This decade began with the first ever solo exhibition at the British Pavilion by Richard Smith. The rest of the 1970s brought exhibitions featuring optical sculptures, trails of stones and vast photographs of hair.
Richard Smith’s presentation as part a group exhibition in the Pavilion in 1966 was so successful that the English printmaker and painter was invited to return to Venice for a solo show in 1970.
In contrast to the jam-packed group show in 1966, there was now room to present his larger 3-D works, such as the 8-foot cube Gazebo (1966). The walls were adorned with his large-scale paintings, such as the five canvases of Riverfall (1969), now in Tate’s collection, and a brightly coloured sculptural painting, A Whole Year Half a Day I- XII (1966), which seemed to be peeling away from the wall like a worn poster.
Smith was chosen by a committee of art experts, who were Director of Tate Norman Reid, art historian Alan Bowness, art collector David Thompson, the British Council’s Lilian Somerville and art historian Norbert Lynton.
In 1970 the British Council said farewell to Lilian Somerville, who joined the organisation at the beginning of the Second World War and had been the Director of the Fine Arts Department since 1949. She had put tremendous work into the Biennale over the years and the painter Patrick Heron praised her work:
“The enormously successful intervention in promoting British art overseas would never have been achieved, and certain reputations enjoyed by British artists today might well have suffered... but for Lilian Somerville and her positively ferocious tenacity of purpose.”
Modernist British sculptor William Tucker and John Walker presented a joint exhibition.
One of Tucker’s minimal sculptures was Cat’s Cradle (1971), now part of the Arts Council Collection. The artist said his Cat’s Cradle series were the “most optical” of his works and likened it to “the framework of a small tent”. He also presented his Shuttler series, inspired by a hinged form found in his basement.
Meanwhile, the predominantly abstract painter and printmaker Walker presented a series of acrylic paintings.
John Hulton succeeded Somerville as the Director of the Fine Arts Department at the British Council, and art critic and curator Guy Brett joined Reid, Bowness and Lynton on the selection committee.
A ground-breaking exhibition by Richard Long followed in 1976:
The Art Biennale in 1974 was postponed while the Biennale authorities restructured their activities to include a continuous programme of film, architecture and other art forms. It was also agreed that the national biennial exhibitions would have a common theme, the first of which was to be ‘The Environment’ in 1976.
Gerald Forty, then Director of Fine Arts Department at the British Council, and the selection committee, art historian Peter Lasko and art curator Michael Compton, invited Richard Long to produce a site-specific work at the Pavilion because environmental themes were central to his work; Long was fascinated by nature and the act of walking across landscapes.
The artist found a large amount of red breccia stone, the sort used for many of Venice’s grand buildings, in a stone-merchant’s yard near Verona. The stones were shipped to Venice and transported in a barge down the canals, then placed by Long in a square spiral looping three times around the Pavilion’s gallery spaces.
The impact of the exhibition was remarkable and a steady stream of artists, journalists and visitors, some of them reverentially barefoot, walked many times through the Pavilion rooms (and even stole the stones from the end of the work!).
Forty, once again the Commissioner, and his British Council colleagues Julian Andrews and David Fuller organised the exhibition.
Scottish artist Mark Boyle was invited to present work at the Pavilion. He worked across mixed media, often collaborating with his family and exhibiting as the Boyle family; the works shown at the Biennale were also collaborative efforts with his wife and two children.
Four blown-up electron microscope images of hairs plucked from Mark's body were displayed on the Pavilion walls.
“Under the electron microscope the skin becomes a landscape, hair a forest and by implication the whole body a world,” Michael Compton stated in the exhibition catalogue.
Their World Series studies were also shown at the Pavilion. These were created by randomly choosing an area of the Earth’s surface and then refashioning it in resin, fibreglass and actual materials from that location, like soil. The works in exhibition were from Sardinia, Italy and mines in Bergheim, Germany, accompanied by zoomed-in photographs of insects from around the site.
You can read Britain at the Venice Biennale 1895-1995. Published by the British Council, 1995. Edited by Sophie Bowness and Clive Phillpot.