The works shown at the British Pavilion varied widely. Frank Auerbach and Howard Hodgkin wowed critics with their vibrant paintings; Tim Head and Tony Cragg showed new approaches to making art; while hares were abundant in Flanagan’s show.
Artists were embracing new technologies. Although some visitors were not keen on the boarded up windows blocking out the famous Venetian light, Tim Head was the first artist to show projected artworks at the Pavilion. Head’s projections, Day and Night (1980) and Territory (1980), were presented alongside five photographs.
Nicholas Pope was known for his large-scale sculptures made of wood, metal, stone, sheet lead or chalk. As visitors walked up the steps to the Pavilion, they saw a line of roughly-cut sticks of larch wood installed in the central space, Long Line Larch (1980), and another room housed three large smoothly carved slabs of Forest of Dean stone. Long Line Larch was bought by a collector on the first day of the exhibition!
“During the three press days some 2,000 visitors saw the British Pavilion in spite of a freak hailstorm which meant that our Pavilion had to be closed early on in the second day to cope with a flood in one of the galleries,” said Pope.
The 1980 exhibition was challenged by theft, damage and bad weather. In addition, a projector lens and drawing from Head's work were stolen and one of slabs was pushed over and broken, forcing two rooms to be closed before the end of the Biennale.
Gerald Forty from the British Council continued his role as Commissioner of the Pavilion alongside a new Deputy Commissioner Henry Meyric Hughes. Some commentators said that Forty’s decision to show Pope and Head did not reflect British art at the time, but the exhibition was applauded internationally.
Welsh sculptor Barry Flanagan was invited to present a solo exhibition. The artist was inspired by the speed, athleticism and confidence of hares and the 1980s marked a turning point in his career, moving away from stone-carving to bronze.
He showed his new series of bronze sculptures of hares, including Cricketer (1981) from the British Council Collection. Other works such as Her Warm Tit Rolls (1981), which resembled the soft sandbags sculptures he made during the 1960s, were made out of stone.
Julian Andrews from the British Council was the new Commissioner, with Henry Meyric Hughes and Teresa Gleadowe as Deputy Commissioners.
The solo exhibition attracted 50,000 visitors and Time magazine wrote:
“There are two outstanding exhibitions this year. One is ... a one-man show by Howard Hodgkin at the British Pavilion. Not since Robert Rauschenberg’s appearance at the Biennale 20 years ago has a show by a single painter so hogged the attention of visitors, or looked so effortlessly superior to everything else on view by living artists.”
Hodgkin himself felt like his Pavilion exhibition was “the beginning of my life as an artist, rather than any peak”.
In 1984, for the first time the British Council engaged Royal College of Art students to act as stewards and to handle catalogue sales at the Pavilion.