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Koons, 52-Ton Tank, Sleazy Star Enliven European Summer: Preview

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May 25 (Bloomberg) -- The Venice Biennale (June 4-Nov. 27) is always the same, and always different.

It’s the world’s most colossal jamboree of contemporary art and reliably huge -- in fact, huger every time. Long ago it overflowed the public gardens where the whole event began, and now there’s scarcely a church or palazzo in town that’s not pressed into service as an exhibition space or party venue.

The individual ingredients -- artists, curators, stunts -- are reshuffled every time, and there’s usually a talking point. For example, the exhibition organized by the curator of the Biennale, which generally comprises enough cutting-edge video and installation work to fill a shopping mall, will this time also contain three large canvases by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-94).

In the national pavilions -- selected by the individual countries, and making up in total a sort of avant-garde UN -- there will be no Old Masters, but plenty of media more exotic than oil paint. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla (representing the U.S.) are displaying, among other items, a 52-ton military tank, a gigantic pipe organ incorporating a fully functioning ATM, and a team of eight trained athletes.

That will be hard to upstage, though the French installation specialist Christian Boltanski -- the best-known participant, Tintoretto apart -- is likely to be a contender for top prize.

Royal Academy

In London, there’s the more traditional nuttiness of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition (June 7-Aug. 15), an annual event in the art calendar since 1768. A large, transparent, brilliantly colored sculpture by Jeff Koons already has been placed in the courtyard of Burlington House, next to the statue of the RA’s founding president, Joshua Reynolds. This sums up the stylistic incongruities that characterize the Summer Exhibition, sponsored by Bank of New York Mellon Corp.’s Insight Investment.

Another unexpected juxtaposition of Old Master and contemporary artist will be on show in “Twombly & Poussin: Arcadian Painters” at Dulwich Picture Gallery (June 29-Sept. 25). Cy Twombly, the veteran American painter, noted for abstract splatter and graffiti-like jottings, is not the most obvious art historical partner for the French classicist Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). They do have a few things in common, including both being expatriates dwelling in Rome.

At Tate Britain, there will be a survey of the first U.K. avant-garde movement of the 20th century, “The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World” (June 14-Sept. 4). As often with plucky British contenders in various fields, notably sport, the nagging question about the Vorticists is: Were they really good? This should help clarify the answer to that question.

Cabaret Life

The Courtauld Gallery, meanwhile, is putting on one of those tightly focused little shows it does so well. This time the spotlight is on Toulouse-Lautrec and his depictions of Jane Avril, star of sleazy 1890s Parisian cabaret in “Beyond the Moulin Rouge” (June 16-Sept. 18).

Over at the British Museum, there will be “Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe” (June 23- Oct. 9), which puts in the foreground the fact that, in Christian Europe, bones matter. Many of the great churches and cathedrals were built to contain the skulls, tibias, teeth and other remnants of holy individuals. The exhibition is sponsored John Studzinski, senior managing director at Blackstone Group LP.

The exhibits will include alleged fragments of the True Cross, the foot of St. Blaise, breast milk of the Virgin Mary, and hair of St. John the Evangelist (as well as the beautiful reliquaries or containers for such things). All of the above might interest contemporary artists, not least Damien Hirst.

Information: http://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/summerexhibition http://www.labiennale.org/ http://www.britishmuseum.org/ http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/ and http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at martin.gayford@googlemail.com or http://twitter.com/#!/martingayford.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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