Something of a legend in her time, heiress Peggy Guggenheim has a striking biography that reads a bit like fiction. The infamous art collector who spent her time living in both New York and Europe got caught up in many of the major events shaping the 20th century: the sinking of the Titanic, two world wars, the reconstruction of Europe.
During this tumultuous period, Guggenheim acquired one of the greatest art collections in the world while supporting the century’s most influential artists.
Part of that tremendous collection is being highlighted for the first time at an exhibition timed to coincide with the 2018 Biennale in her adopted home of Venice, Italy, beginning May 25.
The homage, called 1948: The Biennale of Peggy Guggenheim, is a commemoration of a watershed moment in Guggenheim’s life: her own curation in the Greek Pavilion at the 24th Venice Biennale.
Among the highlights of the 2018 exhibition are the 11 paintings by Jackson Pollock in her private collection, shown together for the first time.
They will be displayed alongside works by American artists Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still as well as European artists like Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart and Jean Helion, whose works have not been seen in Venice since the 1950s. The curation is a new take on the landmark 1948 show and one which takes on a new meaning in the context of history.
Influential in the arts from the start
Born in 1898 into a wealthy immigrant family in New York, Peggy Guggenheim learned the ropes of the social circuit at an early age — and defied many of the social conventions of the era.
In the 2015 documentary Art Addict: Peggy Guggenheim, her biographer and art historians well acquainted with her work suggest that Peggy was a stand-out in society thanks to her unwillingness to conform. Yet she wasn’t the only oddball in her family — the documentary also cites a litany of aunts, uncles and cousins who went mad and committed horrible acts before Peggy was even a teenager.
At 15, Peggy lost her father when the Titanic sank with him on board — while his accompanying mistress survived. Although her father’s fortune paled in comparison to that of his brothers, including Solomon Guggenheim, who later founded the Solomon J. Guggenheim Foundation and the Guggenheim Museum in New York’s Central Park, the 21-year-old Peggy inherited somewhere between $450,000 and $2,5 million, according to different sources. The inheritance allowed her to set off for Paris in 1920.
The heiress lived a rather bohemian lifestyle in the Montparnasse quarter of Paris, alongside many of the artists whose careers she would go on to launch. An active social life saw her befriending the dadaist Marcel Duchamp, who introduced her to the contemporary art world and artists whom he deemed especially talented.
Guggenheim married artist Laurence Vail, with whom she had two children, including Pegeen Vail, who went on to become an artist in her own right.
A center of culture, Paris in the 1920s was the stomping grounds of many artists and writers from around Europe, like Samuel Beckett, as well as American expats.
Guggenheim was the subject of not only gossip and speculation but also numerous photographs, including several by Man Ray, a friend whose works she later bought. Still, by 1938, when she had opened a gallery in London, she had become best known for her eye for unusual contemporary art — at a time when the surrealists and abstract expressionists were being condemned in Germany as “degenerate.”
In London, she showcased the works of these artists. Jean Cocteau was featured at the gallery’s first show; Wassily Kandinsky had his first solo show in England there. The group exhibitions that followed read like a who’s who of the pre-war art world: Henri Laurens, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso.
After putting in a loss during its first year, the gallery was closed and Guggenheim drew up plans to open a museum for contemporary arts in London — a move inspired by her uncle Solomon’s foundation, which had opened two years earlier. She set aside $40,000 for the museum before World War II broke out.
A savior of art and artists
By the time Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, plans for the museum were on hold. Instead, Guggenheim set about to purchase one work of art per day from a list of modern artists that had been drawn up specifically for her. With that $40,000, she invested in 10 paintings by Picasso and 40 paintings by Max Ernst, along with works by Joan Miro, Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali, Paul Klee and Marc Chagall. Guggenheim’s choices at the time reflect the range of her later collection — and proved to be a wise investment, as the artists all went on to earn record sums with their works later in the century.
Before the collection could be displayed in Paris, however, the Nazis invaded and Guggenheim, of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, was forced to flee first to the south of France, from where she returned — along with her newly-acquired collection — to the US. On her way, she was able to support the endangered artist Andre Breton and his wife, along with German artist Max Ernst in obtaining refuge in the US. In doing so, Guggenheim became not only a savior of art but also of the artists themselves.
Guggenheim waited out the war in New York, drawing acclaim for her The Art of This Century gallery, which featured a compendium of big name artists in their prime. She is credited as a patron of the American artist Jackson Pollock and supported the work of Mark Rothko. Likewise, this “model of the modern liberated female,” as the narrator of Art Addict referred to her, featured women’s art in the a show featuring 31 women artists — the first exhibition of its kind, which included work by her daughter, Pegeen Vail, Frida Kahlo and Gypsy Rose Lee.
A return to Europe for good
Once the war was over, however, Guggenheim left New York for Europe. Settling in a palatial villa in Venice, Guggenheim returned to curation; her first show there — at the 1948 Biennale — was a landmark event. Held at the pavilion of Greece, then in the midst of a brutal civil war, Guggenheim’s curation of her collection of non-objective art — a combination of surrealism, dadaism, cubism and abstract expressionism — was unlike anything the Biennale had ever seen.
Visitors either loved it or hated it; one critical review was titled, “Apologies, We Laughed,” while the British Vogue deemed it “the most sensation of all.” Yet, placing the curation in context speaks volumes about the state of contemporary art in 1948. Guggenheim’s show was set up in the midst of an exhibition at the main Pavilion dedicated to several artists, including Otto Dix, who had been labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi Regime and another which showcased Picasso’s works from 1907 to 1942.
With 136 works from her private collection on display, Guggenheim’s exhibition included sculptures by Alberto Giacometti, paintings by Jean Arp and Max Ernst, and mobile-like fixtures from Piet Mondrian. Looking back and viewing the success of the artists Guggenheim displayed in Venice in 1948, one can appreciate the eye she had for discovering exceptional talent and predicting artistic greatness.
1948: The Biennale of Peggy Guggenheim, an homage to the art collector’s own curation, can be seen at the Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy, from May 25 through November 25, 2018.