Peggy Guggenheim: the woman whose life was art

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She discovered some of the 20th century’s greatest artists, saved priceless works from the Nazis and had 400 lovers. Stylist reveals the extraordinary technicolour life of Peggy Guggenheim…

Words: Alexandra Jones

Peggy Guggenheim was having lunch in Paris when the Nazi bombs began to drop on 3 June 1940. As a member of one of America’s wealthiest Jewish families, there was every reason for her not to be in a war zone. Yet as others fled, Peggy stayed.

Across the table the renowned sculptor Constantin Brancusi suggested they move from beneath the glass roof of his studio. Peggy refused, merely complaining about the “infernal noise”.

Having spent every day since the outbreak of the Second World War the previous September amassing a collection of art that included 10 Picassos, eight Mirós, three Man Rays, three Dalís and one Chagall, just that afternoon she had commissioned a bronze casting of Brancusi’s famous sculpture Bird In Space. So, despite the danger, Peggy was in the mood to celebrate. An exuberant example of the bold, fearless defiance that helped her endure derision and ridicule over her lifetime, while accruing what is today an unrivalled collection of modern art worth billions.

Of course, the Guggenheim name is renowned; it goes hand in hand with incredible art collections, from the great corkscrew gallery off Central Park in New York to the Bilbao museum in northern Spain. But these were started by Solomon Guggenheim, Peggy’s vastly richer uncle. Those who have strolled the canalsides of Venice may also be aware of the lesser-known Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which includes works by modern artists such as Pollock, Kandinsky and Bacon – household names today, but radical young unknowns back when Peggy started championing them. 

Now her influence and legendary free-spirited life (she had a rumoured 1,000 lovers – “it was only 400,” she would wryly correct) are slowly gaining eminence but still, Peggy has remained largely unknown outside of art circles. Until now. On Friday, a new documentary by Lisa Immordino Vreeland – Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict will shine the spotlight on her life and work, as revealed by newly discovered audio tapes and interviews with key figures in the art world. Fittingly, Peggy has also been cited as the muse for recent fashion collections by both Giambattista Valli and Dries Van Noten. Valli dedicated his haute couture pieces to the “truly eccentric” Peggy, while Van Noten described her as “flamboyant, kinky, infatuated, fearless”.

The Paris Years

Marguerite ‘Peggy’ Guggenheim was born on 26 August 1898, the second of three sisters, into a wealthy and notoriously eccentric German-Jewish family in New York. Her mother, Florette Seligman, was known to wear three watches and three overcoats (Peggy’s maternal relations were reportedly plagued with mental health issues). Her father, Benjamin, died in the sinking of the Titanic and while he left Peggy an inheritance of $2.5million (£22.5million today), her family was considered the poor cousins to Solomon’s, who along with his own wealth had married a Rothschild; his foundation today is worth £100billion. 

Peggy went to school briefly, but was mainly home schooled with her sisters. At the time, women were expected to have a vague understanding of art history, but her knowledge of art was rudimentary. She would later credit cubist painter Marcel Duchamp, who helped her set up her first gallery in London, with her art education. 

In 1918, at the age of 20, Peggy suffered what we would now recognise as a nervous breakdown. She stopped eating, then sleeping and developed an obsession with finding unlit matches: “I stayed awake all night worrying about the houses that would burn because I had neglected to pick up some particular match.” The psychiatrist she consulted offered little relief. “I asked him if he thought I was losing my mind,” Peggy wrote in her memoir. “He replied, ‘Are you sure you have a mind to lose?’”

Her first stab at independence came in 1919 when she got a job as an unpaid clerk at her cousin Harold Loeb’s avant-garde New York bookshop, The Sunwise Turn. An epicentre of radical literary and artistic thought, it brought Peggy into contact with F Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Frost and it was when she encountered her first surrealist painting, by Georgia O’Keefe (“I turned it around four times before I knew which way to look at it”).

Immersing herself in modernist literature sparked in Peggy a desire to travel to Europe. In Paris she met the writer and sculptor Laurence Vail, the renowned ‘King of Bohemia’, and when they married in 1921, her entry into the European artistic set was cemented. The couple held lavish champagne-fuelled parties where they would dance on tables, swap partners and discuss the relative merits of dadaism vs surrealism. 

Her time in Paris laid the foundation for a love of modern art which would dictate the rest of her life. Surrounded by the Surrealist movement, she started to develop an eye for works which rejected tradition in favour of experimentation and freedom of expression. With her wealth, she also began to fund other artists, such as the novelist Djuna Barnes, whose novel Nightwood is considered one of the pre-eminent works of modernist literature.

A life in art

In the years that followed, Peggy forged a path that was unlike that of any other woman before. After divorcing her husband, she would go on to set up two galleries – Guggenheim Jeune (in London, 1938-39) and Art of This Century (New York, 1942-47), as well as a museum, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice, 1951). Yet for years the art world remained dismissive. The art she was championing was wildly different to what had gone before and collectors around the world were scandalised. As Solomon’s mistress Baroness Hilla Rebay once wrote to her: “You will soon find [that at your gallery] you are propagating mediocrity, if not trash.”

Peggy remained defiant. “I am working hard for my gallery and f**king,” she wrote to a friend. And for the next two decades she devoted her life to both. From an on-and-off tryst with the then-unknown author Samuel Beckett (legend has it that they went to bed for 12 days, only rising to order champagne) to her second marriage to respected surrealist artist Max Ernst, she exalted in her sexuality and freedom. “Still,” she asserted to the same friend, “my f**king is only a sideshow. My work comes first every time… I have my own strengths and my inner self to fall back on.”

When war broke out, Peggy made it her mission to buy as many works of art as possible, amassing a 125-piece collection within three years. She asked the Louvre to store them in their vaults during the war. “They told me they didn’t consider the pieces worth saving,” she wrote in her memoir. Instead, she put the works on a New York-bound steamer ship, and lived in the city for the duration of the war. 

Then, in 1948, she bought an ornate 18th-century palazzo along Venice’s Grand Canal and installed her collection. “She was a single, 50-year-old divorcee, bringing with her a collection of artwork that was still considered strange, especially in the context of Venice and its connection to the old masters,” says Francine Prose, author of Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock Of The Modern. But in 1951, just 10 years after they’d refused to store it, the Louvre held a show of her collection. The traditional art world had finally begun to accept her vision. In the following years her palazzo became a mecca for artists and art lovers alike (a young Andy Warhol would visit hoping to catch a glimpse of the works only for Peggy to turn him away – she wasn’t a fan of pop art), so much so that by the time she died in 1979, aged 81, she herself had become the establishment.

Poignantly, among the works still on display today at The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice you’ll find Brancusi’s Bird In Space. Peggy did return to collect it, just as the Nazis were entering Paris. “I wasn’t afraid,” she would later say. “I just wanted the art.”

Images: Getty

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