“My motto was ‘Buy a picture a day’ and I lived up to it.”
Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim (1898 – 1979) inherited a family fortune from her father and grandfather, who in the late 19th century made their money from mining metals, especially silver, copper and lead. Her mother’s family, the Seligmans were rich too, from a long line of bankers. She grew up in Manhattan. In April 1912, her father died heroically on the SS Titanic.
In 1921, she traveled to Europe, thanks to her wealthy husband. In Paris, Guggenheim found herself at the heart the American ex-patriot society. She hung out with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp.
Guggenheim liked sex a lot, but she really thought modern art was sexy. She eventually complained that she was too old for sex, yet was never too old for modern art. Guggenheim:
”It’s horrible to get old. It’s one of the worst things that can happen to you.”
Yet, it was Guggenheim’s collection of 20th century art, housed today in her palazzo in Venice, that fulfilled the most desperate wish of this not-so-devastatingly-attractive woman to stand out in the world.
As for the sex, Guggenheim wrote:
”I think I was sort of a nymphomaniac.”
Her many love affairs included playwright Samuel Beckett, who spent four days in bed with her, only getting up to open the door to get a delivered meal. Guggenheim had a need for passion and a need for power, determined to take charge of her own life, with sex serving as a multipurpose tool.
She became close friends with lesbian writer Natalie Barney and her lover artist Romaine Brooks. She was a regular at Barney’s stylish salon. She met lesbian Djuna Barnes during this time, becoming her friend and patron. Barnes wrote her novel Nightwood (1936) while staying an English country house that Guggenheim rented for two summers.
Guggenheim urged American anarchist Emma Goldman to write a memoir and helped to secure funds for her to live and work in Saint-Tropez, while working on her two-volume Living My Life (1936).
In 1938, she opened a gallery in London, called Guggenheim Jeune. At 39-years-old, she had started a career which would significantly affect the post-war art world. Beckett urged her to dedicate herself to Contemporary Art because it was ”a living thing”. Duchamp introduced her to his artist friends. The first show Guggenheim presented were drawings by Jean Cocteau, and the second was the first one-man show of works by Vasily Kandinsky.
In 1939, she busily acquired works for her own collection. Some of the masterpieces she purchased were paintings by Georges Braque and Salvador Dalí. She bought Fernand Léger‘s Men In The City. She also bedded him. Guggenheim:
”The awful thing is that I thought if I had an affair with him, the art would be cheaper.”
She purchased the Léger on the day that Adolf Hitler invaded Norway. She had barely registered that there was a war going on. Guggenheim had plans to open a gallery in Paris. The day after the Nazis invaded Denmark, Guggenheim rented an enormous apartment and had the place repainted for the display of her art collection before, at last, she admitted defeat, just weeks before France did the same. A dangerous time for a woman with a prominent Jewish name.
Guggenheim was upset the French refused to protect her art. Léger advised her to ask the Louvre for storage space, but the museum found her entire collection not worth saving. Guggenheim was livid:
“A Kandinsky, several Klees and Picabias, a Cubist Braque, a Gris, a Léger,” Guggenheim fumed, along with Surrealist paintings by Miró, Max Ernst, Chirico, Tanguy, Dali, Magritte: all this had to find refuge in a friend’s barn in the Vichy countryside.”
She stayed in Paris, enjoying time with a new lover, who was prevented from leaving Paris because his wife was too ill to be moved. As the bombing reached the factories in the outskirts of the city, and trains filled with refugees poured into the city, Guggenheim sat in cafés and drank champagne. In her memoir she writes:
“I can’t imagine why I didn’t go to the aid of all those unfortunate people. But I just didn’t.”
She dutifully recorded her escape from Paris to the South of France and then on to Lisbon, leaving a trail of rumpled beds.
At 42 years-old, Guggenheim had been living abroad for 20 years, and in July 1941 she returned to New York City with her chaotically extended family that she had acquired: her teenage children Sindbad and Pegeen, her former husband Laurence Vail and his second wife Kay Boyle and their children, plus, artist Max Ernst, who became her second husband a few months later. Guggenheim:
“Max, because he is so beautiful, because he is such a good painter and because he is so famous.”
In October 1942, Guggenheim opened her gallery “Art Of This Century”, which became the place to see contemporary art in New York City. She showed her collection of Cubist, Abstract and Surrealist Art. She also exhibited work by unknown young Americans such as Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Robert de Niro Sr, Joseph Cornell, Louise Nevelson, William de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, who was given his first show by Guggenheim. She promoted Pollock and sold his paintings. She commissioned his largest painting, MURAL, which she later gave to the University of Iowa.
After World War II, Guggenheim returned to Europe, where her collection was shown for the first time at the 1948 Venice Biennale. Pollock, and Rothko were exhibited for the first time in Europe.
She bought Palazzo Venier Dei Leoni in the Dorsoduro, my favorite neighborhood in Venice. She opened her house and her collection to the public in the summer months. During her 30 years in Venice, she continued to collect works of art and to support artists. In 1962, she was made an Honorary Citizen of Venice.
In 1969, her uncle’s Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan invited her to show her own collection there.
Guggenheim was calmer and quieter in her last years in Venice; she liked to say that floating in a gondola was the nicest thing in her life since she gave up sex. She had the last privately-owned gondola in Venice, and also, in the city that gave the world the word “ghetto”, one of the last privately-owned palazzi along the Grand Canal. She learned all the city’s churches and its frescoes, its hundreds of canals, and the names of its four hundred bridges. Guggenheim:
“You fall in love with the city itself. There is nothing left over in your heart for anyone else.”
In 1976, she donated the palazzo and her works of art to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.
Guggenheim left this world in 1979, at 81 years old. Her ashes are placed in a corner of the garden of her palazzo next to the ashes of her beloved dogs. I visited her there in 1991; she looked fabulous.
Guggenheim claimed that she “slept with 1,000 men”, most of them artists and writers, and in return, many artists and writers claimed to have affairs with her. But, not me; although, I have been in her house.
When she was asked in those late years to name her greatest achievement, Guggenheim answered that the first was Pollock and the second was her art collection. All of her hundreds of lovers, she never had Pollock, who said:
“… you’d have to put a towel over Peggy’s head to fuck her.”
Guggenheim is portrayed by Amy Madigan in the movie Pollock (2000), directed by and starring Ed Harris.
Check out the documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (2015) by Lisa Immordino Vreeland and her final memoir Out Of This Century (1979), with a forward by Gore Vidal. It is stuffed with sexual scenes involving her many lovers, including a hairdresser, a ski instructor and several other gay men whom she took on as a challenge. The New York Times review Out Of This Century said: “It is worthy of tabloid headlines and recounted in tabloid prose“. The Chicago Tribune, scandalized by the “nymphomaniacal revelations”, suggested a more accurate title would be “Out Of My Head”.