REVIVAL IN VENICE. The art historian Mario Codognato is a curator of contemporary art. Born and raised in Venice, he was the chief curator of MADRE, the museum of contemporary art in Naples, and at the 21er Haus of the Belvedere in Vienna. Today Mario Codognato is back in Venice, where his well-known family of jewelers are based, and he is the director of the Anish Kapoor Foundation.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Mario Codognato, why did you come back to Venice?

I never thought in a million years that I would. I left thirty five years ago, when there were two times the inhabitants there are now. It was common for my generation to go away, and most didn’t come back, but Anish Kapoor, a long-time friend and an artist with whom I worked a lot, wanted to set up a foundation and asked me to help him. London was the most obvious place for this, as he has lived there most of his life, and I have lived there too. But one day I was coming back to Venice on the plane with the director general of the Cini Foundation, the most important foundation here in Venice, who talked to me about a building they had where they were looking for someone that wanted to set up a foundation. I talked to Anish about it, and because people from all over the world come to Venice to see the Biennale we started to think that Venice would be the place.

Mercantile Venice was a kind of New York for trade and business. Has this cosmopolitan city become ideal for art foundations?

In the last few years, more and more individuals or institutions are setting up foundation-like activities. Two years ago Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza set up her own foundation here, and Nicolas Berggruen just bought a beautiful building in Giudecca with the aim of also doing a foundation. There is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection; Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana are the contemporary art museums of the Pinault Collection; and Fondazione Prada is extremely active with an extraordinary program.

Are you curating the project of the artist Georg Baselitz in Palazzo Grimani?

Yes, a building with a peculiar history where in the 16th century Patriarch Giovanni Grimani set up a collection of Roman and Greek antiquities. Venice always looked east to Byzantium, and Roman and Greek antiquities were never really collected or shown. Grimani was the first, and his collection was very important.

Why does Baselitz want to show there?

The interior architecture of Palazzo Grimani was made to host particular antique pieces, but through the centuries the collection was dispersed. A few years ago Venetian Heritage and the Veneto’s Regional Directorate for Museums had the great idea of reconstructing the original 16th century display, and put all these sculptures – which were in the Vestibulus of the Marciana Library in St Mark’s Square – back in the place which was built for them. However, the portraits of the Grimani family that were displayed in the main hall were sold, dispersed, or lost, so now we only have the stucco frames, where we will put twelve works by Georg Baselitz. He wants to make a homage to Venice, a city to which he is connected both personally and for what it represents. We are also doing an exhibition of his new work which only lasts a year, to complement his gift.

Is Baselitz giving these paintings to Venice?

He is making a really long term loan; so for many, many years to come. It is a beautiful gesture for someone who is eighty-three.

When will we be able to see it?

We were meant to open in March, but because of Covid we postponed it to May 19. It’s a great intervention that shows the continuity between past, present and future that the city managed to keep through the centuries. Venice is a landmark place, even if it’s not as important a capital of the world as it was 200 years ago.

“We would like to do something that adds to the culture of Venice.”

Mario Codognato

Anish Kapoor at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, 2020

Mario Codognato, in 2005 you were the founding director and chief curator of the MADRE contemporary art museum in Naples. What was your job?

In Naples together with other people, especially my work colleague for many years Eduardo Cicelyn, we had to start from scratch. The museum didn’t exist. Castello di Rivoli in Turin was the only comparable institution in Italy, so it was an extraordinary adventure in an extraordinary place.

Why did you start a contemporary art museum in Naples?

Naples has always attracted contemporary artists, from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol to Joseph Beuys. It’s intact, and it hasn’t been touched by globalism like the rest of the world.

Naples has the famous National Archaeological Museum, and the fantastic Museum of Capodimonte and others. How did creating a contemporary art museum come about?

There were two main factors. One was a tradition from the 1970s of showing and collecting contemporary art privately, and Capodimonte had also started to get donations from artists and had an important but small contemporary art section. The other was that at the beginning of the new millennium we were lucky to find a politician called Antonio Bassolino, who was at the time mayor and then became president of the region. He thought that one of the ways to relaunch the image of the city of Naples to the world was to have a role in the fore of contemporary art. For twelve years we would ask an internationally well-known artist to do an installation around Christmas time in Piazza del Plebiscito, the largest square in the city.

Can you mention some of the artists who did installations?

Richard Serra, Robert Rauschenberg, Mimmo Palladino, Jannis Kounellis, Rebecca Horn. For a few years we were also hosted at the Archaeological Museum where we did a big exhibition of Jeff Koons in 2003, and the first ever museum exhibition by Damien Hirst in 2004. All of this created the need for having our own venue, and we were given a building in a very central but very underprivileged quarter called Forcella. This had a big political impact, because we were hoping to create an important cultural hub in a quarter where even a lot of Neapolitans wouldn’t set foot. That was the challenge within the challenge, which we are proud about, because we managed to bring a positive message into a quarter with difficult criminal situations. We continued our international program with an eye on what was happening in Italy and in Naples, and were able to create a sort of permanent impermanent collection, in the sense that we were lucky that Ileana Sonnabend was still alive, so her collection was still together, and she lent us on long term loan masterpieces of American European art of the 1960s which would have been impossible for us to buy. We also counted on the generosity of artists to lend us works, and we constructed an itinerary through the languages of contemporary art.

“Beds are possibly the most important object in everybody’s life.”

Mario Codognato, your career started in London, working for the art dealer Anthony d’Offay. Is that how you met Damien Hirst?

Yes, we worked together when he was still a student or had just left art college. He was preparing the incredible self-organized exhibition Freeze, where all the so-called YBA (Young British Artists) showed, many for the first time. I was lucky enough, literally by chance, to have met Damien at a very early stage in his career. As I said, the exhibition we did together in Naples in 2004 was his first ever museum show, and I’m particularly proud of that. Together with Anna Coliva the former director of Villa Borghese, we are now preparing an exhibition that will juxtapose his paintings, and also a series of his works that he presented here in Venice a few years ago, within the permanent collection at Villa Borghese in Rome.

Is it a new trend to show contemporary artists inside Old Master museums?

Yes, many Old Master museums are now either hosting an exhibition of contemporary art or, as in this case, juxtaposing contemporary works with their collection. If you think about it, art is always contemporary. When Scipione Borghese was a collector of Caravaggio, it was contemporary art. Universal themes are represented in art, and the issues of humanity and society tend to be very similar over the centuries.

You worked in Vienna after Naples. What did you do there? 

They wanted someone to run displays in dialogue with the National Gallery in a renovated glass and steel pavilion from the 1950s designed by Karl Schwanzer. When I arrived in 2014 it was the 75th anniversary of the death Sigmund Freud. Perhaps Vienna has more museums than any other place, but to my great surprise no museum in town was doing an exhibition about Freud. I thought that was the best way to start. Even if Freud himself was not interested in the Vienna Secession and the work of Klimt and Schiele he was very influential for generations of artists, from surrealism onwards. I had to organize something very fast, so I worked with the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna and I remembered that Joseph Kosuth, the American conceptual artist, did many works based on Freud in the past. I asked Joseph if he was brave enough to work with me on improvising something about Freud in a few weeks and he loved the idea. Together we did an exhibition taking works from different museums in Vienna. I have done many exhibitions over the years, but that’s the one I’m really happy about. Another exhibition I had always wanted to do was on the role of the bed in art, so I did Schlaflos/Sleepless in 2015.

Why the bed?

Beds are possibly the most important object in everybody’s life. It’s the place of birth, the place of love, the place of death. Therefore it is one of the most represented objects in art. 

Did you work with Tracey Emin, whose work My Bed gained much media attention?

We worked with Tracey Emin as well. I put together different sections, Birth, Love, Health, Death, and then the political bed and the anthropological bed. Beds are the metaphor for the human body, because they have the same proportions. The more I researched the more I found that there were so many works which were centered around this object, from all periods, from all civilizations, and because there are so many museums of Western and non-Western art for all periods in Vienna I was able to put together an anthropological exhibition.

When you work as a curator, or as a director of a museum or collection or foundation, do you have to gain the trust of the artists?  

I always work and become very familiar with the artists. You really construct the exhibition together at every step. It is the result of a very deep dialogue. Every artist has a different personality and a different way of working. Some trust you more than others. Some don’t trust you at all. I have artists who have worked with me for a long time, and we have done a lot of shows together, yet this is part of their personality. They want to be in control.

Mario Codognato

Richard Serra at Piazza Plebiscito, Naples, 2003

Mario Codognato

Damien Hirst at Museo Archeologico, Naples, 2004

Mario Codognato

Francesco Clemente at Museo Madre, Naples, 2005

Mario Codognato

Sigmund Freud and the Play of the Burden of Representation 21er Haus, Museo Belvedere, Vienna, 2014

Mario Codognato

Jasper Johns Regrets, Museo Belvedere, Vienna, 2015

Mario Codognato

Sterling Ruby, Winterpalais Vienna, 2015

“If you think about it, art is always contemporary.”

Mario Codognato, we are in the middle of a crisis which will certainly leave traces in history. The world has completely stopped. Many artists were unable to show in this year. Some worked more than normal, others less. What is going to happen in the art world?

You are meant to look at real objects physically, but art was produced, exhibited, and circulated virtually in these two years or however long the crisis goes on. Looking at objects went on virtually, and the big question when we go back to some sort of normality is how much of this will remain as a method. People in my job used to have to travel all the time. I jumped from one place to the other, because you had to be physically present to see the exhibition, to visit the artist, to go to the Biennales, the fairs etc. Now all of this is basically available online. I wonder how much we will go back to the way it was, or if somehow we will be able to continue in this way, and how that will affect the whole art world.

Did the many artists that you are in contact with produce much during this Covid period?

Most continued to work in the isolation of the studio, which is nothing new, and they accepted that this work would go out into the world, at least for the time being, in a non-physical way. What is really changing in the contemporary art world, from museums to private enterprises, is the attention to all those artists who were not being looked at before, for reasons which had to do with race, gender and the geographical area in which they were operating. That’s happened very fast, and is having a very big impact on the way museums are operating.

Mario Codognato, is the market lower, not in price, but in activity?

Surprisingly enough it has continued to a level that kept most of the commercial art businesses alive.  We were all surprised that people took up the habit of buying things online, especially those things which have a certain level of price. It shows that the contemporary art world is based on mutual trust. A lot of interesting work is coming from places in the world which are either permanently or anyway in a time of crisis, and we have more opportunity to see or have information about it.

At the moment there are very few tourists in Venice and the city is rather empty. What do you think the future of Venice will be?

Mass tourism will come back, although it depends if this pandemic will have changed the way people live to the extent that all of us will travel less. Contrary to a lot of Venetians who are thinking that they went too far with hosting so many people at the same time, I think that the city should be open to anybody that wants to come. It will really kill what remains of Venice being a city if you start to make it only a museum. That would be very negative.

The artist Giuseppe Penone has a flat in front of Notre-Dame in Paris. People ask him why he stays there when there are so many tourists and his answer is that he loves to see tourists because they are part of life.

This is what I was trying to say. Venice can become an important hub for showing ideas that come from all different places, a melting pot of ideas that come from all over the world. I hope that we will also have some ideas produced here, but at the moment I can’t see any.

Are you optimistic about the liveliness of art?

Art will always have an important role in culture. That is why in my own small way I invest and work in it.  When I started working at d’Offay, it was very Western centered. The Soviet Union was still in existence and contemporary art was something that was happening in New York and a few cities in Europe. Now art is being produced and made legible to a global audience. Now that we have to look at things virtually may enlarge the audience even more, for what potentially is great art but produced in places which before one did not have either access to or interest in.

Art has had many centres, Paris, New York, London. Is there a center now?

No, now there are many centres. What has changed is that you really can have access to these other centers. Not only the audience, but also the production has completely enlarged.

Politically Europe has become weaker compared to the United States or China. Do you think that the same will happen in art?

The way we think of art in our conversation now is obviously Eurocentric, but historically Europe had a very important role in shaping this. In that sense art is part of what makes Italy, for example, particularly exceptional. We will always be a point of reference, but now there is a lot of re-reading of colonialism which is involving art, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world.

When do you think the Anish Kapoor foundation will get going?

The pandemic obviously slowed things down a lot, but as soon as possible in the next few years. Due to the pandemic we have more time to develop the project, which, being the creature of an artist, is by definition a work in progress. We have the opportunity to try to understand even more what it is we would like to do. We would like to do something that adds to the culture of Venice. We have a strong legacy with the artist, but we will also definitely be open to other issues, to exhibitions and other kinds of debates.

Mario Codognato, thank you very much indeed for being with us.