The life, loves and obsessions of Peggy Guggenheim

The life, loves and obsessions of Peggy Guggenheim

New biographies in print and on screen attempt to deliver a more vivid picture of one of the 20th century’s most important art collectors, as Leo Robson reports

The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, in Venice, serves as a living monument to long-time occupant Peggy Guggenheim, whose immaculate collection of modern painting and sculpture it was bought, in 1949, to house. At the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Pollock shares space with Picasso, Dalí with Cornell, Braque with Ernst, and so on.

The woman who bought and, more importantly, retained this work did so in a life divided between New York, where she was born in 1898, and Europe, and characterized by a mix of heavenly highs and wretched lows. It is a life that has been recorded in a succession of stout, well-researched biographies, as well as memoirs and novels by friends, acquaintances, ex-friends, ex-husbands and, in the case of Jimmy Ernst, an ex-stepson.

For the latest and shortest biography, Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern, the novelist Francine Prose has gone through the previous ones and unearthed no shortage of conflicting testimony. Her notes list around 50 relevant books — a hefty number for a subject of little interest to academics — and although she expresses a desire to give Peggy ‘the last word’, and quotes her whenever she can, she has learned enough from other sources to question her subject’s account of things.

Peggy’s ‘urge to unnerve’ was what enabled her to exhibit art ‘that was truly new and disturbing

Take Peggy’s story about an encounter with gangsters in a bar, which Prose finds suspiciously similar to an incident in Jane Bowles’s novel Two Serious Ladies. The evidence mounts: Jane Bowles was ‘a friend of Peggy’s’; Two Serious Ladies was published about a year before Peggy told the story as her own; and Peggy ‘read avidly’. It is typical of Prose that she identifies a source of strength in what might simply be considered a vice: ‘for better and worse, her tendency to mythologise herself and the artists she represented helped shape the contemporary art world’.

Peggy herself published three memoirs, all of them variations of a book known in its first and third editions as Out of This Century, a play on Art of This Century, the name of the West 57th Street gallery she ran from 1942 until 1947. The manuscript was originally called ‘Five Husbands and Some Other Men’ — in fact, she only married twice — and,although the eventual title was more sober, the book itself was sufficiently strident and eccentric to earn the nickname ‘Out of Her Head’.

Prose starts her book with an account of the ongoing gestation of the memoir, noting that in the generally ‘bowdlerized’ second edition, retitled Confessions of an Art Addict, Peggy retained details that she might have chosen to excise. For example, the memory of buying a painting from Fernand Léger on the day that Hitler invaded Norway.

But even here, Prose argues that Peggy’s ‘urge to unnerve’ was what enabled her to exhibit art ‘that was truly new and disturbing’. In other words, the woman who shocked Léger (‘He never got over the fact that I should be buying paintings on such a day’) could not be separated from the woman who left with a painting by Léger.

In a brief book, Prose can explore ideas beyond the reach of a documentary, even one as hardworking as Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, which was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival and is released in cinemas in December. Where Prose can pass judgment on testimonies, giving or withholding a stamp, Immordino Vreeland is at the mercy of her cast of starry talking heads — among them Larry Gagosian, John Richardson, Edmund White, Calvin Tomkins and Robert De Niro — who, being human, are no less likely to mythologise than the subject they have been invited to demythologise.

The official trailer for Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

But the documentary delivers a more vivid picture than the book, because the shape and colour of those talking heads tell a story in themselves, and because when talking heads run the show, extraordinary stories of the unverifiable-but-not-impossible kind are able to slip through the cracks. Plus we get Peggy live, a presence even livelier than Peggy on the page, and no less straight-talking. Of her first marriage, to the writer Laurence Vail, she explains: ‘I was a virgin and I wanted to rid myself of my virginity.’

Both the book and the documentary take a chronological approach that occasionally stops to consider a theme. Prose has a chapter called ‘Her Money’, about Peggy’s lurches between stinginess and generosity, and all the ways in which money dictated her relationships, followed by one called ‘Her Nose’. (She found the correction procedure too painful and called it off halfway through.)

It isn’t only the book’s publishing circumstances, as part of Yale’s series of Jewish Lives, that prompts Prose to note that vast wealth and ugly noses are ‘the shorthand with which bigots signify Jews and Jewish identity’. Any account of Peggy’s life would need to acknowledge the mistrust and suspicion she attracted on account of her racial background, apart from the particular connotations of her own surname, indistinguishable to some ears from ‘Rich Jew’. (In the documentary, Nicky Haslam says that Peggy was ‘one of the poor Guggenheims’, while admitting that this is a relative term.)

In the chapter on money, Prose acknowledges the relevance of one cliché of Jewishness, namely neurosis. Peggy shared with her grandmother and mother, along with several other relatives, an obsession with germs. The documentary recalls one aunt who said everything three times, another who communicated entirely through song. (One rumour, alluded to in the documentary but omitted from the biography, says that her sister threw her two children from a roof to prevent them being taken by her husband.)

Peggy was raised mainly by nannies and forbidden to invite friends to the house, although in the documentary she generously acknowledges that ‘there weren’t any good mothers in those days’. It was against this family background that she grew up to be insecure, impatient, acquisitive, manipulative, promiscuous, wild.

Peggy and her contemporaries waged a war against propriety and social convention

Even in old age, Prose writes, Peggy showed ‘the self-consciousness of a nervous girl’. But as well as being the story of an heiress who never quite managed to escape her wealthy, troubled family, this is also the story of a female connoisseur struggling to emerge from the shadow of male instructors — many of them stand-ins for her beloved father, who died on the Titanic — and to trust her own taste, which to a large extent posterity shares.

In her twenties, uneducated but curious, she read the art criticism of Bernard Berenson. Later her mentors included Marcel Duchamp and her unloving second husband Max Ernst. ‘She lived in an era and a milieu in which women needed men to explain the world to them, to decide what was important,’ Prose writes.

Peggy and her contemporaries waged a war against propriety and social convention, but never came close to overturning the established construction of gender roles. Promiscuity was within reach for women of her generation, but not equality. The works of surrealism she collected sought to replace rationalism with dream-logic, to dissolve cause and effect, to shake the foundations of civilised society. But the surrealists themselves kept faith with the idea that a woman looked after the house and raised children.

Perhaps sexual politics, and not just aesthetic conservatism, played a role in the Louvre’s refusal when Peggy, who was living in Paris as the Nazis advanced, asked to have her collection sheltered in its rural hiding place. ‘What they considered not worth saving,’ Peggy recalled, ‘were a Kandinsky, several Klees and Picabias, a Cubist Braque, a Gris, a Léger… a “De Stijl” Mondrian’ — and work by Ernst, Miró, Dalí, Magritte and de Chirico. France’s loss was America’s gain, at least in the short term, when Peggy took the collection home, and started the Art of This Century gallery.

Peggy Guggenheim and Jackson Pollock in front of Jackson Pollock’s Mural, 1943 © Foto George Kargar for Peggy & Pollock © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS, London 2015. © David Hare

Not long into her stint as a New York gallerist, she encountered the greatest American painter of her day, the artist with whom she remains most closely associated: Jackson Pollock. In Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, John Richardson calls Peggy ‘the kind of collector who had never existed before’. He is referring to her courage, her gender and the depth of her involvement. Peggy gave Pollock four solo shows at Art of This Century. (As usual, she was encouraged in her appreciation by a male mentor, Piet Mondrian.)

But she also proved her willingness to be a patron as much as a curator, collector and gallerist. At a time when Pollock, having been fired from a government job painting canvases, was working as a handyman and lift operator, Peggy paid him $150 a month to do nothing but paint. It was not a selfless arrangement: she wanted to fill her gallery with his paintings, and the money she gave him would be deducted from his sales (minus her dealer’s fee).

It was a risk and a show of faith — she took a nervous, unknown painter, and freed him to paint — forced him to paint, essentially. In doing so, she helped to direct the course of American painting — maybe even the history of modern art, according to Prose, who emphasises the path-breaking Pollock mural that Peggy commissioned for the hallway of her East 61st Street apartment. (Typically, Peggy liked to say that he had done it in three hours.)

Peggy exerted an even stronger influence on Pollock’s development and reputation than his great booster, the critic Clement Greenberg, and visitors to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection are paying tribute not only to what she bought and kept but what she helped to create in the first place.

Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern by Francine Prose is published by Yale University Press at £16.99. Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is released in the UK on 11 December. Main image at top: Peggy Guggenheim with her Lhasa Apso terriers next to one of the two stone-horses from Corfù on the terrace of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni; Venice, late 1960s © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, photo Archivio CameraphotoEpoche, gift Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia, 2005.


This article appears in the November/December 2015 issue of Christie’s magazine. Subscribe here. For more features, interviews and videos, visit Christie’s Daily