History knows Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) primarily as a generous arts patron who amassed one of the greatest collections of 20th Century Art, now housed in her former palazzo residence on the Grand Canal in Venice.
However, until she was almost forty, Peggy was someone with no clear plans, an insecure woman who hated her looks and was still in search of her identity. Up to that point, she had sought emotional comfort in the arms of a series of lovers and marriage to an abusive husband. She told a friend, Emily Coleman, that she felt her life was over.
When her mother died in 1937, she came into a small fortune (relative to the other Guggenheims) of $450,000. She made the decision to open an art gallery based on a friend’s suggestion to “do some serious work”. Guggenheim viewed art as a good way to make use of her natural gifts, her money and her connections.
Though unschooled in art, she turned to Marcel Duchamp for advice. Duchamp exposed her to modern art and Surrealism in particular. He introduced her to many artists in his circle and guided her on what to show at Guggenheim Jeune, her first gallery. Throughout her short career as a gallerist, she relied on wiser advisers: the critic Herbert Read, Max Ernst, Howard Putzel and Nelly van Doesburg, a good friend.
Peggy’s fame as a collector is based on two short, intense periods of acquiring art: from 1938 to 1940, mainly in Paris, and from 1941 to 1946 in New York at her 57th Street gallery, Art of This Century. That gallery was the epicenter of the postwar New York art scene.
When she had to flee Paris and the Nazi occupation in 1941, she offered her collection to the Louvre for safekeeping in a rural hiding place. The museum refused, as not worthy, an art cache that contained works by Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, Braque, Mondrian, Magritte and sculptures by Brancusi, Giacometti, Moore and Arp.
Guggenheim enjoys the rare distinction of having been the champion of two art movements: Surrealism in Paris and Abstract Expressionism in New York where her most famous discovery was Jackson Pollock.
She grew tired of running the gallery and left the United States in 1947 to relocate in Venice, her home for the next thirty-two years. She is buried in the garden of the palazzo along with fourteen of her beloved dogs.
Guggenheim led a fascinating, overflowing life, full of famous names (Emma Goldman, Paul and Jane Bowles, Clement Greenberg) and Prose tells her story with equal gusto. Her talent as a novelist helps her shape Peggy’s life into a breezy, compelling narrative.
Prose digested a large archive of prior Peggy materials, including her subject’s own memoir, and has distilled the essential from the incidental in vignette-size chapters.
The result is an engrossing read that captures Peggy’s tumultuous off-stage persona with friends and family alongside endless love affairs. She no sooner left one lover than she was on to a fresh conquest, believing women should enjoy the same sexual freedom as men. She once carried on a torrid, 13-month affair with Samuel Beckett.
Unlike Anton Gill, an earlier, more critical biographer, Prose paints a balanced, heartbreaking portrait of an uncompromising, yet lonely, woman who sought love all her life and was often hurt by catty friends, unfaithful husbands and her troubled daughter, Pegeen, who committed suicide.
I was sorry to turn the final page. I must turn to Peggy’s memoir, “Out of This Century”, to get more of the juicy details.
Tom Mullaney, Chicago Editor (Retr’d)
Volume 30 number 4 March / April 2016 p 38