Former Venice Biennale director dies

Harald Szeeman explored the relationship between art and reality KEYSTONE/Str

Swiss art critic Harald Szeemann, the former artistic director of the Venice Biennale of Visual Arts, has died in canton Ticino. He was 71.

This content was published on February 19, 2005 - 11:40

Szeemann burst on to the international scene in the early 1970s as the director of the documenta contemporary art exhibition in Kassel, Germany.

The critic’s death, announced by the Biennale, came after recent pulmonary illness.

"It’s a great loss for the art world, which will miss Harald Szeemann’s forward-looking organisational and critique skills," said its president, Davide Croff.

Born in Bern in 1933, Szeemann ran the local contemporary art centre from 1961 to 1969, before becoming a freelance curator of exhibitions around the world.


In 1972, he was selected to become the first artistic director of the documenta exhibition in Kassel, where he introduced an overall thematic framework.

Within this framework, individual works were allocated a representational role. Szeemann called this "Questioning reality – pictorial worlds today".

He set out to trace the relationship between artistic expression and reality. The exhibition aimed to provide visitors with a better understanding of contemporary pictorial worlds.

Szeemann then spent many years working as a freelance curator for Zurich’s art museum.

In Venice, he put his talent for innovation to work in 1999 and 2001, attracting record numbers of visitors in the process.

Szeemann, who organised his first exhibitions in the late 1950s, was a member of a number of art societies, including Berlin’s Academy of Arts and the Salzburg-based European Academy of Sciences and Arts.


The art critic was best known in Switzerland for his own recent work at the 2002 national exhibition, Expo.02.

He designed a pavilion covered with a thin layer of gold leaf, which had to be protected by security guards to stop visitors walking off with the precious metal.

Inside the pavilion, Szeemann took a closer look at our relationship with money. A system of pneumatic tubes throughout the building represented both the complexity of financial flows and money’s everyday use.

The main attraction was a machine that destroyed two (old) one-hundred-franc banknotes every minute during the 159 days of the exhibition. The Swiss National Bank sponsored the pavilion.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Harald Szeemann was born in Bern on June 11, 1933.
He died early Friday, February 18 2005 in canton Ticino.
In 1961, at age 28, he took over as curator of Bern's contemporary art centre.
He became famous internationally when he became the artistic director of the fifth edition of Kassel's documenta exhibition.
He went on to work for the Venice Biennale in 1999 and 2001.

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