- Art Imitates Life
How one heiress built one of the best collections of modern art in the world.
Peggy Guggenheim was an extraordinary art collector. In her lifetime, she acquired a treasure trove of cubist and surrealist artworks at bargain prices before the onset of World War II. She ran art galleries in London and New York championing then little-known artists such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, and played a significant role in positioning Venice as a contemporary art city after moving there permanently in 1948.
Following her death in 1979, her Venetian home, the 18th century Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, was transformed into a permanent exhibition space for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. With over 427,000 visitors a year, it is now the second most-visited museum in the city after Doge’s Palace.
But while her collection is renowned for its cubist, surrealist and abstract expressionist masterpieces, a new exhibition Peggy Guggenheim: The Last Dogaressa, which runs until 27 January 2020, showcases her lesser-known collecting interests and demonstrates how wide her collecting endeavours spanned.
“The exhibition sheds light on how she significantly continued to add works to her collection during her 30 years in Venice,” explains Karole Vail, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Vail is Peggy’s granddaughter and was a curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York for 20 years.
Referring to Guggenheim’s acquisitions, Vail notes: “Her choices were varied and eclectic.” They included works by Italian artists active from the late 1940s, such as Edmondo Bacci, Tancredi Parmeggiani and Emilio Vedova, as well as British paintings and sculptures from the 1950s and ’60s, with pieces by Lynn Chadwick, Francis Bacon and Henry Moore. There was also optical and kinetic art of the 1960s, and works by the CoBrA group, a short-lived (1948-1951) but influential avant-garde movement in Paris known for its spontaneous and colourful work heavily inspired by art by children and the mentally ill.
“The exhibition also highlights how she was a supporter and collector of works by women abstract artists, but also had an interest in contemporary takes on Japanese aesthetics,” says Vail, pointing to works such as Above the White (1960) by Japanese-born American painter Kenzo Okada and Drifting No. 2 (1959) by Japanese sculptor Tomonori Toyofuku.
A Bridge Builder
Guggenheim had described herself as an “art addict” and felt she couldn’t help herself, but fortunately for us, her relentless collecting of what was “in the now” means her collection offers a fantastic bridge from surrealist to abstract expressionist.
“She trusted her intuition in making her purchases, but was also wise to surround herself with the best advisors. She trusted their opinions. One might say, her collection reflects her personal taste, guided by their sound advice,” Vail says.
Peggy Guggenheim was the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim and niece of Solomon Guggenheim, founder of the famous New York museum. At 21, she inherited US$450,000 (the equivalent of US$6.4 million or S$8.76 million today) after her father died in the Titanic disaster, and when her mother passed in 1937, she was left with an annual income of some US$40,000 a year (S$675,000 today), which she used to feed her life-long art obsession.
Known to have a colourful private life, she was also a shrewd investor who acquired a large part of her collection (said to be worth billions now) right before the onset of World War II, when she had the foresight to assiduously buy “a picture a day”. On the advice of friends who guided her choices — which included Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett and art historian Sir Herbert Read — she bought directly from artists’ studios, where artists were keen to sell at low prices given that the war was looming.
In the months before Paris fell to the Germans, she bought 50 works, including pieces by Constantin Brancusi, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, Robert Delaunay, Alberto Giacometti, Paul Klee, Fernand Leger, Rene Magritte, Man Ray, Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian and Francis Picabia, among others.
After the war, she started supporting Pollock — upon the advice of Mondrian — giving him a monthly income and money to buy a house in Long Island so he would be able to paint in peace.
The Audacious Gallerist
Between 1938 and 1939, Guggenheim ran the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London, championing the works of Jean Cocteau, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, and others. She gave the first public airing to Lucian Freud in an exhibition of children’s art and organised the first solo exhibition of Vasily Kandinsky in the British capital.
“She dedicated herself to contemporary art, as it was ‘a living thing’, and she was not afraid to take risks in supporting artists that were not yet established. Even if modern art perplexed much of the public at that time, her commitment and resolve to promote the most contemporary art of her time was unshakable,” Vail notes.
“In spite of its brief existence, Guggenheim Jeune played an instrumental role in the London art market from the late 1930s onwards, and it was consequential to the development of the London surrealist art market,” she adds.
Between 1942 and 1947, Guggenheim also ran the groundbreaking Art of This Century museum cum gallery on Manhattan’s West 57th Street, where she exhibited her collection and works by emerging artists like Pollock and Motherwell, giving them their first solo shows. “Her progressive character was reflected not only in her art and exhibition choices, but also in the way she installed works,” says Vail, pointing out that the gallery space designed by visionary architect Frederick Kiesler offered innovative exhibition rooms.
For instance, the black wall of the Surrealist Gallery displayed unframed paintings mounted on adjustable arms attached to the concave walls while the Abstract Gallery had movable walls of stretched deep blue canvas and floors painted turquoise, Guggenheim’s favourite colour. Unframed pictures described as swaying in space at eye level were actually mounted on triangular floor-to ceiling rope pulleys.
Guggenheim’s support for women in the art world was also important, in particular the seminal exhibition in New York in 1943 titled Exhibition by 31 Women, which brought together artists like Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Louise Nevelson and Leonora Carrington. She followed this with another important exhibition, The Women, in 1945, and gave solo exhibitions to Janet Sobel, Teresa Zarnower, Sonja Sekula and Virginia Admiral, while personally collecting works by Grace Hartigan and Irene Rice Pereira.
“She showed women’s substantial contributions to the most advanced movements of the day, even if not everyone understood this back then. Her exhibitions served as a key starting point for the careers of many women and Art of This Century became a key space to set the discourse on gender that continues to this day,” Vail says.
This story first appeared in the November 2019 issue of A.