Peggy Guggenheim: One package: her achievement with art and the “colourful” private life

Peggy Guggenheim

Marguerite (Peggy) Guggenheim (b. Philadelphia, 1898, d. Padua, 1979, 81)

Peggy Guggenheim, c.1930, Paris, photograph Rogi André

Henri Matisse, View of Notre Dame, Paris, quai Saint Michel, spring 1914. A front rank artist missing from her collection.


One package: her achievement with art and the “colourful” private life


Unlikely confluence of odd circumstances. The insecure lady from a rich NY family (but she is not wealthy) meets in Europe the Surrealist phase of the ongoing modern art revolution… meets WW2… meets NY in a victorious post war America… meets postwar Venice.

But after half a life in indulgent passivity she takes her breaks, makes it work.

Her achievement in presciently promoting across the tracks modern art (and as a woman) outweighs the gossip.

       Before 1937..  


                   and after…                                                             


Summary: a doer who capitalised on her odd assignation with history.

  • Peggy Guggenheim comes as one package. We cannot have one without the other.
  • Her insecurity propelled impulsion to “shock” contributed to, drove her signature achievements in promoting then unfashionable contemporary art?
  • But it gave us too her “colourful” private life – a well-publicised sex-life, her poor judgement in men, and her dogs – which perhaps clouds full appreciation of her important achievement in art?
  • Her insecurity was reinforced by a demanding family context, which she never escaped: the early loss of her father, a distant mother, then losing both sisters as adults. This probably then contributed to her dysfunctional selection of men, which then undermined efforts to build her own family, but to which she was temperamentally unsuited anyway?
  • But her pathbreaking career appetite for “shocking” art (and the dogs!) helped compensate for the family trouble.
  • 1937 was her Rubicon year, when her mother died and left her money, a second inheritance. Not a fortune but enough to allow her to take the initiative and after half a life of cruising, to do something, and art it was. Her subsequent achievement in promoting then unpopular contemporary art was substantial:
    • She opened and ran two important galleries,
    • She capitalised on unexpected opportunities, especially the implications of WW2: the outbreak of war, then the displacement of European ”intellectual art capital” to New York.
    • Presciently, she collected and promoted then unfashionable contemporary art which has since rocketed in reputation.
    • She was hands on and effective, yes she took advice (mostly male but they were the main protagonists), but took good advice and cleverly, like her selection jury at Art of This Century (AOTC) Gallery.
    • And, despite her Guggenheim pedigree, she built her businesses without vast funds.
    • Also, to her credit, and art’s, her passion for art was not just about money? Thus she was generous to artists and the art world. And this magnanimity (which may be less likely in a man?) helped art, like in her enlightened timely support of Pollock, like gifting his famous Mural (1943-44) to the University of Iowa.
    • And she did it all as a woman, and Jewish to boot.
  • An intriguing counter-factual is that but for Peggy Guggenheim, and WW2, we would have heard much less of Jackson Pollock? Peggy Guggenheim’s support was meaningful and at a crucial time, allowing him money and space to paint the big boys.
  • And WW2 fortuitously dumped Peggy Guggenheim and a flock of front rank European modern artists in New York at precisely the right time! And many of these artists were in-vogue Surrealists to boot, the major modern art school which above all was influencing Pollock and the other emerging Abstract Expressionists, per contra the Cubists.
  • Thus did Pollock’s art then take off in the main cultural city of the main victor nation of the war, a large wealthy country then riding a wave of patriotic / nationalistic sentiment, in turn fanned by Life magazine’s promotion, and by highbrow art criticism.
  • How much did she know of art? And wasn’t she just relying on (male) advice? Thus John Richardson sounds the patronising old fogey in the film, downplaying her contribution. “She was just like a little girl”. But at least, as Lee Krasner said: “SHE DID IT… no matter what her motivations were, she did it.” And perhaps more for example than Mr Richardson, living off biographies of Picasso?


Why bother Peggy Guggenheim?

She is again topical, thanks to a new (documentary) film, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, and book, Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern, by Francine Prose.

She leaves a rare story, a woman making a special impact in the art world.

And she leaves questions without clear answers, with different answers depending on the interrogator and their context.


Family: a troubled context

Peggy Guggenheim’s personality is an important part of the story. She was an insecure, unsure person, reinforced by a difficult childhood, losing her rich father Benjamin in 1912 (famously on the Titanic, but only after missing an earlier boat! Then on the night refusing assistance to leave the ship!?) when she was only 13, and without an empathetic mother (Florette Seligman, from a banking family, who died 1937). Both her parents were Jewish of Ashkenazi descent. A number of her mother’s relatives were eccentric.

Then later sadly she failed to build her own family, partly because of her poor judgement in men. In 1922, aged only 23, she married in haste soon after arriving in Paris in 1921 to the alluring writer and artist Laurance Vail (1891-1968), her “King of Bohemia” (and“The first man I knew who never wore a hat..”), whom she had met in New York. They had two children but a troubled relationship. He was obviously good company but liked a drink, and patronised and physically abused her. So they divorced 1928, after 7 years, but to their credit apparently remained cordial thereafter. Thus in 1942 she showed his art in New York.

In 1928 she met and fell for another (putative) writer, Englishman John Ferrar Holms, apparently the “love of her life” but who was no better, another drinker, belittler and abuser. Also, as was the custom, he refused to divorce his wife, and (cf the new film) she apparently had 7 (seven?!) abortions, mostly by him. For a while they lived together in England in Hayford Hall (“Hangover Hall”!) till he died unexpectedly in 1934 from complications after an accident, aged only 37. Thereafter she lived with English publisher and infatuated Leftist, “Communist” Douglas Garman, till that failed in 1937 when he departed for another lady.

She had two sisters, and was close to both as children (partly because their parents failed them?) but she then lost both. Benita died in childbirth, and Hazel lost control, lost her kids off a hotel roof in Paris, maybe to spite her husband? Then she “lost” her own children, if partly through own neglect? Her son Sindbad went off with his father, and they never related well? And her daughter Pegeen had “problems”, never settled, married poorly and committed suicide in Paris at 42 (c1967), after a tentative art career.

A sad and sorry tale.

Being Jewish she also attracted her share of anti-Semitism.

But offsetting, compensating for, this family-reinforced insecurity, her sustained unhappy family circumstances, were her active passion for art in particular, her sex life (launched in decadent 1920s Paris), a few friends (mainly other women? And the gay writer Edmund White?), and her dogs.

Yes she was from a famous and wealthy American family, the Guggenheims, but she was not rich, comfortable, but not rich. Aged 21 (1919) she inherited ($450k) from her father’s estate, and about the same again 1937, from her mother.


Her private life: “colourful”

Her “colourful” private life, especially her busy sex life, has in some way clouded a full and proper appreciation of her achievements in promoting unpopular contemporary art?

And in line with her core life theme of The Shock she was not backward in cloaking the details, so her publication in 1946 of her memoir “Out of the Century” deliberately contributed to popular comprehension of her private life, though some critics do accord this book some literary merit.

Does it matter? How relevant is it to her art?

Not a lot? Although perhaps the attention her private life attracted may then have strayed to the art she saluted? Maybe even this was a rational business-minded part of her motives for not discouraging controversy?


Peggy and art? Well she did it!

Did she really know what she was about with modern art? Or was mainly an expression of her insecurity? Especially in pursuing art “shocking” contemporary art. So was she again just seeking to “shock” the establishment? And, in doing so, relying mainly on a bevy of male advisors.

Or was she bright and perceptive enough to develop her own meaningful views?

In the new film the somewhat pompous John Richardson (Englishman, Picasso’s major biographer) makes a couple of patronising remarks, like (paraphrasing), oh she did well for someone who knew little about it. And, oh she was just being a little girl again.

Well wherever the truth lies the facts are (as Lee Krasner declared) she did it, she collected well and ran a successful business. While the uncharitable might say Mr Richardson just fed off Picasso’s life and work. Thus whatever the motives her keen and sustained activity in the field had an unexpectedly constructive outcome, for most concerned!

In her life – amid an historically pivotal art revolution and an unexpected world war – she was presented with extraordinary circumstances, and took active advantage of them. She is another example of right place, right time.

Important too is that end of the day, art and the artists were basically more important to her than just the money. Thus she made a point of helping artists (famously Mr Pollock) and she also later gave away a lot of art, especially like Pollock’s famous six metre long Mural (1943/44), the painting which electrified the important supportive critic Clement Greenberg. Consequently too “she deplored the commodification of art” (F. Raphael, WSJ 30th October 2015).

Maybe this constructive wider agenda for her art activities was a female thing? There were few other women in the art game? But some, like Gertrude Stein in Paris, who she met, and also (outside the scope of the film) especially Betty Parsons in New York, who became main Abstract Expressionist gallery promoter after Peggy Guggenheim headed to Venice in 1947.


Paris: the libertine but enlightening life

Her introduction to the contemporary cultural world in New York came via her cousin Harold Loeb through whom she worked in a bookshop on 44th focussing on modern writers. Also she was first exposed to new art through meeting Alfred Steiglitz at his 291 Gallery on 5th Avenue, where she saw works by no less than Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse. She also met Georgia O’Keefe. And writer Laurance Vail.

She arrived Paris 1921 where she relished the freewheeling “decadent” postwar life in the art capital. And inevitably in Paris she soon met artists. And plenty, like Man Ray (another American expat), and especially the important Marcel Duchamp who in time became a key advisor, “teacher”, and who would later join her in New York. And Gertrude Stein. And she met writers, like Pound, Joyce, and later Beckett (on Boxing Day 1938).


London (& Paris), to the war: starts her own business

1937 changed her life, when her de facto relationship with Douglas Garman broke up, and her mother died and left her around US$450k, her second tranche of inheritance. Encouraged by the important Surrealist exhibition in London 1936, and specifically by friend Peggy Waldheim , she decided to capitalise on her cumulative experience in Paris and use her new funds to open an art gallery in London.

Visits to the 1937 Paris Exposition, where Picasso’s Guernica was showing, had furthered her education. Also, in particular, Samuel Beckett (8 years younger), during their brief intense affair in Paris at end 1938 apparently urged her to actively support modern art. Finally it probably helped that the new gallery irritated her uncle in New York.

So, with some expert counsel from Duchamp, the Guggenheim Jeune Gallery opened at 33 Cork St, in London’s West End from January 1938 and without a lot of money. Artists she showed included Cocteau (her first show, curated by Duchamp), Yves Tanguy (who was “adorable”) and the ambitious Kandinsky (her second show), who asked quietly if her (rich) uncle (Solomon) might like to buy one of his paintings. His advisor “Baroness” Hilla Rebay scoffed at the idea and panned her, but Peggy replied courteously, along the lines “I know what I’m doing”. And she did.

After a brace of important exhibitions she decided to close the gallery in 1939 because it was losing money, and instead conceived the idea of a contemporary art museum in London, probably influenced by her uncle Solomon launching his New York foundation in 1937, and his Museum of Non-objective Painting in 1939. She used Englishman Herbert Read, then editing Burlington Magazine, as her chief advisor (though his eye for modern art was opaque. He spotted David Bomberg early but did not follow up), and also Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg (artist Theo’s wife). They carefully crafted a shopping list of artists and she headed to Paris in mid1939 (?!) as war loomed, where famously she vacuumed up a trove of modern art treasures, taking advantage of the hostilities, and also of the growing antagonism towards the Jews (ie including many artists and also dealers), and apparently spending only about $40,000.

At bargain prices in Paris, starting with Jean Arp’s “Head and Shell”, she bought works off and / or by Leger, Ernst, Miró, Picabia, Braque, Brancusi (sex didn’t lower the price!), Giacommeti, Magritte, Klee, Dali, and Picasso? Who was aware and wary of her brash mission. “Madame, lingerie is on second floor,” he said when she called.

But a sadness and distaste overshadows in these transactions too, her taking financial advantage of the predicament of the authors of these works?

As the war approached the Louvre refused to store the new collection – not worth it! – so she hurriedly arranged to ship the works to New York as “household goods”, apparently again using sex to grease the wheels. She also helped some artists escape, like Max Ernst, Andre Breton etc, via Varian Fry and his network out of Marseilles, herself departing July 1941 by plane from Lisbon.


New York: resumes her art business in the new global art capital, fortuitously then enriched by refugee European artists

Guggenheim’s timing, arriving back in New York Oct 1941, was again serendipitously apt, for she was joined by a swag of front rank European artists, especially Surrealists, who were also refugees from WW2 in Europe, and many of whom she knew well from Paris in the 1920s.

She “[bullied].. the broke and miserable”, and attractive, Max Ernst into marriage December 1941, but her money helped him, and he took off before long for a young beauty, though they did not divorce till 1946.

More important she resumed her art promotion career and opened the pioneering Art of This Century (AOTC) Gallery, Oct 1942 on West 57th, again taking (male) advice, and despite active opposition from uncle Solomon’s boisterous spiteful aide, the “Baroness”, who later during the war came unstuck when she picked another fight and was caught stockpiling rationed food! Important was the American art expert Howard Putzel (1898-1945) who had lived in Paris 1938-40 where he met and helped Peggy, especially with her art purchase campaign there. He returned New York summer 1940 then reacquainted with Peggy when she returned too. Artists helped too, especially again the legendary Marcel Duchamp (eg arguably too the founding inspiration of Pop Art), and others, eg on her selection jury at AOTC Gallery.

To help market the new art architect Fred Kiesler designed her eye-catching gallery, emphatically, purposely, seeking a “radical presentation of art”.

The gallery became an important and influential backer of new art. She showed works by many leading contemporary European artists, across most major movements (except the Fauves and Expressionists?), and also by women (“Exhibition by 31 Women” in Jan. 1943), but then – apparently encouraged by Howard Putzel, and an argument with (the argumentative) André Breton – she turned to showing unknown young American painters, like Robert Motherwell (“intellectual.. lots of lectures”), William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, Janet Sobel (who influenced Pollock?), David Hare, Hans Hoffman, Clyfford Styl, Robert de Niro Sr, and of course Jackson Pollock, ie emphasizing the merging Abstract Expressionist (AE) school. These American painters loosely associated as the Uptown Group, referring to her gallery’s location.

Surrealism was an important influence on the young American AE painters and the AOTC Gallery – and the arrival in New York of major European Surrealists like Dali, Ernst and Andre Masson – much facilitated this transmission.

And thus it was another famous refugee painter Piet Mondrian, also on her staff, who in early 1943 famously backed Jackson Pollock (then only 31) for her spring 1943 show, after Peggy was unsure!

Pretty awful, isn’t it? That’s not painting, is it?” she said.

“I’m trying to understand what’s happening here. I think this is the most interesting work I’ve seen so far in America. . . . You must watch this man“, replied Mondrian after some deliberation.

But Duchamp then agreed, and the rest is history. So in Nov. 1943 she then mounted Pollock’s first solo show, which was also her first solo show for an American painter.

Backing Pollock, his “wild and frightening” painting, was important, for both of them, and even if she took advice she did it, and stuck to it!

It was very important for Pollock, the stipend, her commissioning the big mural for her apartment, a signature Pollock work, and then especially assisting him buying and moving (late 1945) to the farm house on Long Island with wife, painter Lee Krasner. Thus she gave Pollock the space and opportunity to create many of his famous large later works, like Full Fathom Five (1947. 129.2 x 76.5 cm), Number 5 (1948, 2.44 m x 1.22 m), Number 19 (1948, 78.4 x 58.1 cm), No 1 (Lavender Mist) (1950, 221 x 300 cm), No 31 (1950, 270 x 531cm), and Blue Poles (1952, 4.87 x 2.1 m)

For which help it seems the troubled Pollock was not all that grateful?


We are allowed two paintings from the Collection:


Vasily Kandinsky, Empor (Upward), Oct. 1929 (?!), oil on cardboard,70 x 49 cm. This is an unusual Kandinsky less cluttered, less peppered by geometric confetti, and offering a figurative clue.            


Jean Metszinger, Au Vélodrome, 1912, oil, sand and collage on canvas, 130.4 × 97.1 cm. Samuel Beckett cycled and perhaps she filed this during their Paris sojourn.

And two more, because some rules can stand breaking:


Giorgio de Chirico, The Gentle Afternoon (Le Doux Après-midi), 1916, Oil on canvas, 65.3 x 58.3 cm. A good example from de Chirico’s purple patch during WW1.


Paul Klee, Portrait of Mrs P. in the South (Bildnis der Frau P. im Süden), 1924, watercolor and oil transfer drawing on paper, bordered with grey gouache on the pulpboard mount, 37.6 x 27.4 cm. A rare figurative excursion by Mr Klee.

Venice: another great career decision.

After things had died down in Europe, to where Peggy remained attracted, choosing Venice in 1947 as her base back there was another timing masterstroke. Thus in an Italy impoverished by the second war in a generation she bought (1948) her Palazzo Venier ei Leoni, on the Grand Canal, at the right time, much like her art “raid” in 1940 wartime Paris.

But then she helped Venice, loaning her collection to the 1948 Venice Biennale, which gesture was apparently negotiated with help of John Richardson and Douglas Cooper, the well off Australian art afficionado (one of the Cooper Park Coopers in Sydney) who knew Picasso well, who backed the Cubists, but who also wrote a condescending and ill-informed article about her. This 1948 show gave Europe its first public show of the important new New York AE School, like exposure to Pollock, Rothko and Arshile Gorky.

And 1949 saw Pollock’s balloon finally take off when Life magazine ran their now famous spread, “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?”, in August that year, drawing especially on Clement Greenberg, whose new intellectual praise of abstraction in turn drew much on his response as a Jew to the horror of WW2.

Her Palazzo collection opened to the public in 1951.

In 1969 her collection showed in New York at the Guggenheim Museum, at their invitation, and it was then she agreed to donate the collection to the Guggenheim Foundation on her passing. Thus finally it “went home” at least in proprietorship.

The Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris showed The Art of the 20th Century, Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in Venice, Nov. 1974 / March 1975 closing another loop too.

 Wse, 29 dec 2015 to 1 jan 2016

And two more, because there’s room:

Dinamismo di un ciclista GM5

Umberto Boccioni, Dynamism of a Cyclist (Dinamismo di un ciclista), 1913, oil on canvas, 70 x 95 cm. Not from the original collection. But a major quasi-abstract work from an Italian Futurist painter, and it’s another cyclist so must make sense.


Salvador Dali, Birth of Liquid Desires (La naissance des désirs liquides), 1931-32, oil and collage on canvas, 96.1 x 112.3 cm. This is a cracker, an archetypal Dali painting, the painstaking detailed execution of a complex personal iconographical treatment of part of his life, here again problems with his father, for which he liked the William Tell tale.