Luxembourg at the Venice Biennale Remarkable exhibitions at one of the most important contemporary art events

Since 1988, Luxembourg has been a regular participant at "La Biennale di Venezia". Every two years, alternating with the Architecture Biennale, an artist represents the Grand Duchy at this major international contemporary art event. In 2003, Luxembourg won the Golden Lion for the best pavilion and since 2019, the Luxembourg pavilion has been located in the historic setting of the Sale d'Armi in the Arsenale. In this article, we will retrace the roots of this Venetian adventure by showcasing the projects that have left a mark on our hearts and minds.

The Venice Biennale was founded in 1893 to nurture economic development and cultivate tourism in the Italian city. At the Biennale, art is showcased by individual nations, which makes it different from all other biennales.  However, Luxembourg's introduction to this prestigious event did not go smoothly. Following its initial participation in 1956, the Grand Duchy did not take part in the Venice Biennale for many decades. It continued to exhibit at the São Paulo Biennale for many years. From 1953 until 1972, the works of Luxembourg artists regularly crossed the Atlantic. However, the presence of the Grand Duchy at this Biennial was called into question due to the decreasing resonance and the increasingly high transport costs. In 1988, Luxembourg returned to Venice and a new adventure began.

Luxembourg's first trip to Venice

In 1956, Luxembourg shows the painter Joseph Kutter and the sculptor Auguste Trémont for the first time at the Venice Biennale, under the curation of Joseph-Émile Muller, head of the aesthetic education department at the State Museums. The exhibition took place in an area allocated to the Italia pavilion and showcased fifteen paintings and seven sculptures. The main aim was to shine a spotlight on Luxembourgish artists abroad.

From 1958 onwards, Luxembourg did not receive an invitation to take part at the Biennale due to the lack of available space. Venice's loss turned into São Paulo's gain as the Grand Duchy continued to send the artistic works created by its visual artists to the Biennial in Brazil. Joseph Kutter participated posthumously in 1953 with a small retrospective of seven paintings.

Joseph Kutter (1894-1941) is widely regarded as one of the most influential painters in Luxembourg. Influenced by impressionism, he developed his own rather expressionist style of painting, which can be seen in his portraits, landscapes and still lifes.

Auguste Trémont (1892-1980) was a Luxembourgish sculptor and painter. He trained at the National School of Decorative Arts in Paris, and is best known for his animal sculptures and major public commissions.

Joseph Kutter, Femme accoudée, 1919/1920
© Joseph Kutter
Auguste Trémont, Elefante, 1926
© Auguste Trémont, A.F.I. Venezia
1956 Luxembourg - Biennale de Venise
© MNAHA, Tom Lucas

Back to the Biennale

Thirty years after Luxembourg's initial participation, and driven by the artist Patricia Lippert, the Ministry of Cultural Affairs once again decided to rise to the challenge and embrace the artistic experience of Venice.

In 1988, Luxembourg showcased, on a modest scale, two national artists in an exhibition area of 20m2 in the Italia pavilion. Visitors were able to mull over five gouaches and three sculptures by Moritz Ney and two paintings by Patricia Lippert, including a diptych that was split in two due to lack of space!

Moritz Ney's gouaches illustrate emotional imagery, while the sculptures are unfinished wooden heads, roughly cut with an axe and then coloured. Patricia Lippert evokes a personal mythology by blending her abstract strokes with figurative expressionism in dark, brooding colours.

Moritz Ney, Collage et Gouache, 1986
© Moritz Ney

Patricia Lippert, was born in 1956. She lives and works in Luxembourg and Berlin. She is a painter and sculptor. During her studies, she wrote a thesis on the following topic: "Gibt es eine weibliche Ästhetik? Vorschläge zu einer veränderten Kunstpraxis der Frauen." (Is there such a thing as a female aesthetic? Proposals for a change in women's artistic practice.).

Moritz Ney, artist-painter and sculptor, was born in 1947. Since 2019, he has lived and worked in Luxembourg and Belgium. His working techniques cover wood and stone sculptures, assemblages and engravings, silkscreen prints as well as painting.

An extraordinary exhibition pavilion

Since 1988, the determination to showcase works of art in Venice has not waned. However, as the number of exhibitions and the exhibition spaces were small at the beginning, the artists were required to display works in smaller formats.

In 1995, the year of the centenary of the Biennale and the year that the Grand Duchy was awarded the European City of Culture for the first time, Luxembourg was the only country present in the Giardini that did not have a fixed pavilion! 

Bert Theis, Potemkin Lock, 1995
© Wolfgang Träger
Bert Theis, Potemkin Lock, 1995
© Wolfgang Träger
Bert Theis, Potemkin Lock, 1995
© Wolfgang Träger

"Potemkin Lock" by Bert Theis is an artistic project which was born out of a difficult situation which, to date, has no equivalent. For this edition, the general curator of the Biennale decided to occupy the Italia pavilion entirely with the international exhibition and throw out all countries without a national pavilion. With rents for other spaces exceeding the allocated budget and requests for other alternatives being turned down, the artist finally decided to use a plot of scrubland in the Giardini located between the Belgian and Dutch pavilions. Access to the area proved difficult and the changing rooms and toilets for the Biennale staff were situated behind the site. Despite these obstacles, the Luxembourg pavilion - a temporary installation - was finally completed mainly because neither the Biennale nor the Belgian or Dutch officials raised any objections. 

Bert Theis' artistic project was an immediate success. No other Luxembourg project has received such acclaim in the international press and the artist was subsequently invited to participate in other major events. 

"Potemkin Lock" is a "practicable sculpture". Visitors, upon accessing the installation, entered a courtyard garden in the Giardini and were immediately immersed into the artistic project as active participants. Throughout the exhibit, the visitor was greeted by a rap song, consisting of lyrics from an interview with the Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp, with music by Ralph Rippinger.

Bert Theis was born in 1952 in Luxembourg and died in 2016. He lived and worked in Milan. He is best known for his large urban installations, public platforms and pavilions in public parks.

Golden Lion for Luxembourg

In 1999, the Luxembourg pavilion found a new home and welcomed visitors on the ground floor of the la Ca' del Duca along the Canal Grande. It was here that history was made!

In 2003, Su-Mei Tse was awarded the Golden Lion for her work "Air Conditioned" (voted best national pavilion). The Golden Lion is considered as the "Oscar" of the art world, and was awarded for the first time to a pavilion outside the Giardini! The prize not only rewarded the artistic work, but also the endeavours of the organising team of the Mudam LuxembourgLe Musée d'Art Contemporain du Luxembourg, as well as the work undertaken by Luxembourg over the past 15 years to make a breakthrough at the Biennial.

The young artist showcased a broad range of works at the Ca' Del Duca: two films, sculptures, a neon light and an anechoic chamber. They cast a peculiar atmosphere over the pavilion where time seemed to flow at a different speed. Music, noise and silence transformed the space into a landscape of sound, taking the visitor on a poetic journey through the exhibit. The exhibition raised questions about human destiny.

The project, which led to long lines of visitors and enjoyed international press coverage, had a major impact on Su-Mei Tse's successful career. She was born in 1973 in Luxembourg and is educated in visual arts and music. She lives and works in Berlin and Luxembourg.

In 2001, for the first time, the Mudam Luxembourg was entrusted by the Ministry of Culture to organise the pavilion. From 2007 onwards, the museum has shared this task alternately with the Casino LuxembourgForum d'art contemporain. Since 2010, the curator of the exhibition is no longer appointed by the Ministry. Instead, a call for projects is launched to select the artist and the curator. In 2017, the Luxembourg government signed a contract with the Fondazione La Biennale di Venezia that guaranteed Luxembourg's participation in the stunning Sale d'Armi for the next 20 years. Thus, for the 58th edition of the Biennale in 2019 the Luxembourg pavilion said goodbye to the Ca' Del Duca and moved to its new artistic residence.

Did you know?

The first edition of the Venice Biennale took place in 1895. It was called the International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice and took place in the public gardens, the Giardini di Castello, located south of the Arsenale. At the beginning, there was just one pavilion. But, as the artistic event developed over the subsequent years, countries began to build their own exhibition areas. The Venice Biennale is constantly reinventing itself and aims to broaden its horizon beyond the visual arts. As early as 1930, special sections for music, theatre and cinema (the famous Mostra) were created and, from 1980 onwards, there was also an event dedicated to architecture.