Mistress of Modernism

Peggy Guggenheim was born on this day in 1898. Guggenheim’s biographers have mined her engaging autobiography, Out of This Century, for its wealth of anecdotes and asides. Even the most casual of these—for example, her observation that Ezra Pound was a good tennis player, “but he crowed like a rooster whenever he made a good stroke”—place her at the twentieth century’s cultural crossroads. Many of her stories have a sexual component, one capitalized upon in even the titles of two recent biographies, Anton Gill’s Art/Lover (2003) and Mary Dearborn’s Mistress of Modernism (2004).

Dearborn’s book begins midstream, with a snapshot of Guggenheim in Portugal in 1941, at a turning point in her adventurous life and in the life of transatlantic culture. The Germans are advancing behind her, threatening to close the door on her escape back to America after two decades in Europe. Her art collection—dozens of modernist works, recently purchased on her “regime to buy one picture a day”—was already on the high seas (barring a rumored encounter with a German U-boat). Assembled about her, or eagerly awaiting her arrival in New York, was her shifting gallery of husbands, lovers, friends, artists, writers, and personalities: Kay Boyle, Laurence Vail, Max Ernst, André Breton, and others. Nazis avoided and the passports in place, Guggenheim and her group flew to America on the most luxurious of the Pan Am Clipper “flying boats”—old-world, white-glove service for the woman who helped create the “heady mix of cross-pollination and creative collaboration out of which came abstract expressionism, and which saw the center of the art world move from Paris to New York City.” Her Art of This Century Gallery opened just a year after her return, showcasing her European works, giving a young Jackson Pollock his first one-man show, and becoming one of the most influential showplaces of midcentury modernism.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.