TAKING VENICE – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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Pitched as part heist film, part dissection of the machinations behind the year that an American painter won the top award at the world’s most influential art exhibition, the documentary Taking Venice proves most fascinating when it reveals how the U.S. government wanted to use art as Cold War propaganda.

As someone notes here, art is not just about art but politics, reverberating throughout history. An epicenter for one such shock wave was 1964’s Venice Biennale, the year American Robert Rauschenberg won the top honor for painting to the surprise of and some disgust from the traditional art world. With previous winners including Henri Matisse, the accolades signified that the world’s arts center had shifted from Paris to New York City.

The win paved the way for other pop artists such as Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Marjorie Strider, and Roy Lichtenstein. Yet it also was a strategic target in a cultural Cold War for hearts and minds, a historian says—an effort to persuade the world that liberal democracy was a better way of life. As the film notes, curators and art dealers jockeying to have Rauchenberg’s work displayed at the Biennale thought his huge collage-like canvases with images of President John F. Kennedy, eagles, and astronauts oozed American confidence and exceptionalism.

Writer-director Amei Wallach (Ilya and Emilia Kabakov: Enter Here) immediately tosses viewers into the controversy surrounding Rauschenberg’s win, with headlines disparaging his work as “junk art” and wondering if the American delegation had unfairly influenced the vote. Although those unfamiliar with the art world might have a tough time parsing out all the players at first, the narrative ultimately proves engaging, blending archive news footage and clippings with experts including art critics, historians, and other artists providing valuable context.

Awarding Rauschenberg, who died in 2008, a prize for painting is something of a misnomer, since he blended art, found objects, and sculpture into works he called Combines. Archive footage shows how he married silkscreen paintings with news clippings and other iconography, along with various items—shoes, electric fans, a stuffed eagle—jutting from the canvas.

One work, Monogram, is a taxidermied Angora goat splattered with paint and a tire around its midsection, as if it had crawled through and gotten stuck. Some observers thought he was thumbing his nose at traditional art while others recognized he was trying to find art in objects people might not otherwise see as such.

In archived interviews, Rauschenberg describes more modest inspirations. With such a meager budget at the time—just twenty-five cents a day for food—he’d wander New York City’s streets, looking for scrap, discarded paint, and other garbage as art supplies.

Regardless, curators such as Alice Denney, appearing here at one hundred years old (and sporting chic sunglasses like she does in archive photographs), recognized the work’s potential. Denney, whose husband worked in the US State Department during the Kennedy Administration, helped found the Washington Gallery of Modern Art and was instrumental in bringing Rauschenberg to Venice—partly because a US military plane was the only transportation large enough to affordably transport his work to Italy.

Yet huge crates of artwork arriving at a military airbase is a loaded image, one reason people speculated the Americans were coming on strong. Later quotes from those involved saying how “we really engineered it” only led fuel to the conspiracy talk.

While the behind-the-scenes info about the competition might be too much inside baseball for some viewers, Taking Venice nevertheless offers interesting thoughts about public relations and branding, even if not cast in those terms. Alongside cheery music by Louis Armstrong and the West Side Story number America, the film explains how the works shown that year were meant to depict the country the government wanted to exist. No artists investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee were allowed, and no works alluded to domestic unrest such as civil rights and anti-war protests.

Yet Rauschenberg’s had more nuances than his benefactors might have thought. One historian says he indirectly comments on “what it takes to maintain a superpower.” In later years, his canvases became more explicit, juxtaposing imagery of mass graves, police dogs snarling at protestors, and mushroom clouds.

While not a biopic of the artist per se, Taking Venice gives viewers a better appreciation of Rauschenberg and how art can be strategic beyond what an artist might intend.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.