(b. 26-8-1898 d. 23-12-1979)
'Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim' by Anton Gill
Reviewed by Diana McLellan
Sunday, April 14, 2002; Page BW08
A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim
By Anton Gill
HarperCollins. 480 pp. $29.95
Peggy was 13 when Papa went down on the Titanic in 1912. Ben Guggenheim went like a gent, it was said: He'd changed into immaculate evening dress to usher women and children aboard the inadequate lifeboats. But he had been less particular with his share of the family's vast mining fortune. So when his middle daughter Peggy became an heiress at 21 with an income of $20,000 a year (between $200,000 to $300,000 in today's spending power), she was, relatively speaking, a "poor Guggenheim."
But the Great War was over, the jazz age had dawned, living abroad was dirt cheap, a revolution was exploding on the art scene, and sex and hell-raising were sports of choice among the fashionable young.
Peggy was up for everything. She was tall, bright-eyed and long-legged. Her great sorrow was her nose. Painter Theodore Stamos would call it "an eggplant," and indeed it assumed W.C. Fields proportions as time and booze took their toll. But it would not stop her from enjoying -- or at least having -- an estimated thousand no-strings-attached sexual liaisons. (She would keep track in a little book.) She collected celebrity lovers as if they were Beanie Babies. After meeting writer Samuel Beckett at James Joyce's dinner party in Paris, she spent the night and all next day in bed with him, downing several bottles of champagne. "Thank you. It was nice while it lasted," he said as he left.
A similar lack of enthusiasm among some conquests did not deter her, but later she conceded, "I am furious when I think of all the men who slept with me while thinking of other men who have slept with me before."
After her lonely education by governesses, a couple of years at a private finishing school for rich Jewish girls and a stint as a wartime volunteer outfitting young officers (collecting, she would claim, several "fiancés" in the process), she knew she was not born to sip tea at dull family parties. She began to work at the avant-garde Sunwise Turn bookshop, run by her cousin Harold Loeb. (Loeb, an enemy of Hemingway's, also published Broom, a short-lived but important magazine that published the likes of Hart Crane, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein and Malcolm Cowley, as well as artists such as Grosz, Kandinsky, Klee, Matisse and Picasso.) She met the pioneer photographer Alfred Stieglitz there -- and for the first time held in her hands a modern painting, an abstract by Georgia O'Keeffe. But she had no inkling yet of her future fame as collector, gallery queen, and patron and lover of so many artists.
She married only twice. Most men with whom she consorted beyond a one-night stand were horrible. First husband Laurence Vail, a violent alcoholic who (as Anton Gill strongly suggests at several points in Art Lover) was far too close to his sister, threw exhibitionistic tantrums. He hurled her shoes out the window, smashed mirrors and chandeliers, held her head underwater in the bath, rubbed jam into her hair. Knocking a dish of beans into her lap during one fit of rage triggered the labor that heralded the arrival of Peggy's daughter, Pegeen Jezebel. (She afflicted her son with a similarly eccentric name, "Sindbad" -- perhaps a weird confessional pun?) One long-term lover, John Holms, "made me stand for ages naked in front of the open window (in December) and threw whiskey in my eyes," telling her, "I would like to beat your face so that no man will ever look at it again."
Her second (and last) husband was the painter Max Ernst. She had rescued him and his paintings from the Nazis and brought them to the States, during an art-shopping spree she undertook in Europe from 1939 to 1941. As the Nazi war machine engulfed Europe, she snapped up works from the cream of modern artists' studios at bargain-basement prices. Mondrian, Brancusi and Duchamp received her enthusiastically. (Duchamp guided her when she opened her Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London in January 1938. And when her Art of This Century gallery opened in New York in October 1942, he created its spectacular surreal interior, including a spider's web made of two miles of string.) Only Picasso snubbed the shopper in his Paris studio. He ignored her, then turned to sneer, "Madame, you will find the lingerie department on the second floor."
She hooked Max, who was desperate to escape Europe, almost immediately, despite his being in love with another woman. She explained: He was "beautiful . . . he is such a good painter and . . . he is so famous." But Max needed peace, she needed love, and "As neither of us gave the other what he most desired, our union was doomed to failure."
She was, alas, a miser. Feverishly, she totted up restaurant checks, obsessed for days over being "cheated" of a few cents, filled expensive malt liquor bottles with cheap booze. She famously served only dreadful scotch and potato chips at her soirées. (Mary McCarthy's short story "The Cicerone" features "Polly Herkeimer Grabbe," an unkind caricature of Peggy.) Yet she was generous where it counted. She unquestioningly subsidized the lesbian writer Djuna Barnes, an ex-mistress of first husband Laurence Vail, for most of her life. After the divorce, she supported Vail and his new wife. She financed Emma Goldman while the anarchist, in exile, wrote her memoir, Living My Life; and she paid a striving Jackson Pollock a salary.
Anton Gill has given us a meticulously researched book. Art Lover is the story of a lonely, hard, hurt, exploited woman -- without real talent but determined to be famous, loved by the loving few (her daughter committed suicide), restlessly seeking pleasure and possessions in London, New York, Paris, French seaside towns, English country manors -- and finally at her fabulous gallery-palace in Venice, the 18th-century Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. Today it is her memorial. And there, toward the end of her life, surrounded by her little dogs, the last Venetian to maintain her own gondola and gondolier, she became, as somebody said, like a pharaoh planning her own tomb.
Diana McLellan's latest book is "The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood."
April 1, 2002, Monday
THE ARTS/CULTURAL DESK
A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim
By Anton Gill
Illustrated. 480 pages. HarperCollins. $29.95.
Peggy Guggenheim can be seen on the cover of this new biography in a startlingly bizarre photograph. Taken in 1950, it shows Guggenheim, the art collector and patron, sitting beside a canal in Venice. Sharing her seat are three of the fluffy little dogs that she apparently preferred to people, although she had more lovers than her biographer, Anton Gill, can count.
She wears a flamboyant dress, and it seems to be falling off one shoulder, looking less suggestive than awkward. Atop her least favorite feature (''the Guggenheim potato nose'') she wears fantastically loud sunglasses, made especially for her in the shape of a butterfly. And despite the props and the setting, her expression is listless and flat. The effect of this picture is very like the biography's effect: wildly interesting in theory, but unaccountably drab in fact.
On the surface, Mrs. Guggenheim (as she was known, quite revealingly, writes Mr. Gill, in light of her marriages to Laurence Vail and Max Ernst) would seem to be a scintillating biographical subject. In ''Art Lover,'' Mr. Gill has so much with which to work: the hot-and-cold-running Surrealist paintings that she accrued, the Venetian guest book that would have thrilled autograph hounds, the wild fights and drinking bouts that defined her love life. (Hayford Hall, one of the many places in which she settled, came to be nicknamed ''Hangover Hall.'')
Then there were the world events that shaped her destiny: the death of her father, Benjamin Guggenheim, aboard the Titanic; her life in the bohemian Paris of the 1920's; the exodus of Europeans to the United States in anticipation of World War II; and the advent of Abstract Expressionism, in which she played a role as Jackson Pollock's patron.
Then there was the birth of a high-stakes modern art market, startling to a woman who was an established collector by the time 10 Picassos, 40 Ernsts, 8 Mirós, 4 Magrittes, 3 Man Rays, 3 Dalís, a Klee and a Chagall brought only -- en masse -- £1,500 in 1938. She would parlay an investment of perhaps $250,000 into a collection whose worth Mr. Gill estimates would be $350 million today.
But ''Art Lover'' has more to do than simply touching these bases. Guggenheim knew a great many people, biblically and otherwise, and Mr. Gill presents thumbnail sketches of them all. She traveled extensively, and so there are times when this book resembles one long, name-dropping itinerary. And she had a distinctly dreary aspect, as Truman Capote suggested when he wrote that ''she did look rather like a long-haired Bert Lahr.''
When she tried to visit Picasso in his Paris studio, he famously dismissed her with the telling remark: ''Madame, you will find the lingerie department on the second floor.'' As one friend said of her: ''Her nose was always pressed to the glass.''
Drawing on many other biographies and familiar sources (among them ''Out of This Century,'' her autobiography), and adding a degree of dishiness supplied by new interviews, Mr. Gill tells a long and detailed story. He outlines the Guggenheim family's history and notes that Peggy had a maternal grandmother who liked to ask, ''When do you think my husband last slept with me?'' and thus prefigured Peggy's extreme candor. At 7 she was banished from the dinner table for remarking: ''Papa, you must have a mistress as you stay out so many nights.''
Only 14 when her father died, she grew up to engage in chronically unhappy love affairs. About her first husband, Laurence Vail, she wrote: ''When our fights worked up to a grand finale he would rub jam in my hair. But what I hated most was being knocked down in the streets, or having things thrown in restaurants.''
Drunkenness and promiscuity characterized so many of her liaisons that Mr. Gill is kept extremely busy describing the angry wives and girlfriends who tolerated Peggy for only two reasons: because they had no choice and because she had money.
It was under the influence of Vail, whom she met when she worked as a clerk at a New York bookstore, that she made contact with the world of avant-garde art. At first tentatively and then with Machiavellian gusto, she began to deal in and display paintings.
In Europe and then in New York when she opened her Art of This Century gallery in 1942, she made herself centrally important to the careers of countless painters, although Mr. Gill asks the essential question about her achievements. ''Had her private life been less colorful,'' he writes, ''would what she did for art seem less interesting?''
The answer that ''Art Lover'' suggests is that her private life may have been less colorful than advertised. For all the sex and high drama -- Vail once endured a drunken fall out of a hotel window onto spiked railings, and he was by no means the most accident-prone person cited here -- Peggy's life was lonely. And by the time she had established herself and her collection among Venice's foremost tourist attractions, the avant-garde world had begun to pass her by. ''Who is that man?'' she asked, encountering Andy Warhol in 1969.
As the kind of parent who never considered leaving any of her important art to her two children, and as a romantic who often chased after reluctant genius (Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett), Peggy Guggenheim emerges from ''Art Lover'' as an outlandish yet remote figure. And the book's lack of emphasis on art itself serves to diminish her achievements. But in the end, she is seen here as someone who arrived at greatness almost in spite of herself.
''She was egocentric, she could be small-minded, her hauteur and affected coldness could put people off; she was isolated and lonely, and desperately unsure of herself,'' says one acquaintance. ''But she was not a fool.''
Published: 04 - 01 - 2002 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 4 , Page 8
Peggy Guggenheim combined a libertine lifestyle with a passion for paintings and sculpture
A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim
By Anton Gill
HARPERCOLLINS; 480 PAGES; $29.95
Like its subject, Anton Gill's biography of Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) is, by turns, interesting, insightful, entertaining, frustrating and silly.
Marguerite "Peggy" Guggenheim was the middle daughter of Benjamin, the youngest of the Guggenheim brothers, who quit the family mining business just as it was becoming immensely profitable. Benjamin died on the Titanic in 1912, and Gill argues convincingly that Peggy spent the rest of her life looking unsuccessfully for a replacement for her adored father. Her first husband, Laurence Vail, was a minor figure in the arts -- and a violent alcoholic. She married German Surrealist Max Ernst knowing he didn't love her but was outraged when he left her for another woman. She also pursued numerous liaisons, which Gill recounts in considerable detail.
Gill also maintains that Peggy had to endure the stigma of being a "poor Guggenheim" ("poor" being a relative term here). If she wasn't able to buy everything she fancied, she was still rich enough to purchase modern art at a time when it was wildly undervalued. Peggy could be generous: She paid Jackson Pollock a stipend when he was still unknown, and supported Djuna Barnes for most of her life. In return, she expected an unwavering loyalty that the recipients of her largesse were rarely able to provide. Nurturing grudges and picking quarrels seem have provided her with hobbies, in place of needlepoint or bridge.
When she listened to the more intelligent advisers she attracted, she bought well and staged important shows at her galleries in London and New York.
She was among the first to exhibit the work of Pollock, Mark Rothko, Joseph Cornell, et al., and organized the first exhibition in the United States of work solely by women artists. But even during her periods of active purchasing -- 1938-40 in France and England and 1941-46 in America -- she never followed a coherent program. As a result, her collection is important, but spotty.
Her support of Pollock arguably ranks as Peggy's greatest contribution to 20th century art. The stipend enabled him to devote himself to painting, and she held his first show at her Art of This Century Gallery in New York. She received several canvases from him in return, which she gave away or sold. She later complained about the prices she got for them, but doesn't seem to have regretted their loss, although his "Alchemy" remains the most valuable work in her collection.
After she and her collection had been installed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, she often spoke of her paintings as her "children." But Peggy failed to care for the artwork she'd assembled, just as she neglected her son and daughter. The palazzo was damp, the roof leaked and some works survive only because the Tate Gallery did extensive restoration on them. (Peggy dangled the prospect of leaving her collection before the directors of the Tate, but the idea foundered in a welter of legal and personal complications.)
Ultimately, she commanded neither the resources nor the expertise to compete with her uncle Solomon's foundation and museum. Despite her efforts to distance herself from her family, she eventually reconciled with them: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation took over her collection on her death, and continues to maintain it in Venice.
This rambling, gossipy biography would have benefited from some judicious editing. Gill often wastes the reader's time with digressions and asides that only detract from his story. He devotes several pages to a description of expatriate cultural circles in Paris during the '20s, only to conclude that "there seems to have been no profound connection at all" between Peggy and the milieu he's just described. The detailed accounts of who slept with whom and what they said about their partners leaves Gill open to his own complaint that Peggy's "offstage" life as a restless combination of wanderer and libertine "has attracted so much gossip, obloquy, scandal and delight that it has overshadowed her influence as a patron of painters and sculptor."
Peggy Guggenheim emerges from these pages as a high culture groupie whose money gave her access to artists she otherwise couldn't have known. She created an eccentric persona and strove to live up to it; in her later years, she turned her collection -- and herself -- into a tourist attraction. Anyone with any pretension to culture visiting Venice had to see both Peggy's museum and Peggy, and she put herself on display at regular hours, gliding along the canals in the last private gondola in Venice. Had she been born a little later, Peggy might have found a place in contemporary media culture, somewhere between Sister Wendy and Joan Rivers.
Charles Solomon is a Los Angeles-based writer.
ART LOVER: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim
Anton Gill triumphs with his
latest work, ART LOVER, a richly detailed and meticulously researched biography
of Peggy Guggenheim, founder of the modern art gallery that bears her name in
Venice, Italy. The doyenne of the art world of postwar Europe, Guggenheim will
always be remembered as an adventurer, both for her groundbreaking artistic
tastes and her notorious sexual habits, thanks to Gill's exhilarating study.
Guggenheim was born in 1898 the daughter of wealthy industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim, who perished aboard the Titanic. After a childhood marked by tragedy and isolation, Guggenheim defied the social conventions of her time and embarked on a bohemian life in Paris alongside such personae as Marcel Duchamp and Djuna Barnes. Her early marriage to novelist Laurence Vail was brief and violent. Gill includes a Guggenheim quote in which she discusses her husband's abuse with a detached air that later came to epitomize her onlooker attitude towards her life:
"Fights went on for hours, sometimes days, once even for two weeks. I should have fought back. He wanted me to, but all I did was weep. That annoyed him more than anything. When our fights worked up to a grand finale he would rub jam in my hair. But what I hated most was being knocked down in the streets, or having things thrown in restaurants."
She had two children with Vail, Pegeen and Sindbad, but after seven years she ran off with writer John Holms, the first in a long string of short-term lovers. She always chose men she felt were her intellectual superior, learning as much as she could from them before she moved on to her next conquest. The details of her complex romantic intrigues are worthy of a tome all their own; they include an affair with playwright Samuel Beckett and, later, a brief marriage to painter Max Ernst.
The most engaging portions of ART LOVER reveal a woman with a single-minded devotion to her collection. Through her patronage of artists ranging from Brancusi to Pollock, she amassed one of the world's finest collections of modern art at a time when few collectors were interested in avant-garde works. She funded countless artistic and literary enterprises in the last half of the 20th Century that would have no doubt failed without her support and encouragement.
Engrossing not only for juicy art world gossip that even the most thorough reader of artist biographies will be sure to find revelatory, ART LOVER also presents a side of Guggenheim far less favorable. Her globe-trotting, bohemian lifestyle didn't win her any parenting awards; her relations with both her children were always strained. Gill's portrayal of Guggenheim as a mother suggests she largely ignored her children when she wasn't switching them from country to country, boarding school to boarding school. Guggenheim is famously quoted as having told Pegeen that she'd rather own a Picasso than have a daughter. Plagued with depression and lifelong mental instabilities, Pegeen attempted suicide a dozen times before finally succeeding in 1967, a tragedy Guggenheim never recovered from despite her outward frostiness.
The last pages of ART LOVER are full of sadness, just like the final chapter of Guggenheim's extraordinary life. After settling in Venice in her later years, her palazzo slowly fell into grave disrepair, as did much of her artwork. Guggenheim's friend and associate, John Hohnsbeen, helped her care for her vast collection towards the end of her life and found the pictures in surprisingly bad condition. The damp environment of the palazzo, with a basement that flooded each winter, was a terrible place to conserve fine art, and he frequently found himself "sweeping the maggots off" the backs of paintings to save them from decay.
Along with Guggenheim's own physical collapse, Gill details the miserly habits that worsened as she neared her death. Her unrelenting lifelong trait of haggling over every penny on her restaurant bill stayed with her to the end. She even quibbled over her tab at Harry's Bar, where she was a longtime patron and received a considerable discount. In the lonely winter months, when visitors spurned Venice for warmer climes, would-be guests won her indignation for defecting to hotels to avoid the freezing conditions and downright inedible food she provided at the palazzo. Her grandchildren found Guggenheim such a difficult and penny-pinching companion that whenever they were obliged to visit her in Venice, they were ill for weeks in advance of their trip out of sheer anxiety. ART LOVER skillfully paints the portrait of a fascinating woman who was lonely and miserable during her last years. Anton Gill's book proves that Guggenheim truly was a "poor little rich girl" whose money served as her gravest impediment to happiness.
--- Reviewed by Andrea E. Hoag
Books: A mosaic that lacks any real colour
Peggy Guggenheim -- the life of an art addict by anton gill (harper collins, £25).
Reviewed by mellisa
TODAY the name Guggenheim is known the world over. But when the Swiss- German Jewish family, headed by Meyer Guggenheim, emigrated to America in 1848, it found that social barriers in the New World had a familiar Old World feel to them. The family did spectacularly well financially in their new home, importing lace and investing money into silver mining and smelting. But their wealth cut little ice in a country where many hotels and restaurants refused to allow Jews on their premises. This led to the creation of a rich Jewish New York clique determined to be as exclusive as it was excluded. It was into this hothouse society that Peggy Guggenheim was born in 1898.
Her father died, on the Titanic, when she was 13, leaving his wife and three daughters with far less money than anticipated. Still there was enough. Peggy was always rich by normal standards if not by Guggenheim ones. Her childhood appears to have been pretty miserable and isolated, her adolescent and early adult years unfocussed and empty. The only possible future before her was 'a good marriage' and the way to escape that was, ironically, to return to Europe.
France between the wars was a mythic time and place for expatriate Americans artists, would-be artists and those eager to share the lifestyle -- and Peggy was very eager. Paris in the 1920s was a key turning point in the development of modern culture. Unfortunately there's little sense of that in this book. The restless, rapid, vapid life is fully described, the heroic drinking sessions, the public rows ending in police stations or hospitals, and of course lashings of meaningless and indiscriminate sex. But there's little mention given to the intellectual ideas that must have inspired artists who, after all, did work in between the drinking and coupling. Peggy married her first husband Lawrence Vail and at this time had two children with him. This in no way halted her in her pursuit of a dizzying number of affairs with men and, occasionally, with women.
Her largess was not confined to the physical sphere. Despite constantly being accused by irritated husbands and lovers of being penny-pinching she was a generous woman, willing to provide a variety of impecunious artists with regular pensions. The artist Yves Tanguy and the writer Djuna Barnes were just two who were supported by her for years. It wasn't until 1937 that she began seriously to collect art; she went on almost immediately to open her own gallery in London.
Her influence on the development of modern art is hotly contested. What is clear, however, is that she wasn't financially motivated. At this time being a modern art dealer and collector was an arguably altruistic enterprise. Pieces that artists were happy to sell for a few hundred dollars did come to fetch hundreds of thousands in the auction rooms but that wasn't until decades later.
Gill gives countless snapshots of Peggy Guggenheim's life, which adds up to a colourful mosaic but fails in the end to reveal the real woman. Instead, it's a book packed with breathless gossip about minor figures.
Of course the fascination level rises when the big fish swim into view. Her affair with Samuel Beckett and her marriage to Max Ernst are given due prominence but even these are rather drowned in an ocean of detail. If it's possible to research not wisely but too well then that is Gill's besetting sin in what otherwise is a reasonably enjoyable book.
A família Guggenheim
Biografia in italiano
November 19, 1992
In response to "Go Go Guggenheim" (July 16, 1992)
To the Editors:
I have read the Guggenheim gospel according to John and wish to thank him for having given me equal time in the enumeration of directorial misdeeds in the history of that institution. I am not about to deny all the transgressions attributed to me, which is not to say that I plead guilty to them. But I wish to put at least some of them into context.
Since I am introduced as a "non-confrontational Czech" let me readily agree that the characterization is apt. The civilized history of my native country is marked by avoidance of hopeless conflicts and by a preference for more effective strategies. When I came to the Guggenheim as a youthful director with the almighty Harry exerting precedence over family, foundation and board, confrontational politics would have been useless and stupid. Richardson cannot possibly know what feats of courage and steadfastness were required and displayed in the privacy of our offices, nor are these recorded in the minutes for the convenience of eager research fellows. Let me merely insist here that the sale of the Kandinskys in the sixties and seventies was not "sanctioned" but initiated over some trustee opposition by myself for good and valid reasons that I am prepared to defend. As long as we are being quantitative, it might have been fair to mention that the number of Kandinsky works that left the museum during my tenure were matched by no fewer that have come to the Guggenheim through gift and purchase, virtually all through my personal intervention. I selected most of these from the collection in the Hilla Rebay Estate which, after the death of the Baroness, and after some diplomatic effort, was amicably divided between the formerly contesting parties. Both shares, the one allocated to the Guggenheim, and that which legally remains in the Rebay Estate, are now, and have been for years, in the care of the Museum and at its disposal.
The Haacke incident has been covered so extensively and the position of both parties documented so exhaustively that its current rehash in truncated form is as redundant as would be the reiteration of my retorts. Since, however, Richardson makes grateful acknowledgement to Mr. Haacke "for providing the information" I may perhaps be permitted to consider his source just a trifle one-sided.
Now, as for Peggy. Richardson's statement according to which I "suggested that Peggy put the bulk of her paintings on temporary exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum, as a first step toward an eventual amalgamation of the two collections" is of course correct. Many would credit me with sagacity and perseverance for being able to make such a proposal after a more than ten years effort on behalf of my institution. But why was Peggy, as Richardson claims, "in no position to refuse" when every museum in the world courted her, willing to do almost anything to capture what then probably was the most important collection of modern art still in private hands? And why that untenable defense of John Hohnsbeen whose curatorial status was something of a joke and who did little or no work for no pay as everyone knew? When Peggy died Hohnsbeen was nowhere to be found for weeks and I couldn't have told him "to pack his things" if I had wanted to. Similarly, if after Peggy's death the family "felt no less shabbily treated" having received "not even a token item from Peggy's $40 million, 326 piece collection" it must be stated that it was not up to the Guggenheim, indeed not permissible for that institution, to dispense gifts that were public property. Only Peggy could have done so while she owned the works, or through a provision in her will, and she did not do so. Surely, Richardson must know this.
It is true that following Peggy's death the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni with its precious collection underwent radical repair, restoration, reconstruction and facelifting inside and out. The building was literally falling into the Canal Grande and water was streaming down the adjoining Barchessa walls threatening further damage to works that had suffered neglect over the years. Ivy was eating into the facade before it was removed and the garden was a mudhole before it was paved at considerable cost to the Guggenheim. To maintain a rundown palazzo with an endangered collection as a sentimental record of Peggy's glorious life was hardly the thing to do. By accepting Peggy's gift, the Guggenheim, as a museum foundation, had assumed responsibilities which Peggy, as a private person, did not have. The decision to convert a residence into a museum was carefully arrived at, as was the earlier determination to extend the Guggenheim's collecting scope by accepting Thannhauser's early Picassos among other treasures.
But I should not be complaining, for by charging me with the incorporation of the collections in the Hilla Rebay Estate, the Justin K. Thannhauser Foundation and the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, Richardson has touched upon what is generally rated among the prime achievements of my directorship.
Thomas M. Messer
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
New York City
I thought I had done justice to Sweeney. Sorry if I didn't. He was indeed a generous and unstuffy patron of young artists, but, let's face it, his enthusiasms sometimes outpaced his discrimination.
As for Peggy. It was Peggy herself who told me she was "in no position to refuse" Messer's proposal to amalgamate her museum with her uncle's. None of the institutions which had made overtures to her was prepared to take on the responsibility of her collection without an endowment—something she had not the means to provide. "I was left with no alternative," she said.
It was also Peggy who told me that she wanted John Hohnsbeen to carry on as her curator. For some years he had helped her run the place on a shoestring for no pay, and he knew better than anyone how she liked things done. Hohnsbeen would have carried out Peggy's wishes more scrupulously than the present incumbents.
December 17, 1992
In response to "THE GUGGENHEIM STORY" (November 19, 1992)
To the Editors:
Tom Messer's description [Letters, NYR, November 19] of my curatorial status at Peggy Guggenheim's Venice museum as "something of a joke" smacks of self-criticism. It also requires rectification as does his allegation that I "did little or no work for no pay." True, I was a long-time friend of Peggy's and received no pay and had no help, but every pre-Easter week I installed the collection and every November I dismantled it. I handled the considerable correspondence that the administration of the place entailed. And since I had trained under Curt Valentin and been a partner in the Peridot gallery in New York for six years, I was able to see to it that the printing and sale of catalogs were done professionally and generated enough money to cover all the operating expenses of Peggy's gallery.
Messer has likewise no right to question John Richardson's contention that the day after Peggy died I was told to pack my things. At the time of her death I was in Puerto Rico. With the museum closed down for the winter and Peggy hospitalized in Padua, I felt free to take a vacation. The day she died, two friends called me from Venice with the news. I thereupon telephoned Messer to propose that I return immediately to Venice, as Peggy would have wanted. Don't bother, I was firmly told. That to me is the "joke"; and Messer's distortions ensure that it remains a bitter one.
"Peggy Guggenheim was among the most intriguing cultural figures of her day-- as intriguing as the vast collection of modern art she amassed over her lifetime.."
--Carol J. Binkowski,Library Journal
Peggy Guggenheim 1898 – 1979
by L. Margaret Pomeroy
Marguerite (Peggy) Guggenheim was born August 26, 1898 in New York City. Her father was Benjamin Guggenheim, director of the Guggenheim family’s industrial mining and smelting concerns.
As the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim and Florette Seligman, Peggy was raised in one of the wealthiest and most socially influential Jewish families in New York. With the exception of a brief enrollment at Jacoby School, Peggy was home schooled, and her childhood was lonely, restricted by family concerns. Peggy’s greatest childhood trauma was undoubtedly the early death of her father in the 1912 Titanic disaster. Influenced by her older sister not to attend college, Peggy worked for the Defense Department briefly during WWI. Later she was employed at Sunwise Turn, a radical bookstore. It was her first experience with the avant-garde and would be a turning point in her life.
When Guggenheim inherited $450,000 in 1919, she moved to Paris. The expatriates there welcomed her into their community, and she married Laurence Vail, an American writer. While it did not turn out to be a blissful marriage, one result was that Peggy subsidized much of the talent around her. Recipients of her financial help included The Little Review, Berenice Abbott, Emma Goldman, Djuna Barnes, and Mina Loy. In 1928, after having two children with Vail, Guggenheim left him for British writer, John Holms. Although the two never married, Peggy always insisted he was her great love, and she was shattered by his death in 1934 during minor surgery.
In 1938 Guggenheim opened Guggenheim Jeune, a London gallery of modern art showcasing the works of Jean Cocteau and curated by Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s knowledge of art was critical to the gallery’s success considering Guggenheim’s lack of that knowledge. Under Duchamp’s direction the gallery featured Wassily Kandinsky, Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miro, as well as others. It was during this time that Peggy Guggenheim began her personal art collection, buying a selection from each show. After a time, Guggenheim decided gallery sales did not justify its continuation, and she decided instead to start a museum of modern art in London. However as she traveled to Paris to begin collecting work for it, the outbreak of WWI terminated the museum idea. Guggenheim, however, did purchase selections for herself from artists such as Alberto Giacometti, Rene Magritte, and Georges Braque. Only days before the German invasion of 1941 she left Paris for New York with hundreds of works of art with which she would begin a new American gallery. Also accompanying Peggy to New York was ex-husband Vail, his wife Kay Boyle, children from his two marriages, and Max Ernst. Ernst soon became Peggy’s husband, but that marriage ended when she divorced him in 1946.
Art of This Century was Guggenheim’s New York gallery. It opened on Fifty-seventh Street in October of 1942 and featured surrealists and cubists, displaying new talent beside that of the founders of modern art. New artists whose work appeared were Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Hans Hoffmann, and Mark Rothko. The gallery, designed by Frederick Kiesler, with concave walls and protruding wooden arms that held the canvases, was as provocative as the art it featured. If the gallery and its contents were not shocking enough, in 1946 Peggy Guggenheim published Out of This Century, the first volume of her memoirs, which candidly detailed her romantic exploits. The following year she returned to Europe, settling in Venice.
So in 1947 in a spacious palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal, Guggenheim’s art collection was installed in her home, and Peggy continued to attract writers and artists. The next year, 1948, during the Venice Biennale, after years of exhibiting her collections in commercial art galleries, Guggenheim was invited to show her collection at the Greek pavilion, empty because of civil war in Greece. It was her first public recognition and accordingly, held special importance to her. She spent the rest of her life in Venice, devoting herself to her private art collection. In 1951 she opened her home as a museum and started artists’ studios in her cellar. In 1960 she published the second volume of her memoirs, Confessions of an Art Addict. It was much less shocking than the first volume. Peggy Guggenheim died in Padua, Italy on December 23, 1979.
Over the years Guggenheim gave away much of her collection, and although her pieces from the 1930s and 1940s, bought with the counsel of Duchamp and Ernst, possessed more overall quality than her later acquisitions, the Guggenheim collection still has significant importance. In 1965 the collection traveled to the Tate Museum, and then in 1969 to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum which Guggenheim’s uncle had established in New York. In 1974 that museum acquired the collection as well as the palazzo, and continues to run the Venice institution.
Burke, Carolyn. Becoming Modern, The Life of Mina Loy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996.
Neubauer, Bethany. "Peggy Guggenheim," American National Biography (1999ed.), IX, 704-705.
by CLAUDIA ROTH PIERPONT
The conquests and canvases of Peggy Guggenheim
Issue of 2002-05-13
Entering Picasso's studio in Paris, in 1940, Peggy Guggenheim found the Master surrounded by a group of admirers. Her artistic mission for the past several months—to buy a picture a day—was widely known; most artists and dealers, anticipating a German attack, were desperate to sell anything they could before packing or hiding their works and fleeing the city. Léger, Giacometti, Man Ray: all eagerly delivered their work to the gawky American heiress, and few objected to her haggling over price. There were not many buyers, after all. "People even brought me paintings in the morning to bed," Guggenheim reported, "before I rose." She rarely bought on impulse, though, because she knew exactly what she was after. She had a list, compiled by experts, of artists who should be included in a first-class modern collection, and it had not taken her long to acquire a painting or sculpture by almost every one. The great exception, who ignored her pointedly as she hovered in his studio, finally glanced up to inform her that she had arrived at the wrong location. "Madame," Picasso said as he dismissed her, "you will find the lingerie department on the second floor."
Madame did not experience the rebuke as an extraordinary setback. This is not surprising, as she had barely registered the war as a setback to her plans to open a splendid new gallery in Paris. On April 10, 1940, the day after Hitler's troops entered Denmark and Norway, Guggenheim rented an enormous apartment on the Place Vendôme, and she went so far as to have the little plaster cherubs chopped off the walls and the place suitably repainted for the display of her treasures before, at last, she admitted defeat, just weeks before France did the same. Dangerous weeks, it might be said, for a woman with a prominent Jewish name. By her own account, however, Guggenheim seems to have been disturbed mostly by the French refusal to protect her art: Léger had advised her to ask the Louvre for storage space, but the august museum pronounced her entire collection not worth saving. "A Kandinsky, several Klees and Picabias, a Cubist Braque, a Gris, a Léger," Guggenheim fumed, along with Surrealist paintings by Miró, Max Ernst, Chirico, Tanguy, Dali, Magritte: all this had to find refuge in a friend's barn in the Vichy countryside. She, however, stayed put; she was enjoying the attentions of a new lover, who was himself prevented from leaving Paris, she said, because his wife was too ill to be moved. And so, as the bombing reached the factories on the outer boulevards, and trains filled with refugees in direst need poured into the city, she sat in cafés and drank champagne.
"I can't imagine why I didn't go to the aid of all those unfortunate people," Guggenheim wrote, in a memoir published shortly after the war. "But I just didn't." She dutifully recorded her escape from Paris to the South of France and then on to Lisbon, a trail of rumpled beds and moral quandaries, before she managed to catch a Pan Am Clipper flight to New York in July, 1941. At forty-two, Guggenheim had been living abroad for nearly twenty years, and she was bringing back with her the chaotically extended family that she had acquired: her ex-husband and their two teen-age children, her ex-husband's soon-to-be ex-wife and their children, and the painter Max Ernst, who counted as family because he was already, in Guggenheim's mind, her husband-to-be. In her memoir, she recounted the reasons that she had fallen in love with Ernst: "because he is so beautiful, because he is such a good painter and because he is so famous."
Despite the book's occasional flush of naïve charm, it is hard to think of another memoir that so determinedly assassinates the character of its author. By the time Guggenheim began writing it, in 1944, her dream of a first-class modern gallery had become a reality, not on the Place Vendôme but over a grocery on West Fifty-seventh Street, and she was presiding over an art world so tumultuously new that no one could have made a list of who the important figures would turn out to be. And yet almost every major artist of mid-twentieth-century America—Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell, Cornell, Nevelson, de Kooning—showed at Guggenheim's Art of This Century, as the gallery was called: it was the place where American art came into its own. With it, Guggenheim achieved a reputation for daring and for an instinctive grasp of talent that not even the publication of her self-mortifying self-appraisal, titled "Out of This Century"—one reviewer called it "Out of My Head"—was fully able to destroy. To complete the job, it seems, we have biographers.
Anton Gill's "Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim" (HarperCollins; $29.95) claims that "the jury remains out" on the question of whether Guggenheim had a good eye—as opposed to merely having good advisers—but he has no difficulty in passing judgment on her as a woman. "A mixture of low self-esteem and aggression, aided by money" is how he describes her behavior in his first few pages; "essentially selfish," he continues, and states as categorical "her inability to give anything in return for what she took." According to Gill, Guggenheim was an inadequate friend, an inept wife, and—to cite his most frequent and furious charge—a catastrophic mother. Her "most successful relationships," he writes, "were with animals and works of art," but his book is more informative about Guggenheim's feelings for her Lhasa Apsos than for the talents of Jackson Pollock, to whom she gave his first four one-man shows. Gill's focus is far narrower than that of Guggenheim's previous biographer, Jacqueline Bograd Weld; ironically, his emphasis on the dark and tawdry has resulted in a portrait that is unconvincingly dull. While Gill is effective in capturing Guggenheim's essential pathos, he obscures the vivacity and brio that made her gallery such a personal phenomenon, with Guggenheim herself continually patrolling and touching and talking, or standing at the door and asking people as they left, "What did you think of the paintings?" And then, if they didn't seem to understand what they had seen, adding with a shrug, "Come back again in fifty years."
Nothing less than the war could have brought her back to America. She associated the entire country with her awful childhood; "one long protracted agony" is how she remembered it. Both of her grandfathers—"my stable-born grandfather, Mr. Seligman," and "Mr. Guggenheim the peddler"—had fled the oppression and restrictions of their lives as Jews in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, arriving in America with no money and no English and nothing but their explosively unleashed initiative to explain how Mr. Seligman came to found a vast international banking house and Mr. Guggenheim to acquire a large part of the mineral wealth of Colorado. From her birth, in 1898, Peggy Guggenheim—née Marguerite—had a prescribed place in New York's German Jewish aristocracy; the house she grew up in, on East Seventy-second Street, had a Louis XVI parlor, a Louis XV dining table, and a dark servants' stair that gave her nightmares. It was a fairy-tale world, complete with curses. Her adored father spent most of his time away with his mistresses, her mother was addled and wholly distracted, and she was left to the care of vicious nurses who threatened to cut out her tongue, and whose forced outdoor exertions induced in her a lifelong terror of Central Park. Yet her upbringing did not strike her as unusual. "I don't think there were any good mothers in those days," she wrote.
In 1911, Peggy's father, Benjamin Guggenheim, abandoned his family entirely and moved to Paris; in April, 1912, coming back for a visit, he went down on the Titanic. Peggy was nearly fourteen, and she later claimed that she never got over the loss. Seeking emotional ballast, she clung to her beautiful older sister, Benita, who was the first and most constant love of her life, and whose attentions she vied for with her equally beautiful younger sister, Hazel. Yet even this solace was turned to pain by what appeared to be the greatest curse of all, blooming day by day right in the middle of her face: the Guggenheim nose. A potato nose, as her grandfather's was usually called; her version, if on occasion more poetically compared to a sponge or a peony, was viewed as equally outsized and grotesque. As a result, her youth was filled with agonizing attempts at "being beautified," which culminated, in 1920, with a primitive nose job that only made the offending object worse, except insofar as its swellings now allowed her to predict inclement weather.
Guggenheim cites two other sources for the sense of inferiority that plagued her early life: lack of money, and the oppression and restrictions of being a Jew in America. Seeking independence, Benjamin Guggenheim had broken not only with his wife and children but with the economic partnership of his brothers, and his death left his daughters in the position of poor relations until their mother came into her own inheritance; the family moved to smaller quarters and had to cut down on servants. It was during this dismal period that mother and daughters were "politely but firmly" turned out of a hotel in Vermont for being Jewish, in a particularly humiliating but hardly novel display of anti-Semitism. In the town on the New Jersey shore where Guggenheim's various uncles had built vacation homes that included replicas of the Petit Trianon and a Pompeian villa, the nearest hotel would not admit Jews; she reports watching happily as the place burned down one summer. But she reserves her greatest disgust for the family villas themselves, for the Victorian pomp and suffocating closeness of the new ghetto that effectively walled her in.
Guggenheim made a bid for freedom as soon as her father's estate was settled, in 1919 (to greater advantage than anyone had expected), and she inherited four hundred and fifty thousand dollars—a pittance by Guggenheim standards, but enough to allow her to vault the ghetto walls when at last she spied a place to land on the other side. Harold Loeb, Peggy's cousin and the family's artistic rebel, asked her to help keep accounts in a small bookstore that he subsidized, and the experience was a revelation: the discovery of a brave new world full of people whom she later recalled as "so real, so alive, so human" precisely because "their values were different from mine." When Loeb moved to Paris the next year to work on a novel, she followed. "I soon knew where every painting in Europe could be found," she wrote, "and I managed to get there, even if I had to spend hours going to a little country town to see only one." She particularly adored Venetian painting, and when an acquaintance told her that the works of Bernard Berenson would be too difficult for her, she read every volume that she could get her hands on.
This ravenous intellectual and aesthetic hunger seemed to disappear immediately upon her marriage, at twenty-three, to a dazzling bon vivant and painter named Laurence Vail, an American raised in France, whom she gleefully titled "the King of Bohemia." Artistic, popular, ostentatiously free, and anything but Jewish, the golden-haired Vail was to Guggenheim an enthralling figure, and she guilelessly reports how she pushed him all the way to the altar. (She was so sure he wouldn't show up for the wedding that she didn't buy a dress.) In the same lightly rueful tone, she goes on to detail how during the years of their marriage he would knock her down in the street or "walk" on her stomach or, when he was truly furious, rub jam into her hair. The violence has an absurd, cartoonish quality that keeps the pain from seeming real, unlike the pain of the King of Bohemia's frequent reminders that his wife possessed neither the beauty of a consort nor the artistic talents of a rightful citizen, and that, as Guggenheim sums up his argument, "all I had to offer was my money," upon which he graciously consented to live.
Bohemia is a cruel country. Unprotected by the bourgeois rules of polite behavior that she had so gladly left behind, Guggenheim appears to have borne the insults and humiliations of her new society with a kind of perverse pride, even when they were no different from those she had always known. She mildly notes that when, at a party in Paris, Man Ray's mistress, Kiki, called him a "dirty Jew" it was her mother, visiting after the birth of the Vails' first child, who was "outraged" and "told Kiki what she thought of her." Guggenheim herself offered no response. Bohemia does not seem to have been tarnished for her even after Harold Loeb was brutally caricatured by his friend Ernest Hemingway in "The Sun Also Rises," in 1926, as the pitifully overeager and despicably Jewish character Robert Cohn, whose most memorable trait is his ability to withstand any amount of verbal abuse without complaint. But then, in the same year, Laurence Vail completed a novel of his own—"Murder! Murder!"—which, as Gill points out, contains a stunningly anti-Semitic portrait of the author's barely disguised wife, who moves her lips in her sleep "as she dreams of sums." Guggenheim reported that she "took offense" at the original manuscript, which Vail rewrote; but this only suggests how much worse the book must once have been.
Populated largely by adults who were fleeing the responsibilities of adulthood, bohemia supplied new justifications for the same old failures of parenthood that Guggenheim had endured herself: the Vails' son and daughter, Sindbad and Pegeen, seem to have suffered from a more or less benign neglect even before their mother ran off with another man. In the late twenties, the perils of motherhood for all the Guggenheim sisters became chillingly clear. Benita, after several attempts to have a baby, died in childbirth in 1927, and Guggenheim writes that it was her death—"I felt virtually as though I had been cut in two"—coupled with her husband's heartless attitude to the loss, that brought her marriage to an end. About her own children, she suddenly felt that she "had no right to have any," a comment that may shed light on the single incident that even she found too disturbing to recount in her book: the death of her sister Hazel's two small sons, who plunged from their mother's grasp and off a rooftop in New York the following year. The fact that Hazel was not charged with murder was widely assumed to be a result of the family's legal interference. Yet Guggenheim writes of 1928 simply as the year in which she fell madly in love with a brilliant alcoholic writer whose affectionate nickname for her was Dog Nose. The privilege of going off with this man meant that she had to give up one of her children, as she saw it, in order to be fair to her husband, and she chose to keep the girl, a sad-eyed three-year-old flaxen-haired waif. Guggenheim later wrote that the intensity of her longing for her son, who was five, nearly destroyed the new relationship, but by then there was no way back.
Guggenheim spent the next decade of her life administering first to the needs of the alcoholic writer, and then to the unfaithful Communist who eventually took his place (for his sake, she joined the Party). She was nearing forty and sick with a sense of personal failure when a friend suggested that she open an art gallery as a diversion from suffering over men. She acted quickly: aided by half a million dollars that she inherited on her mother's death, in 1937, and closely guided by Marcel Duchamp, she opened Guggenheim Jeune in London in early 1938. And her thwarted needs and passions suddenly found an open course. "I fell so in love with it," Guggenheim wrote of a small rounded brass sculpture by Jean Arp. "The instant I felt it I wanted to own it."
Arp's "Head and Shell" was the first work to enter her collection, but the balance between what might be termed Guggenheim's dual expressive outlets was notably unstable: for the next year and a half, she became known for exhibiting the most avant-garde artists, but even better known for having affairs with as many of them as she could. Only now did her legendary sexual career begin—legendary because she herself proudly made it so, detailing conquests that ranged from the Surrealist master Yves Tanguy to the young Samuel Beckett, who whenever she asked what he planned to do about their relationship invariably replied, "Nothing." By the time she closed the gallery, after two seasons, in June, 1939, she had lost a good deal of money and gained a Don Giovanni-like list of names. But it was a pair of men who would never make it onto her list—the critic Clement Greenberg, who claimed to be the only heterosexual man in their circle excluded from its pages; and Jackson Pollock, who reputedly said that you'd have to put a towel over Peggy's head to fuck her—who changed the meaning of her life.
In the early forties, New York was just awakening to the political turn that art had taken abroad. The city was filled with refugee artists—Tanguy, Mondrian, Dali, Léger, Breton—and although Hitler's ban on artistic forms that departed from nature had lent a near-heroic stature to their efforts in Europe, in New York modern art had become mired in the category of fashion. Salvador Dali had supplied his Surrealistic services for the windows of Bonwit Teller, and Guggenheim announced that the Museum of Modern Art had the look of a millionaires' yacht club and the atmosphere of a girls' college. Although hardly a practitioner of political thought, Guggenheim was not above using politics to serve her purpose. "With regard to Surrealism," she replied to a negative review of her gallery by no less a figure than Klaus Mann, "he seems to be in perfect accord with Hitler."
The general response to Guggenheim's Art of This Century, however, was a kind of boggled delight. The gallery, which opened in October, 1942—and also served as a museum for her collection—was designed by the émigré architect Frederick Kiesler as a series of dreamlike theatrical spaces. Surrealist paintings were shown in a black cave of a room, projecting at angles on what appeared to be sawed-off baseball bats—a "faintly menacing" effect, the Times pronounced; abstract and Cubist works hovered on weblike cables above a floor painted brilliant turquoise (Guggenheim's favorite color). At the opening, Guggenheim wore one earring by Tanguy and one by Calder, to display her professional impartiality between the Surrealist and abstract modes. Personally, this was something of a misrepresentation. From the time she succeeded in bullying the broke and miserable Max Ernst into marriage, in December, 1941—"I don't know if he was miserable because he was going to marry me or some other reason"—she did everything that she could to support his brand of delicately mannered Surrealism; Ernst's unhappy former dealer, Julien Levy, implied that she'd thought up the gallery and the marriage as a package deal. But Ernst left her after hardly more than a year for the beautiful young painter Dorothea Tanning. His speedy departure, a terrible blow to Guggenheim's overtaxed heart and ego, happened to coincide with an argument she had over money with his fellow-Surrealist André Breton. It was as a result of these highly untheoretical developments that one sophisticated European style fell out of favor in New York's most adventurous art establishment, and American painting had room to come into its own.
Jackson Pollock's name was misspelled the first time he showed one of his works at Guggenheim's gallery, in early 1943; by the time of the Spring Salon she had got it right. The critical response was favorable, and, in an unusual arrangement, Guggenheim offered to pay Pollock a hundred and fifty dollars a month to quit the custodial job he held at her Uncle Solomon's museum and do nothing but paint, in preparation for a one-man show that fall; in exchange, his paintings were hers to sell, if she could. Clement Greenberg, who had recently shifted his intellectual focus from Marx to Mondrian, was away in the Army for most of the year, and played no direct part in these early events. Shortly before he was inducted, Greenberg had written approvingly of Guggenheim's collection and of the new energies of abstract painting, but he had made, as yet, no absolute case for the sort of art that she showed. It was Greenberg's experience in the Army that ultimately altered his perceptions of the significance of abstraction, and altered the history of American art.
If Guggenheim had glided through wartime Europe with barely a nod to the political realities of being a Jew, Greenberg was overwhelmed by these realities in a mere eight months of service mostly spent in Oklahoma. Visiting a German P.O.W. camp there, he reported that the ranks of confident young men going about their self-appointed exercises in preparation for Hitler's victory shook him terribly; he later described 1943 as the year that he began, as a Jew, to feel physical fear. Back in New York that autumn, he started writing about both art and literature from an increasingly personal and often explicitly Jewish point of view. A long article on Sholom Aleichem as "the Jewish Dickens" quickly veers from literature to the essential virtues of the Jews, including their "examining and comparing intellect"—a quality that, by early 1944, Greenberg was insisting on as "a Jewish bias toward the abstract."
Greenberg did not apply his notion of this essentially Jewish bias to the art of painting; but then Hitler had done that already. Instead, over the next few years he turned the Nazi equation of abstraction with Jewish decadence on its head, arguing that a new sort of art was emerging in New York City that was fully representative of the principles that had to win the war: positive in spirit, heroic in scale, free, imaginative, and unquestionably American. Guggenheim, who had not wanted to come home at all, was now very nearly cast as a patriot, and her personal escape into art began to take on the force of a campaign for the Stars and Stripes.
Greenberg expressed some reservations in his review of Jackson Pollock's first one-man show, at Guggenheim's gallery, in November, 1943, but he also compared the Wyoming-born thirty-one-year-old painter to Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe. Greenberg later recalled that it was a twenty-foot-long mural that Guggenheim had commissioned from Pollock for the foyer of her East Side town house that really hit him hard. Guggenheim described it as "a continuous band of abstract figures in a rhythmic dance," and recounted how it had been painted in a single night of poured-out inspiration, after Pollock had sat numbly in front of the enormous canvas for weeks. When it was finally completed, the miraculous creation turned out to be too long for the foyer wall, and while Pollock went upstairs to get lost in Guggenheim's liquor supply, the ever-helpful Duchamp calmly proposed cutting eight inches off one end: with this kind of painting, he remarked, it really made no difference.
Which of these myths of modern art appears the more significant—the frenzy of inspiration or the practical adjustment of the dully repetitive result—depends on one's attitude to Pollock's work or, perhaps, to modern art itself. Although she was initially unimpressed, Guggenheim seems to have developed her own purely instinctive response to what she called Pollock's "wild and frightening" painting. She sponsored no other artist so resolutely, no matter who tried to cajole her into it. Although her financial arrangement with Pollock garnered her a large number of his works, as cynics inevitably point out, she never sold one for more than a thousand dollars. The behavior that she put up with also might be seen as a sign of her commitment. (The story of the victorious mural installation ends, rather famously, with Pollock wandering into a party at Guggenheim's apartment later that night and peeing into the fireplace.) "I dedicated myself to Pollock," she declared, and she came to think of him as her "spiritual offspring."
By the end of the war years, the gallery owner and the critic were virtually the twin engines of the new American painting: she exhibited it, he explained what it meant and why it mattered. During this fraught period, Greenberg made the case that abstract art in New York had become a moral phenomenon, and that it fulfilled on painted canvas many of his early political ideals: the urban concord of Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie" streetscapes, the defeat of nihilism in Pollock's passionate intensity, a general ascetic standard that stood opposed to the "restless rich" and their complacent way of life. Off the canvas, however, ascetic ideals were not much in evidence. Every night while she lived in New York, Guggenheim liked to claim, she went to bed drunk. After the gal- lery closed, there were continual parties, where she served cheap Scotch and potato chips to guests who ranged from Joseph Cornell to Gypsy Rose Lee, and where one night Max Ernst angrily overturned an ashtray on Greenberg's head, crowning him King of the Critics, upon which Greenberg promptly socked him in the jaw. Considering the gap between what Greenberg preached and the general uproar that Guggenheim inevitably set in motion, it is difficult to understand how he believed that a memoir by her would aid his cause.
It was Greenberg who encouraged her to get down to work, beginning in the summer of 1944; although Gill claims that he also read each chapter of her book as it emerged, this does not seem likely. Greenberg's review, which appeared under the pseudonym K. Hardesh—Hardesh is Hebrew for Greenberg—in Commentary, in 1946, is a furious judgment hurled down from the heights of Sinai. "As a Jew," Greenberg wrote, "I am disturbed in a particular way by this account of the life of another Jew." Although Guggenheim displayed fine critical alertness with regard to the bourgeois world that she had rejected, he wrote, she was incapable of criticizing the bohemian world that she had so gratefully claimed in exchange. Greenberg's few words of praise for Gug- genheim were made in a comparison with Gertrude Stein, a woman of similar background who had entered bohemia through literature, while Guggenheim "flew in on money and a kind of vitality that amounts almost to genius."
He didn't carry the comparison any farther, although it is evident that Stein's 1933 memoir, "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas," was the model for Guggenheim's own Surrealistically naïve tone. And then there were the paintings, the painters, the parties: all the most celebrated elements of Stein's world were reëstablished in Guggenheim's, yet Picasso chose to paint Stein's portrait and he threw Guggenheim out of his studio. It was through sheer strength of character that Stein became the Queen of Bohemia—or, as she would have preferred it, the King—while Guggenheim was, in Greenberg's terms, its victim, a position he found troublingly emblematic. "In the list of the martyrs of bohemia, Jewish names stand out," he observed, citing Modigliani and Soutine. He might well have added Guggenheim's cousin Harold Loeb, whose savaging in "The Sun Also Rises" provides the likeliest answer to the mystery of why Stein broke with Hemingway after the book appeared. It is difficult to imagine Guggenheim taking such a stand; indeed, if she was offended by Greenberg's denunciation she never let on. But that, of course, was precisely Greenberg's point.
Guggenheim's own view of the possibility of belonging to any sort of world had grown exceedingly bleak. As soon as the war was over, she began looking for a place to live in Venice, having decided that "I would be happy alone there." During her remaining time in New York, she gave a one-woman show to her daughter, Pegeen, now a sad-eyed twenty-year-old waif who painted canvases of wistful little families of blank-faced dolls. And the great collector acquired, at last, a major Picasso, "Girls with a Toy Boat," which she found "madly amusing." Her main worry in closing up shop was what would become of Pollock—she had raised his monthly payments to two hundred and fifty dollars—and it was with difficulty that she finally secured another gallery's agreement to show his new work if she sub- sidized him for one more year. The last exhibition at Art of This Century took place in May, 1947. Commemorating its scant five years of existence, Greenberg wrote that Guggenheim's position in history was assured and that her departure was a serious loss to living American art.
"I am where I belong, if anyone belongs anywhere nowadays," Guggenheim wrote to Greenberg from Venice later that year. She had bought an unfinished eighteenth-century palazzo, in which she planned to live quietly with her paintings and her dogs. All ideas of retreat vanished, however, when she was offered an entire pavilion for the display of her collection at the Biennale of 1948, the first international art exhibit there since before the war. This was a major event, and Guggenheim's pavilion was the focus of attention: "the explosion of modern art after the Nazis had tried to kill it," as her Italian secretary later said. Guggenheim was thrilled when Bernard Berenson visited, even if he responded to her avid declaration that he had been the first person to teach her about painting with "My dear, what a tragedy that I wasn't the last." Although she was laying plans to turn her palazzo into a museum, it did not seem likely that many visitors to Venice would come to look at what she had to show.
The real explosion happened the following year. In August, 1949, Life ran a story with a banner headline reading, "Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?" Citing the testimony of a single, unnamed but "formidably high-brow New York critic," Life ventured to answer with a resounding yes. Moreover, the article featured a large photograph of Pollock dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, a cigarette dangling from his lips, displaying all the allure of the James Dean-style heroes of the approaching fifties. America fell in love with Pollock's image, if not with his art. He was famous, and yet his work remained nearly impossible to sell until 1956, when he died the quintessential fifties-hero death—in a car crash, drunk, at the age of forty-four—and prices started going through the roof. By that time, however, Guggenheim had long since become incensed over the absence of her name in the stories of his astonishing rise; she complained that Pollock didn't even answer her letters. When Greenberg called from New York with news of his death, she is said to have replied, "I don't give a damn."
She didn't seem to give much of a damn about anything in these years, except, perhaps, sex. At the age of fifty-one, she took up naked sunbathing on the roof of her palazzo—directly across the water from the windows of police headquarters—and developed an attitude to sampling the local men which her friend Mary McCarthy compared to her attitude toward the local olives and crusty bread. She herself was delighted with this image, and when one of her guests inquired, "Mrs. Guggenheim"—as she was known in later years—"how many husbands have you had?" she shot back, with perfect Mae West timing, "D'you mean my own, or other people's?" Gill is quick to point to the indisputable loneliness and the inability to maintain a relationship that lie behind the pose, but is less ready to allow for the cockeyed bravery that McCarthy put in terms of Guggenheim's "huge, gay, forgiving heart," and which seems to be summed up in Guggenheim's reply to Max Ernst's inquiry about whether he might visit her with his wife. "Come to Venice," her telegram to him read. "All is oblivion."
But even Guggenheim's most trusted methods of achieving oblivion failed her when, in March, 1967, she received the news that her daughter had committed suicide, in her home in Paris, at the age of forty-one. Pegeen, who had four young sons and was in the midst of a stormy second marriage, had consumed a fatal mixture of pills and alcohol. Her husband claimed that he had rescued her from seventeen earlier attempts, but Guggenheim steadfastly refused to believe that the death was not an accident, because "I know she would have never deserted her children." She was still arguing against the charge of suicide in an updated version of her memoir published in 1979, the year of her death. Although she could rage in her own defense, Guggenheim clearly came to feel that the blame belonged to her alone, as did many people around her. "Sindbad and Laurence once said to me 'You killed Pegeen,' " she admitted in her final years, "and sometimes I think I did."
This brutal assessment is generally supported by Gill's biography, often in interviews with family members for whom her guilt has become established lore—one of Pegeen's sons calls Guggenheim "the major architect of her daughter's pain," although he was only eight when his mother died—but also by the kind of judgments that make one question both the limits of the biographer's knowledge and the extent of his animus. (Guggenheim's "maternal instincts were only ever aroused in the context of a sexual relationship," Gill informs us. Only ever?) Guggenheim's shortcomings as a mother are all too clear, and can perhaps be best understood in terms of her inability to stop being a child herself, but it does seem worth more emphasis than Gill allows that two of Laurence Vail's three daughters by his second wife also attempted suicide, and that, according to interviews with them in Weld's 1986 biography, their father maintained some sort of sexual involvement with both. This isn't to say that Vail ever had an incestuous relationship with Pegeen, but the field of damage in this family was very wide, and the boundaries of childhood were consistently blurred. "We were like two sisters, friends, having lovers," Guggenheim said of her relationship with Pegeen, in her own last years. And she added, "Her death has left me quite bankrupt."
When she was asked in those late years to name her greatest achievement, Guggenheim answered that the first was Pollock and the second was her collection. But the painting that meant the most to her was Picasso's "Girls with a Toy Boat," in which two rather sweet if monstrously misshapen little girls, playing at the ocean's edge, are depicted with protuberant breasts and pregnant bellies. When Guggenheim opened her museum, she placed this painting in the entrance hall, above Giacometti's tabletop bronze "Woman with Her Throat Cut." It was several years, she pointed out, before she realized that the painting was not funny but disturbing and profound, and that its "poor little girls" were not really enjoying themselves; rather, they were preoccupied with "their destiny as women." She did not specify what she thought this destiny was, but, to judge from her reaction to this image of two childlike sisters or friends, already swollen with their own children, she had lived something like it herself—except that for her the cycle of birth had long been intimately linked with death. In the bedroom of her palazzo, Guggenheim always kept a portrait of herself and Benita as little girls. And even today the visitor to the Guggenheim Museum in Venice will come across a permanent exhibit of the works of Pegeen Vail, a room filled with naïve paintings of detached doll-like figures which serves as a sort of shrine.
Guggenheim was calmer and quieter in her last years in Venice; she liked to say that floating in a gondola was the nicest thing in her life since she gave up sex. The impulse was never quite vanquished, though. "If she takes your hand, I suggest you let her," Mrs. Alfred Barr advised Saul Steinberg about proper behavior during a gondola ride; it would cost him so little, she said, and would give her so much pleasure. Guggenheim maintained the last privately owned gondola in Venice, and also—in the city that gave the world the word "ghetto"—one of the last privately owned palazzi along the Grand Canal. Instead of the traditional family colors and coat of arms, she displayed her favorite turquoise striped with white, and heraldic images of her Lhasa Apsos, which emerged from local workshops looking like particularly shaggy little lions. She became an honorary Venetian citizen, and year by year she learned virtually all the city's churches and its frescoes, its hundred and fifty canals, and the names of most of its four hundred bridges. Every day, she would glide along in the late-afternoon sun, sometimes accompanied by a famous visitor, but more often alone, as she had predicted when she planned to make Venice her final home. "You fall in love with the city itself," she reported with the sense of an important goal finally achieved. "There is nothing left over in your heart for anyone else."
Sonntag, 26. Mai 2002 Berlin, 10:23 Uhr
Eine Frau vor der Kulisse ihrer Traumstadt Venedig, drei Wischmop-artige Terrier umwuseln sie. "Meine kleinen Babys", ermahnt sie die hechelnden Monster zärtlich - so die Überlieferung. Eine Spießerin mit Schoßhundkomplex, na prima. Wäre sie nicht Peggy Guggenheim, und würde sie nicht eine beruhigend schrille Hans-Arp-Sonnenbrille in Fledermausform tragen, könnte einem angst und bange werden.
Nachzulesen sind diese kleinen privaten Details in dem gebundenen Denkmal "Peggy Guggenheim. Das Leben - eine Vernissage" (Heyne, München., 176 S., 42 E) von Laurence Tacou-Rumney. "Privatheit" geht hier fast ganz in der Inszenierung auf: Mal verschmilzt Guggenheim mit einer Arp-Skulptur, mal mit einem Pevsner-Objekt, inszeniert sich als Teil der Kunst - was sie war. Die große Kunst-Mäzenin, Männer-Sammlerin und Ex-Frau von Max Ernst vermochte sich sowohl bei Konservativen als auch bei der künstlerischen Avantgarde ihrer Zeit kultische Verehrung zu verschaffen. Von diesem Huldigungs-Fahrwasser weicht Autorin Tacou-Rumney - verheiratet mit dem Guggenheim-Enkel Sandro Rumney - keinen Deut ab. Ein streng chronologischer, wohl auch vom Bedürfnis nach eigener Spurensuche getragener Band, der mit bisher ungesehenen Fotos aus Guggenheims Familienalben aufwartet. clu