courtyard of the palazzo along with her precious “babies” (fourteen Lhasa Apsos). Inside the museum, there is an entire room dedicated to early works by Jackson Pollock (from 1942 to 1947) many Max Ernst paintings (including one of my favorites, La Toilette de la mariée/Attirement of the Bride, 1940), Vasily Kandinskys (including a geometric masterwork entitled Upward (Empor), October 1929, Man Ray’s experiments with photographs known as “Rayographs,” works by Marc Chagall, René Magritte and Joan Miró (to name a few).

Max Ernst’s work associated with birds is of great interest to me: In Attirement of the Bride, we see his use of “Illusionistic Surrealism” where he used a traditional technique to depict an unsettling object. The painting reveals animal-like forms (nude women with bird-like headdresses and cloaks that reveal piercing eyes hidden beneath layers of feathers) and even monstrous images (a small green intersexual creature at the bottom right corner has two pairs of breasts, webbed feet, a misshapen head and a bobbing phallic-like growth between its stumpy legs). Ernst’s lovingly thoughtful depiction of a bride getting dressed is made elaborate with garish colors and is also otherworldly due to his use of foreign forms. The painting also has an ominous feeling of violence due to the depiction of the spearhead poised towards the bride. Ernst is known for his admiration of Giorgio de Chirico (whose works can also be seen at the museum) and for his identification with the bird. Ernst invented an alter ego called “Loplop” which he considered to be a “bird superior” (1929). Bird imagery was always important in Ernst’s work, even as far back as before 1920 when he experimented with Dadaism in Cologne.

Max Ernst  b.1891, Bruhl, Germany; d. 1976,Paris

Title: Attirement of the Bride (La Toilette de la mariée)

Date: 1940

Medium: Oil on canvas


While Guggenheim is known for collecting mobiles by Alexander Calder, she was also the owner of jewelry designed specifically for her by Calder and Yves Tanguy. The earrings gifted by Tanguy are actually his smallest paintings and were given to Guggenheim on the night of his exhibit at her London gallery. Later, in New York, Guggenheim (known for her eccentric fashion sense) would publicly wear one earring designed by Calder (a small brass, spiky mobile) and, in the other ear, one by Tanguy to symbolize her impartiality between Abstraction and Surrealism.

While Venice is a haven for modern art lovers, it also pays homage to titan Modernist poets who sought refuge in the city of canals. Ezra Pound, father of Imagism, lived on Calle Querini in Dorsoduro with his partner, Olga Rudge, and died in Venice (he is buried on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore). It is said that he almost dropped his Cantos into the canals to be lost forever at sea (luckily, for us, he didn’t). In his Pisan Cantos, (more specifically Canto LXXXI), Pound writes “What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross/ What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee/What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.” This is especially moving as Pound was an expatriate who made Italy his home, final resting place and, in essence, his heritage. Pound can be seen, in some rare film footage, reciting Canto LXXXI where he walks—with a cane—along the Grand Canal echoing “Pull down thy vanity” with the only other sound being the lapping of gentle waves. Could it be that, towards the end of his life, he was expressing regret for his towering ego and actions for which he was imprisoned? Whatever he meant,  his poetic spirit can be felt lingering along the canals and in the narrow streets.

Ezra Pound was an expatriate American poet and a major figure in the early modernist poetry movement.

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