The priceless Peggy Guggenheim

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In just eight years, Peggy Guggenheim changed the face of 20th-century art – and her life, both public and intimate, was as radical as her collection. John Walsh salutes a true original

It was said that she had a thousand lovers in her life, and that she received her most thorough grounding in modern art when she spent a night and a day in bed with Samuel Beckett, interrupted only by her demands that he go out and find some champagne. People murmured that Peggy Guggenheim went to bed with so many men (and occasionally women) because it boosted her self-esteem and made her less conscious of her huge, potato-shaped nose. She loved art and sex in about equal measure, but she was also turned on by fame. Asked why she loved Max Ernst, the great Surrealist painter whom she married in 1941, she replied: “Because he’s so beautiful and because he’s so famous.”

In the high-rolling, modern-Medici world of 20th-century art patronage and art collecting, Peggy Guggenheim was unique. She collected art like nobody else, picking up items that didn’t sell, and works for which there was, as yet, no market, just because she loved them. She bought art, not as an investment, but because she saw something that her own eyes told her was great. She discovered Jackson Pollock when he was a humble carpenter in Solomon Guggenheim’s museum, and gave him his first exhibition in 1950 at the Museo Correr in Venice. But her years spent in actual acquisition were, in fact, few: about 1938 to 1940 in England and France; and 1941-46 in America.

“Eight years collecting in a lifetime of 80 years,” wrote her biographer, Anton Gill, “is not much, especially when one looks at the career of Edward James, or Walter Arensberg or the Cone sisters or Katherine Dreier … Had her private life been less colourful, would what she did for art seem less interesting?” Seldom has a figure in the art world appeared so schizoid about her commitment to the actual work. When her autobiography Memoirs of an Art Lover was published, critics noted with disapproval that, in its 200 pages, art doesn’t get a mention until page 110.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of Solomon R Guggenheim’s fabled New York art gallery, and this autumn marks the 80th anniversary of the very first museum to bear the Guggenheim name. Solomon, Peggy’s philanthropist uncle, rented a large automobile showroom on New York’s Park Avenue and called it the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Within a few years, he was looking for a more permanent venue for his collection of modern art, and signed up Frank Lloyd Wright to design a “temple of spirit”. The result, a fantastic, spiral-curved building now called the Samuel R Guggenheim Museum, New York, opened to gawping tourists on 21 October 1959, the first permanent museum to be built (rather than converted from a private house) in the United States. Since then, sister museums have been built in Bilbao, Berlin and Las Vegas. But it’s the smallest of them, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, that continues to capture the imagination of art lovers. And 40 years after the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was opened to the public, on the death of its owner, as the Venice Guggenheim, she remains both an enigmatic and a melancholy figure.

Peggy Guggenheim was the original poor little rich girl, born in 1898 to fabulous wealth in New York City. Her father Benjamin was one of seven brothers of Swiss-German provenance who, along with their father Meyer Guggenheim, made a fortune from smelting metals, especially silver, copper and lead. Peggy’s mother Florette Seligman, came from wealthy banking stock.

Peggy’s education in modern art began in New York in 1920. She was 22, and had inherited from her dead father (who went down with the Titanic in 1912) enough money to supply her, via a trust fund, with an income of $22,500 a year. Anxious to find a job that took her outside her immediate circle of rich friends, she found a job at an avant-garde bookshop, The Sunwise Turn on 44th Street. She swung the job via a family connection, a cousin called Harold Loeb, a fair-to-good painter, writer, man of action and womaniser who was in Paris with the “lost generation” of American émigrés about whom Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises. Through Loeb, Peggy met several members of the generation, including Scott Fitzgerald – and was introduced to Alfred Steiglitz, the photographic pioneer and impresario of the avant-garde.

His gallery on Fifth Avenue was where she encountered the work of Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse: it was their first exposure to the American public. There Peggy also had her first sighting of the work of Steiglitz’s future wife, Georgia O’Keeffe – and met Laurence Vail, a writer who was part of the new boho swing of Greenwich Village.

In the 1920s, Peggy went travelling in Europe, discovered Paris and stayed there, on and off, for 22 years. From the start, her predominant interests were art and sex. “I soon knew where every painting in Europe could be found,” she wrote in her autobiography, “and I managed to get there, even if I had to spend hours going to a little country town to see only one.” She also took to acquiring lovers at a ferocious rate. In her autobiography she explains that, when she was young, her many boyfriends were too respectable to have sex with her; but she had discovered (at 23) photographs of frescoes from Pompeii: “They depicted people making love in various positions, and of course I was very curious and wanted to try them all out myself.” Laurence Vail was startled by her forwardness. He visited her at home in Paris, when her mother was out, made a sexual pass and was taken aback by how readily she said “Yes”. He backtracked, saying that, since her mother might come home at any moment, it might be better if Peggy came to his hotel sometime. She fetched her hat and said: “How about right now?” They married two years later and had two children, Sindbad and Pegeen.

In Paris they immersed themselves in arty circles, befriending Djuna Barnes, the lesbian author of Nightwood, published by TS Eliot at Faber & Faber, Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor whose work she collected, and Marcel Duchamp, the great Surrealist. But the marriage broke up in 1928 when she met an English intellectual called John Holms, a one-time war hero turned writer, who suffered from severe creative blockage and published only one story in his career. Theirs was a tempestuous and short-lived marriage: their home in Bloomsbury was often riven with furious rows, drunken harangues and accusation of infidelity, during which, Peggy writes in her autobiography, “he made me stand for ages naked in front of the open window (in December) and threw whiskey into my eyes”. (She was remarkably unlucky with her lovers. Laurence Vail was similarly theatrical. “When our fights worked up to a grand finale,” she reported, “he would rub jam into my hair.”)

Peggy Guggenheim’s annus mirabilis was 1938. Inspired by the groundbreaking, indeed earthshaking, surrealism exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936 – derided by the British press but unexpectedly popular with the general public – and the encouragement of her friend Peggy Waldheim (“I wish you would do some serious work – the art gallery, book agency – anything that would be engrossing yet impersonal – if you were doing something for good painters or writers … I think you’d be so much better off … ”) she hit upon the idea of starting a gallery dealing in modern artists. She’d met many artists through her first husband. Her uncle Solomon had put together a priceless collection of Old Masters, but she could collect new work for a much more modest outlay. And she genuinely loved the company of artists and writers. She began to look for a suitable space, helped by Humphrey Jennings, the documentary-maker who filmed Auden’s “Night Mail” for the GPO Film Unit, and Marcel Duchamp. As they fixed on No 30 Cork Street, Duchamp gave her some basic lessons in modern art. “Peggy had to be shown the difference between what was Abstract and what was Surrealist,” writes her biographer Anton Gill, “and between the ‘dream’ Surrealism of, for example, Dali or Di Chirico and the ‘abstract’ Surrealism of, say, André Masson. She was an eager and quick learner, showing a natural affinity and sympathy for what she saw.”

Also helpful was Samuel Beckett, who was then living in Paris as secretary/amanuensis to James Joyce. He and Peggy met on Boxing Day 1939 at Bosquet’s restaurant, at a dinner thrown by Joyce. Beckett escorted Peggy home to her apartment in St Germain-des-Pres, came in, lay on the sofa and asked her to join him. It’s one of the few recorded instances of the Beckett seduction technique. They were thrown together for 12 days, in which he persuaded her to stop worrying about Old Masters and concentrate on collecting modern artists.

So the marriage of money and art came together. Duchamp’s friendship supplied a heady throng of top-class artists for Peggy to meet: he introduced her to Jean Cocteau, who wrote the introduction to his exhibition. Beckett translated it and introduced her to Geer Van Velde, the Dutch artist. Meanwhile, Beckett revealed an unexpected |love for driving fast in her whizzy sports cars. And the society heiress was gradually |transformed into the boho queen of the European art world.

The gallery, christened Guggenheim Jeune, opened on 24 January 1938, with 30 drawings by Jean Cocteau. Two large linen sheets, sent over from Paris, displayed a group of figures with their genitals and pubic hair on display: they were confiscated and detained, of all unlikely places, in Croydon airport until Peggy and Duchamp could hurry to south London to have them released.

As the year rolled by, Peggy’s gallery grew in stature. She gave Wassily Kandinsky his first-ever London show, then an exhibition of contemporary sculpture featuring works of Henry Moore, Hans Arp, Brancusi, Alexander Calder and Anton Pevsner.

Despite the speed of her gallery’s success, Peggy grew tired of temporarily showcasing the work of certain artists. Inside a year, she became excited by “the idea of opening a modern museum in London”, and organising it on historic |principles. She would decide in advance which artists and schools would feature in it, and then go out and acquire them. As her guiding influence, she turned to Herbert Read, the art critic, and asked him to draw up a wish-list of all the artists he thought should be represented. As the whole of Europe trembled on the brink of war, Peggy Guggenheim set out on her tremendous cultural crusade. She boldly resolved to “buy a picture a day”. She bought Surrealist works by Dali, Cubist works by Braque and Picasso, geometric designs by Mondrian and Fernand Léger (whose Men in the City she bought on the day Hitler invaded Norway. The painter said he was “astonished by her sang froid”.) In the winter of 1939 and spring of 1940 she bought work by Miro, Picasso and Max Ernst in dizzying succession. She patrolled the ateliers of Paris, snapping up minor masterpieces for a song. She bought Brancusi’s soaring sculpture Bird in Space in Paris, even as the German army advanced on the capital.

The invasion effectively closed down her operations. With the über-Surrealist Max Ernst (whom she later married and divorced in two years), she finally fled occupied France in July 1941 and headed for her beloved New York. She lost no time in finding a new home for her purchases.

In October 1942, her museum-gallery, Art of This Century, opened in Manhattan, exhibiting all her Cubist, Abstract and Surrealist acquisitions. For the opening night, she wore, according to Anton Gill, “one earring made for her by Calder and |another by Yves Tanguy, to express her equal commitment to the schools of art she supported”. The work of leading European artists flowed through her gallery, along with unknown young Americans: Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Janet Sobel, Clyfford Still – and the gallery’s star attraction Jackson Pollock. In Ed Harris’s 2000 film Pollock, in which Guggenheim was played by Amy Madigan, it was suggested that artist and patron had an affair; in fact he’s a rare sighting of an artist who slipped through Peggy’s fishnets; she didn’t fancy him because he drank too much. But she supported him with monthly handouts and sold his work: she commissioned his largest painting, Mural, and gave it away to the University of Iowa. Without Peggy’s generous patronage, it’s doubtful whether the American abstract Expressionist movement would have survived as it did.

Then, after the war, she discovered Venice. In 1948 her collection was exhibited at the Venice Biennale – the first time that Pollock, Rothko and Arshile Gorky had been seen in Europe. The fact that she’d brought them together with all the European masterpieces bought in the early years of the war made her complete collection a paradigm of Western modern art.

A year later, she bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, and held an exhibition of her sculptures in the gardens. The |reputation of her collection grew as it was toured across Europe, and shown in Florence, Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels and Zurich, before setting up its permanent home in the Palazzo. |From 1951, she opened her house and collection to the general public every summer, though |she kept adding to it over the next 30 years. She donated the palace and her collection to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, but the |collection remains where it is, a cynosure for |art-loving tourists.

She died on 23 December 1979. Her ashes are buried in a corner of the Palazzo garden, near where her 14 beloved Lhasa Apso dogs are buried. The dogs were a vestigial emblem of the flamboyant, rich-bitch socialite she could so easily have remained, with her family inheritance and ritzy Manhattan haut-monde. But Peggy Guggenheim was something more than that: an art collector who believed that some works are worth keeping safe in the collective cultural memory, protecting them against obscurity, as if it were a noble cause.



Art world: The Guggenheim empire

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

Best known for its building, Bilbao's Guggenheim is an astonishing architectural feat designed by Frank Gehry. Its series of curved, interconnected shapes are clad in shimmering titanium, while the interior is designed around a large, light-filled atrium with views of Bilbao's estuary and the surrounding hills of the Basque country. Opened in 1997, the museum has provided a home for large-scale, site- specific works and installations by contemporary artists, such as Richard Serra's 340ft-long "Snake. Guggenheim Bilbao makes a point of supporting the work of Basque artists, as well as housing a selection of works from the Foundation's extended collection.

Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin

Opened in 1997, the Deutsche Guggenheim is a joint venture based in the ground floor of the Deutsche Bank building in Unter der Linden, a grand boulevard in the historical centre of Berlin. The 510sq m gallery inside this Twenties sandstone building was designed by Richard Gluckman to provide a clean, clear space for artworks that belong to both the Guggenheim Foundation and the bank itself, which holds the largest corporate art collection in the world. The gallery presents major thematic exhibitions, as well as site-specific commissions by new and established contemporary artists, including John Baldessari, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, and Rachel Whiteread.

Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York

Opened on 21 October 1959, the New York Guggenheim building is an artwork in its own right: a white spiral structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Inside, the museum brings together several private collections, including the "non-objective paintings" belonging to Solomon R Guggenheim, who established the Guggenheim Foundation that still owns the museums that carry its name. Up to 1,150,000 visitors flock each year to the Fifth Avenue museum, which is also home to his niece Peggy Guggenheim's collection of Abstract and Surrealist works; art dealer Justin K Thannhauser's masterpieces; and Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo's large selection of Minimalist, Post-Minimalist and Conceptual art.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, Saadiyat Island, United Arab Emirates

Currently under construction, the latest Guggenheim will also be the biggest. Another innovative design from the California-based architect Frank Gehry, with clusters of block and cone-shaped connected galleries seemingly piled on top of each other, the 450,000sq ft museum is situated on a peninsula at the north-western tip of Saadiyat Island, adjacent to Abu Dhabi. It will house its own modern and contemporary collections, with a special focus on Middle-Eastern contemporary art, as well a presenting special exhibitions from the Guggenheim Foundation's main collection.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

Solomon R Guggenheim's niece, Peggy, bequeathed her collection, and the 18th-century palazzo house in which she had lived since the late 1940s, to the Foundation in 1976. Much smaller in scale than its New York counterpart, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni nonetheless houses an impressive selection of modern art. Its picturesque setting and well-respected collection attract some 400,000 visitors per year. The museum reflects Peggy Guggenheim's personal interest in a variety of modern styles and schools, from Cubism to Expressionism to Surrealism, and is home to major works by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Piet Mondrian, and Jackson Pollock.

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