The famously thorny art patron peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) met Pablo Picasso just once, at his Paris studio in 1940. She was in the midst of a buying spree, amassing the core of her groundbreaking modern art collection at a time when many of Europe's best painters were in desperate need of cash as they fled the battlegrounds of World War II. Picasso, as Guggenheim's biographer, Anton Gill, reports, was not impressed by this brazen woman with an open checkbook. At first ignoring her as he talked to a group of admiring visitors, he finally paused long enough to address her with undisguised contempt: "Madame, you will find the lingerie department on the second floor."
Today there are several Picassos in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which still resides in her former home on the Grand Canal in Venice. More than twenty years after Guggenheim's death, the collection remains one of the world's best retrospectives from the early years of the modern era. Pollock, Braque, Magritte, Chagall, de Kooning, Rothko: They and many more are represented in the collection, worth an estimated $350 million. Guggenheim, an heiress from the "poor" branch of the family tree, paid about $250,000 for the paintings.
In her time, Guggenheim was as much a celebrity as the artists she collected. An independent woman of means, she was a notorious sexual predator with many publicized affairs. Those closest to Guggenheim knew her to be both stingy and extravagant. She could infuriate her friends and family by arguing over a small discrepancy in a café bill, yet she could also be exceedingly generous when one of them needed her help. She financially supported Jackson Pollock as he searchedfor the unique style that would make him famous; she agreed to an ill-fated marriage of convenience with Max Ernst to help him settle in America at wartime; and she provided the early feminist writer Djuna Barnes a decades-long allowance, long after the two women dissolved their friendship. She was among the first patrons to champion the moderns, at her short-lived London gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, and her celebrated New York space of the 1940s, Art of This Century, and she was the first to mount an all-female exhibition in America.
The triumphs of Guggenheim's life were sometimes overshadowed by personal tragedy. Her father was killed when the Titanic went down in 1912; Guggenheim's own daughter died of an apparent suicide; and the love of the collector's life, the unfulfilled writer John Holms, died unexpectedly when he had an alcohol-related heart attack while under anesthesia for a routine operation. Gill looks beyond the caricature of Guggenheim as a willful bohemian businesswoman with a bulbous nose and a litter of unkempt lapdogs. He treats her as a cultural giant and, through the scope of her life, documents the last great gasp of European-style cosmopolitanism before the deluge of American pop. As an expatriate in London, Paris and later Venice, Guggenheim cultivated a wide circle of European friends. She had a fling with Samuel Beckett, she befriended Paul and Jane Bowles and she was close with the painter and conceptualist Marcel Duchamp, who helped shape her collection. Meanwhile, during the war years in her native New York, her circle included Gypsy Rose Lee, the composer John Cage and the author William Saroyan. Despite her New York connection, Guggenheim moved back to Europe in 1947, where she would remain for the rest of her life. So European was Guggenheim's focus, especially in her later years, that when Andy Warhol enthused about meeting her at a party in 1969, she turned to her host and asked, "Who is that man?"
Gill's entertaining account is marked by scrupulous attention to detail. Pages are devoted to Guggenheim's meandering travels and periods of idleness, as well as to the longstanding rumors and innuendo that affected his subject's reputation. Contrary to popular belief in the art world, for instance, Gill claims Guggenheim never had an amorous relationship with Pollock. (Even if they did once stumble into bed, he writes wickedly, "he would certainly have been too drunk to do more than urinate.") The author writes that Guggenheim, often portrayed as a "proto-feminist" with a notorious wild streak, actually grew to be a bit old-fashioned. She never quite knew what to make of the hippie era, and her granddaughters were scolded for wearing jeans.
In the end, it was Guggenheim's eye for talent, not her libido or legendary friendships, that made her famous. "What is most important is that Peggy understood, and it does not matter if she understood it imperfectly or unconsciously, that art can challenge you and make you think," Gill writes. Toward the end of her life, she took to calling her paintings her "children." While this kind of attachment to material possessions may seem heartbreaking, it was, nonetheless, precisely characteristic. Guggenheim's fierce, motherly loyalty to the work of the moderns introduced a new kind of advocacy to the art world. With Peggy Guggenheim, the role of the collector eventually took on its own kind of artistry.
Gill worked for the English Stage Company, the Arts Council of Great Britain, and the BBC before becoming a writer nearly 20 years ago, and has written some 20 books, mainly in the field of contemporary history. He draws on material from a range of sources, including public and private archives and collections, published and unpublished works, letters, diaries, interviews, and conversations in this "tell-all" biography of the millionairess art collector, Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979)<-->an effort which was supported by the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Illustrated with b&w photographs. This text will appeal to the reader with an interest in the 20th century art world and art patronage. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
An inclusive account of the eventful life led by a driving influence in the world of modern art, by British playwright and historian Gill (An Honourable Defeat, 1994, etc.). Born Marguerite, daughter of Benjamin and niece of the more famous Solomon R., Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) gained her first exposure to the world of the avant-garde as an unpaid clerk in her cousin Harold Loeb's Sunwise Turn Bookshop in New York City. The 22-year-old took immediately to intellectual and artistic society; collagist and sculptor Laurence Vail, whom she married in 1922, was only one of the many artists in her collection of lovers. She blamed her promiscuity on Benjamin's 1912 death aboard the Titanic, which left her "searching for a father," but to his credit Gill refuses to take such remarks at face value. Instead, he weighs them against other testimony, noting that this "complex, anarchic, remarkable woman" was "not particularly introspective." In Paris, Peggy soon found herself at the center of bohemian and expatriate society, forming durable friendships/love affairs with Samuel Beckett, Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brancusi, and other notable avant-gardists. Moving on to London, she established Guggenheim Jeune in 1938, a gallery focused on contemporary art. On the eve of WWII, she accelerated her purchases, buying "a picture a day" and amassing one of the period's most extensive private collections of modern art. Fleeing to New York with German surrealist (and future husband) Max Ernst, Peggy opened Art of This Century, which featured exhibitions by such then-unknowns as Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. She returned in 1948 to her beloved Venice; her 18th-century palazzo becamethe permanent site of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection upon her death. Gill makes a persuasive case for Guggenheim as a uniquely individual patron who single-handedly and single-mindedly helped determine art history's course. Serious but plenty juicy: a treat for both aficionados of modern art and readers of celebrity bios. (24 pages b&w photos, not seen)