Peggy Guggenheim - Biography and Legacy
American Collector and Gallerist
Biography of Peggy Guggenheim
Marguerite "Peggy" Guggenheim was born on August 26, 1898 in New York into great wealth due to the family's fortune in the mining and smelting industries. Her father, Benjamin Guggenheim and his brother Solomon R. Guggenheim were power brokers. They had five other brothers. Florette Seligman, her mother, came from a family known for both its eccentricities and its social status, as her father was Joseph Seligman, a banker who became the leading national financier in the Civil War era.
Peggy described her childhood as "gilt edged," and though her family lived like royalty, she and her two sisters were often left to themselves, as her mother was neglectful and her philandering father was often absent. Nonetheless, Peggy doted on her father, and, when he died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic when she was 13, she suffered what she described as a "nervous breakdown." Her father had also lost money in his businesses so while the family was still relatively wealthy, they felt poor in comparison to the other Guggenheims. As Peggy said, "I never considered myself a real Guggenheim anymore after that." Rejecting her haute bourgeois roots, she became a rebel, shocking her family by shaving off her eyebrows and said that she was perceived as the enfant terrible or the black sheep of the Guggenheim family.
Early Life: 1920-37
Financially independent due to the inheritance she received when she turned 21, Guggenheim was able to continue her search for a different lifestyle. In 1920, she began working as an unpaid assistant at Sunwise Turn, a midtown Manhattan avant-garde bookstore. Mary Horgan Mowbray-Clarke, the wife of the sculptor John Frederick Mowbray-Clark who had helped organize the 1913 Armory Show, and Madge Jenison, a noted author and activist, cofounded the bookshop, one of the first woman-owned bookstores in the country. The bookstore was a hub for avant-garde literature and socialist ideals and also featured small art exhibitions of emerging artists. As Harold Loeb, the art critic and Peggy's cousin wrote, "Coming under Mary Clarke's spell Peggy gradually discarded many traditional taboos and adopted a whole set of new ones. Feeling guilty, no doubt, for having inherited wealth, she came to deny herself some of the luxuries to which she was accustomed. In compensation she collected the latest in experimental painting and gave money and meals to poor artists and writers."
At the end of 1920, Guggenheim moved to Paris where she explored her interest in Classicall and Renaissance art, saying, "I soon knew where every painting in Europe could be found, and I managed to get there, even if I had to spend hours going to a little country town to see only one." She became close friends with avant-garde writers, including Romaine Brooks, Djuna Barns, and Natalie Barney, and artists, notably Marcel Duchamp who became her lifelong friend and mentor, as she was to say later, "He taught me everything that I know about modern art."
At the age of 23, wanting to lose what she called her "burdensome" virginity, she became involved with the artist and writer Laurence Vail, who was dubbed "the king of bohemians." For Guggenheim, sex and art were invariably linked, as she wrote, "I had a collection of photographs of frescos I had seen at Pompeii. They depicted people making love in various positions, and of course I was very curious and wanted to try them all out myself. " They married in 1922 and had two children Sinbad and Pegeen. The marriage was marked by intense conflict and Vail's physical abuse, and they divorced in 1928. Her personal relationships were all similarly difficult, marked by infidelity, by husbands who diminished her, perhaps because they felt threatened by their dependency on her wealth. Subsequently she fell in love with the writer John Farrar Holms, and the two began traveling as she said, "It seems to me that John Holms and I did nothing but travel for two years. We must have gone to at least twenty countries and covered ten million miles of ground." In 1934 Holms, who was a severe alcoholic, died suddenly during a routine surgical procedure, and Guggenheim moved in with Douglas Garman with whom she had become involved the year before. When that relationship, too, came to an end after several turbulent years, she found herself "at a loss for an occupation, since I had never been anything but a wife for the last fifteen years."
Guggenheim Jeune: 1938-39
Guggenheim began thinking of starting a publishing company or an art gallery, and with the inheritance she received after her mother's death in 1937, she opened the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London in 1938. Aided by Duchamp, as she said, "he arranged all my exhibitions, did everything for me," the gallery's first show featured 30 of Jean Cocteau's drawings. The gallery held Kandinsky's first solo exhibition in Britain, exhibited the works of Wolfgang Paalen and Yves Tanguy, and held group exhibitions of sculpture and collage, featuring Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Jean Arp, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Kurt Schwitters, and Constantin Brancusi. Guggenheim began her practice of purchasing at least one artwork from each exhibition, building her own collection. The first work she bought was Jean Arp's Shell and Head (1933) of which she said, "I fell so in love with it. The instant I felt it I wanted to own it." She also freely explored her own sexuality, having hundreds of affairs and brief encounters, with artists like Tanguy and writers like Samuel Beckett. At the same time, as art historian Donald Kuspit said, "Art gave a meaning to her life....the Modern, the avant-garde artists confirmed her sense of being, in some peculiar way, an outsider. Art became her way of finding herself emotionally."
The gallery was a critical success but lost money the first year, and, as a result, Guggenheim thought a contemporary art museum might be a better route. She began working with art historian Herbert Read on a plan to develop a Museum of Modern Art in London. In 1939, she closed the Guggenheim Jeune and, subsequently, travelled to Paris with Read's list of artworks that they hoped to have for their proposed first exhibition. On September 1, 1939, World War II broke out, but, undeterred, Guggenheim decided "to buy paintings by all the painters who were on Herbert Read's list. Having plenty of time and all the museum's funds at my disposal, I put myself on a regime to buy one picture a day." She was aided in her quest by a number of friends who advised her, including Howard Putzel, an art dealer, and Madame van Doesburg, widow of the painter Theodore van Doesburg, as well as by the desperation of the times. Many artists and art dealers were eager to sell whatever works they could and flee the invading Germans. Buying works by Picasso, Ernst, Magritte, Man Ray, Dalí, Klee, Chagall, Miró, and other artists, she was able to create "the nucleus of one of the great modern art collections" with $40,000. When Paris was invaded in 1940, she remained in the country, trying to make arrangements to preserve her new collection. Finally hitting upon a plan of shipping them to the United States as household items, she packed them with casserole dishes and household bedding for shipment by boat. In 1941 she returned to New York, along with the artist Max Ernst, whom she subsequently married.
Art of This Century Gallery, 1942
Cultural critic Carlo McCormick described the New York art scene in the early 1940s as a "small kind of gentleman's club and the story was that you could fit the given art world into a small room in New York." At the same time, that world was changing as many European artists immigrated to New York, fleeing World War II and Nazi Germany. In 1942, Guggenheim opened her Art of This Century Gallery, with sections devoted to Surrealism, Kinetic art, Cubist, and abstract art; as art historian Dore Ashton noted, her "gallery was one of the first international galleries in New York City mixing American and European art." Anton Gill described how, at the gallery's premier, Guggenheim wore, "one earring made for her by Calder and another by Yves Tanguy, to express her equal commitment to the schools of art she supported."
Frederick Kiesler designed the innovative gallery to create a totally modern experience; some paintings were hung on universal joints, which allowed viewers to turn the paintings to experience different angles of light, thus, creating a more intimate relationship between the viewer and the work. He created an unusual lighting design that occasionally plunged an entire gallery into darkness, and his furniture acted both as seats for gallery-goers as well as easels for paintings.
Through her trusty advisor Howard Putzel, Guggenheim began discovering American artists. She became an early patron of Jackson Pollock, providing him with a monthly stipend, his first commission, and his first exhibition. As the art critic Clement Greenberg wrote, she gave "first showings to more serious new artists than anyone else in the country," and as the artist Lee Krasner wrote, "'Art of this Century' was of the utmost importance as the first place where The New York School could be seen, her gallery was the foundation, it's where it all started to happen." With her 1942 Exhibition by 31 Women Guggenheim also held the first exhibition solely devoted to women artists, though it had unexpected personal consequences. One of the artists was Dorothea Tanning with whom Max Ernst fell in love, leading to his divorce from Guggenheim in 1946, an event of which Guggenheim said, in her characteristic ironic way, "I should have had 30 women. That was my mistake."
In 1946 Guggenheim published Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict, her autobiography that created something of a scandal due to her honest and revealing recount of hundreds of affairs and sexual encounters she had had with various writers and artists. Her family was dismayed, as her wealthy uncles tried unsuccessfully to buy up all the copies, and critical response was equally dismissive. The Chicago Tribune caustically wrote that it should have been titled, "Out of My Head." Wanting a fresh start, she closed her gallery in 1947 and moved to Venice, which she called "the city of her dreams." In 1948, the Venice Biennale invited her to exhibit her collection, which marked the first time the works of Pollock, Mark Rothko, and other American artists had been seen in Europe. She subsequently bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an unfinished 18th-century building on the Grand Canal, where she resided the rest of her life.
In Venice, she became a celebrity, known for her butterfly sunglasses, designed by Edward Melcarth, which she wore everywhere as she navigated the city in her private gondola and her accompanying dogs. Her home was a hub for visiting writers and artists, and she also promoted the works of emerging Italian artists like Marini. In 1951, she opened her home as a museum to the public, and in the subsequent decades, she also loaned her collection to various museums in Europe and the United States. As a result, as art curator Jeffrey Deitch noted, "Peggy Guggenheim was one of the links between European and American modernism. Between surrealism and abstract expressionism." Despite her successful life as a collector and though she had a number of liaisons with young Italian men, she was frequently lonely, writing in a letter, "God forbid my ever getting too attached again in my life to anyone. So far everyone I loved has died or made me madly unhappy by living. Life seems to be one endless round of miseries. I would not be born again if I had the chance." Guggenheim continued collecting art until about 1973, and in 1962 Venice bestowed upon her an Honorary Citizenship. She died in 1979, and her ashes remain on the grounds of the Venetian palazzo that houses her collection.
The Legacy of Peggy Guggenheim
Guggenheim returned to New York in 1969 when the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, founded by her uncle, invited her to show her collection. She said of the occasion, "I was thunderstruck, the entire art movement had become an enormous business venture. Only a few persons really care for paintings." Her model, emphasizing patronage for avant-garde artists and advocacy for their work, provided an alternative to a market-driven art world. She said, "I am not an art collector. I am a museum." In 1970, she donated the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni to the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, followed by the 1976 donation of her collection with the proviso it would remain in Venice.
As art critic Allison McNearney wrote of the Peggy Guggenheim collection, "It is not only one of the premier collections of modern art in the world, featuring over 300 works by over 100 of the most influential artists of the 20th-century, but it also has played an integral role in turning Venice into a mecca for contemporary art." Her showing at the Venice Biennale influenced the rise and prominence of the international exhibition, and today the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni permanently houses the U.S. Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Additionally, it is also the most visited Italian museum of modern art and the second most visited museum in Venice.
Guggenheim was also an early model of the contemporary art celebrity, as one critic noted, "Even her sunglasses made news." And indeed, an Italian company launched a limited-edition eyewear line inspired by Guggenheim in 2014. She has continued to be a cultural presence, portrayed in the Hollywood film Pollock (2000), Lanie Robertson's 2005 play Woman Before a Glass, in a Bethan Robert's radio play My Own Private Gondolier (2010), and in the 2015 documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.