Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern (2015)
By Francine Prose, Yale University Press, 211 pp.
Best-selling author Francine Prose, known for nonfiction titles like Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and Reading Like a Writer, wrote a heartfelt biography of Peggy Guggenheim, influential art collector, and early promoter of Modernism in America. Well-ahead of her time, Peggy developed a taste for the avant-garde and unconventional that followed her throughout the entire life. She altered the course of art history in an unprecedented manner by meticulously pursuing new styles and supporting emerging artists.
Born in New York City in August 1898 to a wealthy family, Peggy Guggenheim developed an interest in art at an early age. Her father, Benjamin Guggenheim, perished on the Titanic in 1912, leaving Peggy with a comfortable inheritance. Her mother Florette Seligman, who came from a prominent banking family, also left Peggy with a considerable inheritance, allowing for a sophisticated, privileged lifestyle.
“A Guggenheim, or a Strauss, or a Seligman was expected to be meticulously well mannered and to avoid anything that might be considered ostentatious or vulgar,” explains Francine Prose in her biography of Peggy Guggenheim (p. 37).
As a child, Peggy traveled frequently to Europe with her mother Florette where they stayed at stylish hotels, and learned about art, French history, British literature, and German opera, explains Prose.
In 1920 Peggy moved back to Europe, “in a frenzy to see great art.” “She knew where every important painting was located and insisted on seeing them all” (p. 60).
From 1922 to 1928 Peggy was married to Laurence Vail, a French-born American playwright, novelist, and painter who belonged to the Dada movement. Peggy’s life, relates Prose, had “periods of intense travel interrupted by interludes during which she established and oversaw large bohemian households in Paris, in London, and in rural beauty spots in England and France” (p. 17).
After her failed marriage with Vail, Peggy engaged in notorious affairs with playwright Samuel Beckett, sculptor Constantin Brancusi, and Surrealist painter Max Ernst, whom she married in 1941 – the marriage would end in divorce five years later.
Peggy’s uncle Solomon Guggenheim, who also was an avid collector of modern art, might have been an inspiration to Peggy: Solomon and his mistress, artist and art advisor Baroness Hilla von Rebay opened The Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York in 1937 to display Solomon’s growing collection which included works by Kandinsky, Chagall, Picasso, and many others. As the collection kept growing, the effort eventually led to the opening of Guggenheim Museum in 1959 at its current location on Fifth Avenue in a building designed by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
While in Europe, Peggy opened Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London in 1938, an unfortunate time, as WWII was about to break out the following year. Peggy had traveled to Paris the year before to secure art for the opening show. She had hoped to open the gallery with an exhibition dedicated to Constantin Brancusi, but the Romanian sculptor was out of town at the time, and Peggy turned her attention to Jean Cocteau. Guggenheim Jeune opened in January 1938 with a show dedicated to Cocteau – the gallery would close in August 1939 due to the war outbreak. In fact, Peggy had plans to open an art museum in London in the fall of 1939, when the war broke, and she had to return to New York.
In June 1941 Peggy and her family sailed from Marseille to New York, bringing with them Peggy’s significant collection of modern art which included 150 works by artists such as Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Braque, Miro, Dali, Magritte, Giacometti, Brancusi, and Max Ernst, works that could have not safely remained in Europe. At first, Peggy had hoped that the Louvre Museum in Paris might have sheltered some of the works, but the museum directors considered the art “too modern to merit saving,” as Prose relates.
Back in New York, Peggy opened Art of This Century gallery, which shortly became the city’s cultural center. The gallery functioned from 1942 to 1947, when Peggy returned to Europe. Alexander Calder, Georgia O’Keefe, and Jackson Pollock frequented the space which was at once “a cultural landmark and a tourist attraction” (p. 137). Peggy helped launch Pollock’s career at Art of this Century – the artist showed four times at the gallery during its existence, and drew the attention of art critics such as Robert Coates at the New Yorker, and Clement Greenberg at The Nation.
In 1943 the gallery hosted the first exhibition of collages in the United States. Also, “among the most remarkable aspects of Art of This Century,” writes Prose, “was the unusual amount of attention paid to women artists” (p. 140). She goes on to say: “equally striking is how few of these women – Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois, and Leonora Carrington – went on to develop careers and reputations remotely approaching those of their male contemporaries” (p. 141).
In addition to promoting emergent artists, as Prose relates, the gallery “was used as a background for fashion shoots in Vogue and Glamour, and was the subject of a photo feature in the New York Times Magazine” (p. 138).
In 1946, when Peggy was 48 years old, she published her memoir Out of This Century, which Prose calls “a remarkable document.” “It is hard to think of an important visual artist from the first half of the twentieth century who does not appear in its pages, in the company of an impressive number of celebrated novelists, memoirists, and poets” (p. 11). Several pages are dedicated to Peggy’s “battle to acquire Brancusi’s Bird in Space.”
In 1947 Peggy returned to Europe, and bought Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni in Venice. Her collection was swiftly included in the 24th Venice Biennale in 1948, one of the most prestigious art shows in the world. Afterwards, the collection traveled to Florence, Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Zurich, before returning to Venice in 1951, and being permanently housed at Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni. Among luminaries spending time with Peggy while in Venice, Prose mentions Surrealist painter Marc Chagall, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and experimental composer John Cage.
In 1969 Guggenheim Museum in New York showed a large part of Peggy’s collection, which remains one of the most important in the world. To learn more about Peggy Guggenheim Collection, visit https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/site/peggy-guggenheim-collection.