Excerpt from: Ellen McBreen, “Migrating Objects: From Maker to Museum,” in Vivien Greene, ed., Migrating Objects: Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation with Marsilio Editori, 2020), pp. 30-32.

“The dehumanizing concept of degenerate art appeared later in the frontispiece for Guggenheim’s 1942 publication Art of This Century, which encompasses an excerpt from Adolf Hitler’s Munich speech given five years prior at the opening of the Great German Art Exhibition (Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung), an event designed as the Aryan antithesis to the “primitives” mocked in the paranoid display of Degenerate Art. (34) Among other ideas, Hitler proposed that modern art was a fickle fashion; what the nation needed was a lasting art integrally rooted to a unified race. The text contains some especially harrowing lines in which Hitler relates non-realistic art to physical inferiority, suggesting that “unhappy” artists who see “green skies and purple seas” should be handed over to “the Ministry of the Interior where sterilization of the insane is dealt with” or to the criminal courts, so as to protect future generations from “their unfortunate inheritance.” Art of This Century itself, published during the war, is also a chronicle of the conflict. Guggenheim began planning the publication in 1940 during a stay in Grenoble, where her own potentially “degenerate art” collection was sheltered from the Nazis by Pierre-André Farcy, the curator who directed the art museum there and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943.

While the 1942 publication has seemingly little to do with Guggenheim’s later interest in African, Oceanic, and pre-Columbian art, it is a reminder of the deeply political stakes in making transcultural connections and of leaving, even in one’s imagination, the boundaries of the West. Among the many works featured in the catalogue was Léger’s Men in the City (Les Hommes dans la ville), 1919, which would go on to play such a pivotal role in stories Guggenheim and others told about the origins of her European collection during the winter of 1939–1940 in Paris: “The day Hitler walked into Norway, I walked into Léger’s studio and bought a wonderful 1919 painting from him for $1,000. He never got over the fact that I should be buying paintings on such a day....” (35) Her Léger story created a lasting image of Guggenheim as either blithely unaware of the catastrophe looming, or worse, taking advantage of artists in a desperate time. (36) Reading the Hitler passage today, however, makes it difficult to accept this idea of an apathetic Guggenheim disengaged from the menace of fascism, both as a Jew, and as a supporter of the internationalism of modernism, for whom the idea of a nation-state defined by race or religion was anathema.

With this history in mind, the recontextualization of non-Western objects in her home—seeing the sleek geometry of Léger’s figures emerge from the foundations of the Senufo helmet mask, for example—had a different, potentially antifascist, resonance in the post–World War II period. It is worth remembering that her collection had been deemed too “degenerate” by city officials in Turin, where an offer to show it was withdrawn in 1948. (37) Today, however, these African, Oceanic, and pre-Columbian objects will likely find viewers in Venice who will see them as appropriated emblems for Guggenheim’s cosmopolitanism, and ultimately, a vestige of a colonialist era. (38) Her fascination with modernist primitivism was an expression of her elite worldview. Her freewheeling, experimental installations spoke uncritically about a dominant culture borrowing from another, an extension of her globe-trotting. It was one of her many socioeconomic privileges to migrate at will with an international cast of objects moving with her, except, of course, for at least one terrifying experience when she apparently escaped a roundup of Jews in Marseille. In some cases, however, these juxtapositions may still have the potential to stir twenty-first-century viewers, as the Surrealists had once hoped, to consider the relativity of their own cultural values. The language that Ernst, Matta, or Picasso used is just as coded and context-specific as the one used by a Guinean artist or a New Ireland carver and, depending on their viewers’ life experiences, can be just as productively disorienting. In this framework the potential impact of these objects depends on the viewer’s recognition of their radical independence from the works of modernists who appropriated from them. The histories written about modern- ist primitivism can no longer support false claims for universality that have made over the rest of the world in the self-image of the West. Viewers who see this collection as only a fashionable capsule of Guggenheim’s taste are certain to remain within this Eurocentric hall of mirrors.”

34. Peggy Guggenheim, ed., Art of This Century: Objects, Drawings, Photographs, Paintings, Sculpture, Collages 1910–1942 (New York: Art Aid Corporation, 1942), p. 7. Hitler’s text comes in the middle of two excerpts from Guggenheim’s mentor Herbert Read, who attributed the failure of fascist and Nazi regimes to “inspire a great art” to an absence of freedom. Hitler’s speech was originally published as “Der Führer eröffnet die Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1937” in Die Kunst im Dritten Reich I (nos. 7–8), Munich (July– August 1937), pp. 47–61. Excerpts in English can be found in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds. Art in Theory, 1900–2000: An Anthologyof Changing Ideas (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 439–41. Guggenheim may have been encouraged to add the Hitler text by one of the people she named in her signed foreword. For more on Breton’s input, for example, see Guggenheim, Out of This Century, pp. 262–63.

35. Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict (New York: Universe Books; London: André Deutsch, 1979), p. 218. Guggenheim was describing her April 9, 1940, purchase from Léger.

36. This perception may have to do with Guggenheim’s tone. Earlier when Guggenheim was contemplating a modern art museum in London, she laconically wrote to her friend, “I hope you will come back and see it all before Mr. Hitler drops bombs on it.” The April 1939 letter to Emily Coleman is cited by Susan Davidson, “Focusing an Instinct: The Collecting of Peggy Guggenheim,” in Susan Davidson and Philip Rylands, eds., Peggy Guggenheim & Frederick Kiesler: The Story of Art of This Century (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2004), p. 57.

37. The 1948 Turin episode is recounted in Mary V. Dearborn, Mistress of Modernism (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), p. 269. In Guggenheim’s own telling, she characterized the rescinded invitation less politically; it was that officials in Turin found her collection too “modern.” Guggenheim, Out of This Century, p. 330.

38. Francesco Paolo Campione sees the decontextualization of these objects in Venice as “idealizing the worldview of the values of an élite ... as time passes, they set a trend and become the fashion.” Campione, “The Paradigm of Complexity: An Introduction to the Values of The Peggy Guggenheim Collection of Ethnic Art” in Campione, Ethnopassion: Peggy Guggenheim’s Ethnic Art Collection, exh. cat. (Milan: Mazzotta, 2008), p. 23.

Related Contents


Fantastic Artifacts

Excerpt from the exhibition catalogue: "Migrating Objects: Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection."