Peggy Guggenheim's mad, mad life revisited

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  June 13, 2002 at 12:01 PM
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NEW YORK, June 13 (UPI) -- The contributions of Peggy Guggenheim to the history of modern art is at last fairly assessed in a new even-handed biography by English author-playwright Anton Gill that credits her with promoting leading surrealist and abstract-expressionist artists long before museums even thought of exhibiting their work.

Marguerite "Peggy" Guggenheim (1898-1979) would appear on any short list of the makers and shakers of art in the last half of the 20th century, and her eccentric lifestyle marked by a vagabond existence and sexual liaisons with a number of artists and writers make her more interesting than most on that list.

Gill's book pictures her as an exasperating woman and a bad mother as well as an admirable free spirit, trim of figure but never pretty, who was seemingly unaware of her capacity to shock society at large by her wanton ways. As the song says, Peggy may have been a headache, but she never was a bore.

"Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim" (HarperCollins, 506 pages, $29,95) is the story of an American heiress who was not as rich as contemporaries Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton and not as social because of the American elite's prejudice against Jews. As a result she suffered from an inferiority complex so complicated that she found it difficult to establish emotional relationships with family, friends, and lovers.

Feeling that she was a poor relative of the very rich Guggenheim mining clan, she was embarrassingly miserly -- and probably had to be with an annual income from trust funds that rarely exceeded $45,000. Nevertheless she managed to invest about $250,000 in several hundred works of art by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti and many, many others in the 1930s and 1940s now estimated to be worth $350 million, most of which are on view at her former home in Venice, Palazzo Venier dei Leone.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice is a branch of New York's Guggenheim Museum, founded by Peggy's uncle Solomon Guggenheim who had little to do with his niece and always feared her escapades would blacken the family name. At the end of her life, she realized she could not endow her collection properly or even provide for its security, so she made peace with the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation and signed over her collection, by that time badly in need of expert care and restoration.

Perhaps Tom Messer, a former director of the Guggenheim Museum who got to know her well, is best qualified to sum up her place in modern art history. He described to Gill her "warm and authentic relationship toward art and artists" but said her collecting taste "was never methodic and often not even attentive."

"She was neither a scholar nor an intellectual, although she appreciated and admired the company of both and moved within such circles with ease and tact," he added. "She was nothing if not direct and outspoken, yet her straightforwardness masked greater complexities of which she may not have been aware. Above all, there was something sad, even tragic, about Peggy."

Tragic, yes, but on reading Gill's book you cannot help but believe that she brought most of her disappointments on herself and her two children by her first husband, writer Laurence Vail. Both artist Pegeen Jezebel Vail Rumney and literary dilettante Sinbad Vail were tormented by their mother's unwanted and seemingly unloving intervention in their lives and Pegeen preceded her in death, possibly by suicide.

After an extended trip to Europe with relatives in 1920-21, Peggy -- who had a suffocatingly correct upbringing in the "Our Crowd" Jewish society -- preferred living in England and France, where she became a member of the expatriate group Gertrude Stein called "the lost generation." She returned to the United States for the duration of World War II and opened a gallery in New York called Art of This Century, exhibiting the works of such unknowns as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, and Joseph Cornell.

She married artist Max Ernst, one of the many European artist friends she helped find a wartime refuge in America and even financed their stays in New York, one of her most generous gestures. The marriage had already broken up when she returned to Europe in 1947 and found her ultimate home in Venice, a city whose society never accepted her but where she became a virtual landmark due to her cultural activities.

"It (Venice) allowed her to set up her collection in a permanent home in a country that had been starved of modern art since Mussolini came to power in 1922, sufficiently far away from her uncle's collection for it to have its own identity, and in a place she loved," Gill writes.

"To outsiders and visitors, she became a celebrity in Venice, one of the sights to be seen ... but the outsiders and visitors did jot have to live in relative isolation in a small city ridden with gossip and ruled by a narrow and intrigue-ridden upper-class elite. Nor did they have to endure the long, dank, lonely winters, when all who could left for warmer pleasanter places."

Guggenheim's last years were bereft of fun, games, and lovers. She busied herself revising her autobiography, "Confessions of an Art Addict," with the scantily disguised identities of the characters fully revealed and with updates. The book got indifferent reviews, but she was more concerned by then with bad health as a result of arteriosclerosis.

She died in an isolated death in a Padua hospital, a legend in her own time, and is buried in the garden of Palazzo Venier where daisies (marguerites) are planted in remembrance.

"In the end what is most important is that Peggy understood -- and it does not matter if she understood imperfectly or unconsciously -- that art can challenge you and make you think," writes Gill. "Her pioneering of forms little appreciated at the time she was championing them should be regarded as her major contribution to our cultural history."

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