The collector's collector

Her motto was `Buy a picture a day'. Lee Marshall sees some of them, and lots more besides, at the Peggy Guggenheim exhibition in Venice

"The day Hitler walked into Norway, I walked into Leger's studio and bought a wonderful 1919 painting from him for $1,000." Oh, the lust of the collector. It elbows politics aside and sweeps moral dilemmas under the carpet. As Europe steeled itself for a long war, Peggy Guggenheim was in Paris, embarking on a serious spending spree. In her autobiography, Out of this Century, she writes: "My motto was `Buy a picture a day', and I lived up to it."

Peggy Guggenheim was born on 26 August 1898. A fine advertisement for the health benefits of a dissolute lifestyle, she died at the age of 81. The centenary of her birth could hardly pass by without an exhibition or two; duly, a "Centennial Celebration" - which has already put in time at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York - opens at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice at the end of the month. There are portraits and photographs of la dogaressa (the female Doge), as she came to be called in her regal Venetian years; there are dresses, a collection of the extravagant sunglasses that became a Peggy G trademark (replicas of which are on sale in the museum shop), a bed-head designed by Calder, and earrings by Calder and Yves Tanguy. Peggy wore one of each to the opening of her influential New York gallery in 1942, "in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and abstract art". A series of pages from her guest books are on show for the first time. The names read like the index of a masters-of- modern-art coffee-table book: visitors who left sketches in memory of their stay included Giacometti, Chagall, Mir, Man Ray, Gino Severini, Jean Cocteau and Saul Steinberg.

Nevertheless, it is the collection itself that breathes the spirit of Peggy - which is why this show needs to be seen in Venice. On the Grand Canal, in one of Venice's oddest palazzi, Peggy Guggenheim created one of the world's most defiantly personal art collections. The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was begun in the middle of the 18th century but construction stopped when only the ground floor was completed, owing to lack of funds and a dispute with the neighbours. A bizzare sight, it is the perfect showcase for a collection that wears its Surrealism on its sleeve. There are big names here, including Picasso, Duchamp, Brancusi, Giacometti and Max Ernst - but it is the intimate nature of the collection which continues to make this Venice's third paying tourist attraction after Palazzo Ducale and the Accademia. Albert Barnes bought most of his French Impressionists himself, but nobody would claim that the irascible chemist with the antiseptic fortune shines forth from the paintings in the Barnes Collection, which were simply the best that could be bought in Paris at the time.

Peggy Guggenheim couldn't always afford the best (she belonged to one of the poorer branches of the family, inheriting a mere half a million dollars from her father Benjamin, who went down with the Titanic). But she knew what she liked, and hated the idea of art as investment. Works by four relations feature in the collection: first husband Laurence Vail, daughter Pegeen, second husband Max Ernst, and son-in-law Jean Helion. Only the last two would find any space in a critical history of modern art, but the lapses are pure Peggy. They make us want to meet the collector.

To Leger, Ernst, Duchamp and the other Parisian artists who entered Peggy's orbit, she must have been a bizarre figure - bizarre enough to be a Surrealist muse. With her plain, unsymmetrical face and ungainly figure, she looked like an awkward schoolgirl. Later, when she stopped dyeing her hair black, she came across as an embittered headmistress on her annual holiday. She had always wanted a nose that was "tip-tilted like a flower" (a favourite line from Tennyson). Instead a Cincinnati plastic surgeon botched the job and left her with a nose like a barometer, which would "swell up in wet weather". Jimmy Ernst - the son of the second husband - wrote that "her face ... expressed something I imagined the ugly duckling must have felt the first time it looked in the water". But her unprepossessing appearance spared Guggenheim the fate of those Jamesian heiresses whose beauty conspires to crush their independence. Peggy, the ugly duckling, could be as independent as she liked. And boy did she like ... As she told an interviewer in 1976, "I was totally free financially, emotionally, intellectually, sexually". Rather than being the objet d'art, she could be the collector. This often wrong-footed her male partners, who, for all their Surrealist sexual politics, were used to being on top.

What Peggy seems to have enjoyed as much as the act itself was provoking and observing her lover's discomfort. On their first night together, Samuel Beckett "did not make his intentions clear but in an awkward way asked me to lie down on the sofa next to him". Afterwards, though, he regained his self-control, delivering the eminently Beckettian line: "Thank you. It was nice while it lasted." Describing Roland Penrose's penchant for chaining his partner's wrists to the bed, she remarks philosophically: "It was extremely uncomfortable to spend the night this way, but if you spent it with Penrose it was the only way."

Even in her fifties and sixties, Peggy had a penchant for handsome young men, and seems to have been especially attracted to homosexuals, whose sexuality she obstinately refused to recognise. In his autobiography, the English art forger Eric Hebborn tells the story of a visit to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in 1959, with an American artist called "David" who had just picked him up in Harry's Bar. "When we returned to her main terrace overlooking the Grand Canal, Peggy [who would have been 61 at the time] drew me away from David to admire a sculpture by Marino Marini. It represented a boy on a horse; the horse's head and neck had been modelled to suggest a phallus, and the boy's arms were sticking out at right angles to his trunk, as was his penis. Peggy put her hand on the bronze erection and said in a sultry, sexy kind of voice ... `Eric, the whole heat of Venice seems to concentrate itself in this spot'. With which she unscrewed the object, and to my horror, thrust it into my hand and invited me to kiss her. Thinking it impolite to refuse a lady, I gave her a gallant peck on the cheek and returned the metal penis with: `I'm sorry, Peggy, but this is a lot harder than mine is.' "

When collecting, too, Guggenheim favoured the hands-on approach. She knew personally all the artists she bought from, many intimately. One she married: the lugubrious Franco-German surrealist Max Ernst, who grudgingly agreed to the arrangement when, in 1941, he was threatened with deportation from America. Despite the marriage, Ernst never got out of his habit of addressing Peggy as "vous", nor did she manage to deflect his obssession with the painter Leonora Carrington.

And yet, for all her groupie instincts, Peggy was an astute collector, and a generous patron. One of the first things she did with her fortune was to send "vast sums of money" to a former teacher, Lucile Kohn, a woman who had "a passion for bettering the world" and was particularly involved with the American trade union movement. Later, in 1940, she helped to smuggle Andre Breton - father of Surrealism, and a leading Communist - and his family out of France. She supported dozens of artists, including the young Jackson Pollock, who was first launched by Guggenheim's Art of This Century gallery in 1943 and who received monthly payments from her for the following five years.

It is ironic that Peggy's name, and collection, is so often confused with that of her uncle, Solomon R Guggenheim. The confusion is understandable, as the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation now owns and controls the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, one of five branches of a global art empire that includes two New York museums (Frank Lloyd Wright's original modernist spiral and the more recent Guggenheim SoHo), the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, and Frank Gehry's shiny new beast in Bilbao. For most of her life, though, Peggy was at loggerheads with her uncle, and often in direct competition with him. During her wartime shopping spree in Paris, Yvanhoe Rambosson, Solomon's French envoy, wrote a letter to the redoubtable Baroness Rebay, curator of the Museum of Objective Art (as it was then called) in New York, to warn her of Peggy's purchases and to urge a counter-attack "in the interests of the Art we are defending", as otherwise "she might partly deviate the movement on [sic] a wrong way".

The reference was to the "pure" abstract art of Kandinsky, Delaunay and Gris, which Baroness Rebay believed contained a Steineresque spiritual message - whereas the Surrealism favoured by Peggy was decadent. Rebay had once sent Peggy a letter - when the latter was exhibiting Kandinsky at her commercial Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London - to protest against "some small shop" sullying the name of Guggenheim, which "stands for an ideal in art". Later, when Peggy dared to open a gallery in her uncle's fiefdom of New York, a critic in the Solomon/Rebay camp penned an article complaining that, in the radical gallery space designed by visionary architect Frederick Kiesler, "display rather than art is on view". This is particularly ironic in view of the fact that both Frank Lloyd Wright's 1959 Guggenheim building and Frank Gehry's spanking-new Bilbao museum have been criticised for precisely the same reason - making a container so spectacular that it detracts from the contents.

But Peggy was not cowed into submission by the Baroness's barbs or her uncle's superior financial muscle. Visiting Solomon's collection in its pre-Wright premises in 1941, she remarked, "It was really a joke"; and the success of her own Art of This Century venture - both as an exhibition space and as a launching-pad for new artists - seems to have provoked a mixture of envy and contrition in the Solomon camp. Certainly by 1961, 12 years after Solomon's death, his son Harry - then president of the Foundation - was making conciliatory noises. The ultimate aim was to bring Peggy's collection back into the family fold after her death, and new curator Thomas Messer was accordingly dispatched to Venice in order to butter up la dogaressa.

It wasn't an easy task. In an essay written for the catalogue of the present exhibition, Messer remembers that "long after we had established a friendlier relationship, Peggy would lapse into moods of suspiciousness and wariness". Even a short-term goal - the display of works from her collection at the Guggenheim Museum - had a difficult four-year gestation. Arrangements had almost been finalised when Peggy's daughter Pegeen died of an overdose of barbiturates in Paris in March 1967.

Herself a painter, Pegeen's did canvases - some of which are on permanent display in Venice - which are pure wish-fulfilment, with their girlishly uncomplicated family groups. Her own childhood had been marked first by her parents' huge rows and then by the post-divorce shuttlecock of the European rich. Peggy's son Sindbad - whose daughter, Karole Vail, is the curator of this show, and author of a centenary book - refused to be unsettled by his mother's abrupt shifts between affection and the cold shoulder. On one of his visits to Venice he wrote in her guest book: "I can't write any more, as I have to keep some over for my next visit to this town where love is not always easy to find."

The long-awaited New York exhibition finally opened in January 1969. Although Peggy complained that Wright's huge white spaces made "my paintings look like postage stamps", she was impressed enough by the organisation (and by Messer's long and patient courtship) to sign papers arranging for her collection to be left in the care of the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation - with the proviso that it should stay in situ in Venice. As she later wrote of the reconciliation, "I was like someone who was longing to be proposed to by someone who was longing to marry her."

`Peggy Guggenheim - A Centennial Celebration': Venice Guggenheim Collection, (0039 041 520 6288), from 30 September to 10 January 1999. `Peggy Guggenheim: A Celebration' by Karole PB Vail is published by the Guggenheim Museum.

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