The life story of Peggy Guggenheim fires the imagination. It seemed to be exciting AF. Travelled the world, collected art, opened galleries and museums, smuggled art to the US and obtained one of the most exquisite collections of modern art. She has “slept with 1,000 men,” and when asked how many husbands she’d had, she replied, “You mean my own, or other people’s?” *New Girl Intro song* So who’s this giiiiirl? It’s Peg.
In 1898, Marguerite (Peggy) Guggenheim was born into one of the richest families in the United States: the Guggenheims. In 1912, her father went down on the Titanic. You know that shot in David Cameron’s Titanic of a dressed-up man and his valet in their chamber, that’s a reference to Ben Guggenheim and Victor Guglio. Very heroic indeed but her father leaves his family in a relatively – very relatively, according to Madison Avenue standards – unhealthy financial situation.
Peggy’s immediate family was still wealthy (I mean you, Solomon R.) but she was less well off compared to the other branch in the family. Because of this situation, she described herself as not a “real Guggenheim.”
But don’t feel bad for her, because she’s still a trust fund baby. When Peggy gets access to her inheritance of $2.5 million (now expected to be $36.1 million) she’s 21 and leaves for Europe. She first settles in Paris, and wines and dines with the avant-gardes of the world: Duchamp, Man Ray, Constantin Brâncuși, Max Ernst. And she marries Laurence Vail, a Dada sculptor and writer with whom she had two children. In 1938, Guggenheim opened her first gallery for modern art Guggenheim Jeune in London. Around this time, British art historian Herbert Read compiled a list of artists for Peggy that formed the basis for her collection policy. She hosted exhibitions for artists who are now modern art superstars: Wassily Kandinsky (his first one-man-show in England), Yves Tanguy, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Constantin Brâncuși, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Kurt Schwitters.
With her motto “Buy a picture a day” she started collecting modern art. The raging war in Europe does not keep her down. She empties out artist’s studios, sometimes for bargain prices and tried to purchase the works of all the artists on Read’s list. When finished, she had acquired ten Picassos, forty Ernsts, eight Mirós, four Magrittes, three Man Rays, three Dalís, one Klee, and one Chagall among others. The artists knew that if they wouldn’t sell, it would be deemed “degenerate art” and confiscated by the nazis.
She ensured that her art collection was smuggled as “household good” to America to avoid confiscation. In 1941 she returned to New York and took along her then-boyfriend Max Ernst, who in 1939 he was interned in France as an enemy alien.
A year later she also opened her gallery Art of This Century on 30 West 57th Street. Everything about it was spectuacular. It’s hard to tell what was more avant-garde: the architecture, the art or the curatorial decisions.
First the architecture: Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler designing the interior of the gallery. He created concave walls and protruding, razor-thin wooden frames in the middle of the gallery space, which gave the hanging canvases a free-floating effect. I mean, even if this would be designed today, it would be mindblowing.
Second, the art: the modern art collection that Peggy brought to New York was presented to the American public. She had acquired so many incredible surrealist and (geometric) abstract art. She has famously said: “I…wore one of my Tanguy earrings, and one made by Calder, in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and abstract art.” During her time in New York, she gave the opportunity to many young American artists to exhibit their works in her gallery. They came in and out as they pleased, to talk to and see Avant-Garde artists and art.
Or the curatorial decisions? Peggy really knew who to listen to in order to make the right decisions. Although it was Marcel Duchamp’s idea to put on a female-artist-only exhibition, she was probably the first one to put on an exclusively-woman art show. The Exhibition by 31 Women was the first exhibition hosted at Art of This Century. A little side note: while recruiting artists for this exhibition, Ernst visited Dorathea Tanning’s studio. He was so impressed with her self-portrait, Birthday, that he persuaded Peggy to include Tanning and change the title to 31 Women. Guggenheim was later heard to say she wished she’d left it at 30 because within three weeks of that studio visit Ernst (her then-husband) had moved in with Tanning. Moreover, although Mondrian advised her to do so, Peggy took in an artist who was a handyman in at her uncle’s museum. Who was this handyman you’re asking? No other than Jackson Pollock himself.
Although this gallery is literally epic, she quickly leaves New York for Europe when the war ends. Probably due to heartbreak and her love for European art. In 1949, she buys Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an 18th-century palace, and lives there for three decades. A couple years later, she starts showcasing her collection to the public. Visitors could be dazzled by the splendour of her artworks, that were hanging around in her house including her bedhead that was created by Calder.
By the early 1960s, Guggenheim had almost stopped collecting art and began to concentrate on presenting what she already owned. She lived out her life with her dogs and Elton Johnesque sunglasses until she has a stroke in 1979 and leaves her collection – one of the best modern art collections in the world – to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
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