Peggy Guggenheim's career belongs
in the history of 20th century art. Peggy used to say
that it was her duty to protect the art of her own time,
and she dedicated half of her life to this mission,
as well as to the creation of the museum that still
carries her name.
Peggy Guggenheim was born in New York
on 26 August 1898, the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim
and Florette Seligman. Benjamin Guggenheim was one of
seven brothers who, with their father, Meyer (of Swiss
origin), created a family fortune in the late 19th century
from the mining and smelting of metals, especially silver,
copper and lead. The Seligmans were a leading banking
family. Peggy grew up in New York. In April 1912 her
father died heroically on the SS Titanic. (1)
In her early 20s, Peggy volunteered for work at a bookshop,
the Sunwise Turn, in New York and thanks to this began
making friends in intellectual and artistic circles,
including the man who was to become her first husband
in Paris in 1922, Laurence Vail. Vail was a writer and
Dada collagist of great talent. He chronicled his tempestuous
life with Peggy in a novel, Murder!
Murder! of which Peggy wrote: "It was a
sort of satire of our life together and, although it
was extremely funny, I took offense at several things
he said about me."
In 1921 Peggy Guggenheim traveled to Europe. Thanks to Laurence Vail (the father of her two children Sindbad and Pegeen, the painter), Peggy soon found herself at the heart of Parisian bohème and American ex-patriate society. Many of her acquaintances of the time, such as Constantin Brancusi, Djuna Barnes and Marcel Duchamp, were to become lifelong friends. Though she remained on good terms with Vail for the rest of his life, she left him in 1928 for an English intellectual, John Holms, who was the greatest love of her life. There is a lengthy description of John Holms, a war hero with writer's block, in chapter five of Edwin Muir's An
Autobiography. Muir wrote: "Holms was the
most remarkable man I ever met." Unfortunately,
Holms died tragically young in 1934.
In 1937, encouraged by her friend Peggy Waldman, Peggy
decided to open an art gallery in London. When she opened
her Guggenheim Jeune gallery in January 1938, she was
beginning, at 39 years old, a career which would significantly
affect the course of post-war art. Her friend Samuel
Beckett urged her to dedicate herself to contemporary
art as it was “a living thing,” and Marcel
Duchamp introduced her to the artists and taught her,
as she put it, “the difference between abstract
and Surrealist art.” The first show presented
works by Jean Cocteau, while the second was the first
one-man show of Vasily Kandinsky in England.
In 1939, tired of her gallery, Peggy
conceived “the idea of opening a modern museum
in London,” with her friend Herbert Read as its
director (2). From the start the museum was to be formed
on historical principles, and a list of all the artists
that should be represented, drawn up by Read and later
revised by Marcel Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg, was
to become the basis of her collection.
In 1939-40, apparently oblivious of the war, Peggy busily
acquired works for the future museum, keeping to her
resolve to “buy a picture a day.” Some of
the masterpieces of her collection, such as works by
Francis Picabia, Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí
and Piet Mondrian, were bought at that time. She astonished
Fernand Léger by buying his Men in the
City on the day that Hitler invaded Norway.
She acquired Brancusi’s Bird in Space as the Germans approached Paris, and only then decided to flee the city.
In July 1941, Peggy fled Nazi-occupied France and returned to her native New York, together with Max Ernst, who was to become her second husband a few months later (they separated in 1943).
Peggy immediately began looking for a location for her modern art museum, while she continued to acquire works for her collection. In October 1942 she opened her museum/gallery Art of This Century. Designed by the Rumanian-Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler, the gallery was composed of extraordinarily innovative exhibition rooms and soon became the most stimulating venue for contemporary art in New York City. (3)
Of the opening night, she wrote: “I wore one of my Tanguy earrings and one made by Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art" (4). There Peggy exhibited her collection of Cubist, abstract and Surrealist art, which was already substantially that which we see today in Venice. Peggy produced a remarkable catalogue, edited by André Breton, with a cover design by Max Ernst. She held temporary exhibitions of leading European artists, and of several then unknown young Americans such as Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, David Hare, Janet Sobel, Robert de Niro Sr, Clyfford Still, and Jackson Pollock, the ‘star’ of the gallery, who was given his first show by Peggy late in 1943. From July 1943 Peggy supported Pollock with a monthly stipend and actively promoted and sold his paintings. She commissioned his largest painting, a Mural,
which she later gave to the University of Iowa.
Pollock and the others pioneered American Abstract Expressionism. One of the principal sources of this was Surrealism, which the artists encountered at Art of This Century. More important, however, was the encouragement and support that Peggy, together with her friend and assistant Howard Putzel, gave to the members of this nascent New York avant-garde. Peggy and her collection thus played a vital intermediary role in the development of America’s first art movement of international importance.
In 1947 Peggy decided to return in Europe, where her collection was shown for the first time at the 1948 Venice Biennale, in the Greek pavilion (5). In this way the works of artists such as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko were exhibited for the first time in Europe. The presence of Cubist, abstract, and Surrealist art made the pavilion the most coherent survey of Modernism yet to have been presented in Italy.
Soon after Peggy bought Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal in Venice, where she came to live. In 1949 she held an exhibition of sculptures in the garden (6) curated by Giuseppe Marchiori, and from 1951 she opened her collection to the public.
In 1950 Peggy organized the first exhibition of Jackson Pollock in Italy, in the Ala Napoleonica of the Museo Correr in Venice. Her collection was in the meantime exhibited in Florence and Milan, and later in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Zurich. From 1951 Peggy opened her house and her collection to the public annually in the summer months. During her 30-year Venetian life, Peggy Guggenheim continued to collect works of art and to support artists, such as Edmondo Bacci and Tancredi Parmeggiani, whom she met in 1951. In 1962 Peggy Guggenheim was nominated Honorary Citizen of Venice.
In 1969 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
in New York invited Peggy Guggenheim to show her collection
there, and it was on that occasion that she resolved
to donate her palace and works of art to the Solomon
R. Guggenheim Foundation (7). The Foundation had been
created in 1937 by Peggy Guggenheim’s uncle Solomon,
in order to operate his collection and museum which,
since 1959, has been housed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s
famous spiral structure on 5th Avenue.
Peggy died aged 81 on 23 December 1979. Her ashes are placed in a corner of the garden of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, next to the place where she customarily buried her beloved dogs. Since this time, the Guggenheim Foundation has converted and expanded Peggy Guggenheim's private house into one of the finest small museums of modern art in the world.