The centenary Biennale could change tastes. Its director loves figurative art and thinks that much modernist experiment is nonsense. Geraldine Norman reports
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The Independent Culture
THE VENICE Biennale seemed like a terrific idea 100 years ago when the very first show was mounted. The Mayor of Venice explained that this new contemporary art show would rep-resent "the most noble activities of the modern spirit without distinction of country". Of course, it didn't turn out that way. There has been a century of muddle, of failing to spot the winners (nobody noticed Picasso for ages, for instance) and of political jockeying for power.

But the Biennale has survived. It still helps establish international reputations - Tony Cragg and Anish Kapoor in the 1980s, for example - and it still attracts everyone who matters in the contemporary art scene to its opening festivities in June. As the plans for this year's centenary exhibitions begin to take shape, it is clear that the 1995 Biennale is going to be controversial. It could contribute to a sweeping change in taste and will certainly make a big impact on the contemporary art market.

Jean Clair, the current director of the Muse Picasso in Paris, who likes figurative art and regards a good deal of modernist experiment as nonsense, has been put in charge of the show. He intends to mount an exhibition which rewrites 20th-century art history and re-evaluates the new art being created today. "At the end of the century many things can be looked at again in a serene spirit," he says. "I am not a reformer or a theoretician. My only concern is to show that the story of 20th-century art is much richer than we thought."

He has cancelled the Aperto section of the exhibition where young, emerging artists used to be shown. The Aperto has helped launch several important careers over the last decade; Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst were both shown there. But many people, including Jean Clair, thought it was a mess. The cancellation has predictably brought screams of pain from many quarters. A group of 25 contemporary art institutions around the world has agreed to label all its summer shows "Aperto" this year. The idea is to suggest that what should be happening in Venice is going on instead at the Centre d'Art Contemporain in Tours, the Kunsthalle in New York, the Rooseum in Malm, the Tramway in Glasgow and so on.

Then there is Jean Clair's keynote exhibition, which reviews what has been happening to art over the past 100 years. It will focus entirely on portraits and feature the work of some 300 artists. "The theme of self- portraiture is prob-ably the dominant theme of 20th-century art, not abstraction," he told me. "The obsession with the face, and with portraiture in general, is the leading trend of the 20th century - even within the work of artists like Mondrian."

In avant-garde circles Jean Clair is regarded as a reactionary who can be ignored, but his record demonstrates that he is an extremely clever man. He mounted a brilliant exhibition on the relationship between art and science from the 18th century to the early 20th at the Grand Palais in Paris last year, and promises to carry the same concerns up to the present day in his Venice show. He just might be going to change the nature of contemporary taste.

His exhibition is called "Identity and Other-ness", the kind of philosophic French title that doesn't sound too promising in English. What he intends is an exhibition of portraits, mostly concentrating on the face, which will highlight the way in which looking at ourselves and each other has changed in the 20th century. It starts with the American Realist, Thomas Eakins - one of the first painters significantly influenced by photography - runs through Bonnard, Matisse and Picasso, and ends with Lucien Freud and a swathe of photo and video artists.

Jean Clair is very clear in his view of what matters in today's art. He is not interested in installation or performance art. "I would much rather go to the theatre or watch dance," he says, "where traditional standards of presentation are sustained." In contrast, he is very interested in photo and video art. He calls video "a fantastic new medium" of comparable importance to traditional painting and sculpture.

So people who want to buy art that will be swept into fashion by the Biennale later in the year should now be looking at 20th-century figurative painting, particularly portraits, and at what the young are doing with video and photography. Among the figurative artists selected to represent their countries in Venice are Leon Kossoff (Great Britain), Marlene Dumas (Holland) and Senju Hiroshi (Japan). The last is perhaps the most surprising, since he is one of the many traditional Japanese landscape painters whose work is normally ignored outside Japan. Among the video artists is Bill Viola (US) whose extraordinary Nantes Triptych, recording his wife giving birth and his mother dying, was recently bought by the Tate for £120,613. Photographers include Bill Henson (Australia), who makes big colour photographs of cityscapes.

Jean Clair emphasises that British art is going to make a very strong showing in his exhibition. "The tradition of portraiture has never been lost in Britain," he says. The work of Lucien Freud, Leon Kossoff, David Hockney and Francis Bacon will make a major contribution to the last chapter of the show. British artists will also feature among his rediscoveries from earlier years: Stanley Spencer, for example.

While the Biennale is essentially a cluster of exhibitions, not just one, its main focus is in the Giardini Pubblici which run along the edge of the lagoon beyond San Marco. Since 1907 a succession of countries have built themselves special pavilions in these gardens, ranging in style from Victorian baroque to Art Nouveau and Modernist. Each nation with a pavilion selects its own artists and mounts its own show.

The heavies in the British establishment, responsible for choosing who represents Britain at the Biennale, settled this year on Leon Kossoff, a figurative oil painter - the most reactionary choice they've made for a decade. The decision was not made out of deference to Jean Clair's taste, they claim, but represents a recognition that Kossoff is now doing some of the best work of his long career. Either way, it suggests that taste is swinging back to traditional painting. Kossoff, 69, explores his feelings about cityscape and portrait in multiple layers of thick, glutinous paint. His large and impressive view, Christchurch, Spitalfields - recently purchased by the Tate for around £150,000 - is bound for the Venice exhibition.

The Tate itself is planning a big Kossoff retrospective for 1996. Taken together with the Venice show, it is likely greatly to increase the value of Kossoff's work. Little known outside Britain, he currently commands lower prices than most of his contemporaries; the Anthony d'Offay Gallery, which acts as his agent, says prices for his oils run from £20,000 to £200,000.

Besides showing Kossoff in the national pavilion, the British Council has decided to mount a special exhibition of young British artists who might have featured in Aperto had it taken place. Names of the 12 artists who will be shown, including three pairs of collaborators, were revealed last week. The accent on photo and video artists bears out Clair's contention that this is where the interesting action is.

Douglas Gordon, whose first one-person show at the Lisson Gallery in January was a sell-out, will present a double video; his forte is recording the physical expression of psychiatric disorder. There will also be a single video by Ceal Floyer who plays tricks with light, and photographic tableaux, specially made in Venice, by the beautiful twins Jane and Louise Wilson who photograph themselves in fantasy situations.

As a little light relief, there will be an amazing plastic sculpture by the brothers Dinos and Jake Chapman on loan from Charles Saatchi. It's called Great Deeds Against the Dead and reproduces, in three dimensions and life size, one of the most horrific plates in Goya's series of etchings, The Disasters of War. Saatchi paid £18,000 for it at the Victoria Miro Gallery in Cork Street last autumn.

"I hope the priests won't object," says Miro, in a reference to the location of the show. Britain's young turks are to be exhibited in the Scuola San Pasquale, a magnificent tiled and pillared hall built in the 17th century for the Confraternity of the Stigmata, just next to the church of San Francesco della Vigna. !