The woman who changed the story of modern art

Francine Prose’s keen eye for character and detail paint a revealing picture of art collector extraordinaire, Peggy Guggenheim.

Peggy Guggenheim (photo credit: Courtesy)
Peggy Guggenheim
(photo credit: Courtesy)
PEGGY GUGGENHEIM was arguably the most influential promoter and collector of Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist art in the 20th century. With a sharp eye and a special kind of bravado, she rescued important works by Constantin Brâncuși, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, René Magritte and Wassily Kandinsky – works the Nazis would have burned as degenerate art. Guggenheim, who fled Paris only days before the Germans entered, was prescient in her self-styled mission after the outbreak of World War II to save as much modern art as possible by buying a painting a day in the French capital.
Francine Prose tells the story of Guggenheim escaping Paris for the south of France in her blue sports car brimming with art from her shopping spree. As a Jew, she knew she had to leave the country immediately and barely made it to New York the following year with her stash intact.
Once in New York, she went on to discover yet a new generation of artists including Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Willem DeKooning, and most notably, Jackson Pollock.
Prose writes, “One can only speculate how different the history of modern art would have been had Peggy not commissioned Jackson Pollock to paint a mural for the hallway of her East Side apartment – a work that helped change the ways in which Pollock and his peers thought about painting.” With Guggenheim’s enthusiastic support and deep coffers, Abstract Expressionism, America’s first art movement of international consequence, was launched.
A novelist and literary critic, Prose’s keen eye for character and detail makes “The Shock of the Modern” a distinguished entry in Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series. Prose deftly works with Guggenheim’s 1946 frank memoir, “Out of This Century,” to weave myriad examples of Guggenheim’s parsimony, her botched nose job that some unkindly said left her resembling W.C. Fields, and her complicated love life with its drama and promiscuity into her narrative. She also illustrates in revealing anecdotes Guggenheim’s ambivalence about her Judaism. For example, Guggenheim never forgot being turned away from a restricted hotel. Of German- Jewish descent, Guggenheim was also embarrassed by her fellow shtetl Jews. On a trip to Jerusalem in the mid-1920s, she paid a visit to the Western Wall where she wrote that the “nauseating sight of my compatriots publicly groaning and moaning and going into physical contortions was more than I could bear, and I was glad to leave the Jews again.”
Guggenheim was born in 1898, and Prose observes that “Peggy Guggenheim seems to have been born with, or developed early, the urge to unnerve, and this impulse or compulsion would serve her well as she devoted her life showing art that was truly new and sometimes disturbing.” When she was 14, her father, Benjamin Guggenheim, younger brother of Solomon (best known for establishing the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City), died on the Titanic. Critics have since speculated that the absence of a father figure contributed to Guggenheim’s turbulent, often violent love life.
Guggenheim was rumored to have taken over 400 lovers over the course of her lifetime. The men she was attracted to were often abusive and unfaithful. Her first husband, the sculptor Laurence Vail whom she married in 1922, regularly publicly humiliated Guggenheim and physically abused her. Prose notes that “frightened to leave her marriage, unable to imagine living on her own, hesitant to divorce a husband who beat and humiliated her, Peggy was buoyed by her new connection to the [anarchist] Emma Goldman, who had once left a lover because he didn’t share her opinion of Nietzsche.”
Whether Guggenheim was influenced by Goldman is hard to say, but Prose certainly implies it. After two children and six years of marriage, Vail and Guggenheim were divorced.
In the ensuing years before the Second World War, Guggenheim lived in London, the English countryside, and Paris, and had a variety of lovers. Among them was the playwright Samuel Beckett, whose erratic and drunken behavior proved irresistible to Guggenheim.
During those years Emily Coleman, a writer and Guggenheim’s long-time friend, noted that Guggenheim often felt intellectually inferior to her friends. “Peggy said she could not tackle abstract ideas, that she was a little jealous when we talked intellectually.”
Despite her inferiority complex, Guggenheim pressed on in intellectual circles as she amassed her impressive collection of art. She opened a gallery in London in 1938 called Guggenheim Jeune. There she showed Surrealists like Kandinsky, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miro and Max Ernst, who would become her second husband.
In her diary, Coleman wryly referred to Guggenheim’s Surrealist sense of humor.
Prose explains that “many of the tenets on which the movement was based – the desire to shock, to challenge and overturn convention, to unleash the unconscious, to engage in frank discussions of sex – seem like a description of Peggy’s personality.”
Guggenheim’s relationship with Ernst was as tempestuous and demeaning as the affairs of her youth. Ernst’s less than amorous motives in staying with Guggenheim were transparent even to her teenage children, Sinbad and Pegeen. Ernst needed Guggenheim’s connections to escape from Europe and her money to establish himself in the United States. Although devastated by Ernst’s infidelity, Guggenheim was single-minded in her determination to bring avant-garde art to the United States.
Near the end of 1942, she opened her legendary gallery, Art of This Century, in New York. Prose observes that “Not until Art of This Century did it occur to Americans that a gallery could be a cross between an amusement park, a haunted house, and a Paris café.” The New York School painter Robert Motherwell wrote, “It seemed to me that part of the intention was to desanctify art, and treat it more like, say, books in the reading room library.” Prose adds that Guggenheim envisioned her gallery as a temple of Modern Art. One of the exhibitions spaces, the Daylight Gallery, featured temporary shows and functioned as a space to introduce the works of Motherwell, Pollock and Mark Rothko, among others. Guggenheim further expanded her collection by purchasing works from the gallery’s shows.
In 1948, Guggenheim was invited to exhibit her extended collection at the Venice Biennale. Her paintings then made their way through Europe until they were reunited with Guggenheim in Venice three years later. In 1949 Guggenheim had finally settled in Venice, buying the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an 18th century palace on the Grand Canal. During the 1950s the Palazzo not only permanently housed the vast art collection that began with Guggenheim’s buying frenzy in war-torn Paris, then as now open to the public, but was also a pilgrimage-cum-tourist site for Beat movement poets and writers.
But Guggenheim’s most heartbreaking relationship was with her daughter Pegeen.
Always embodying contradictions, Guggenheim was both neglectful and loving to her.
As children, Pegeen and her brother Sinbad were shuttled between their father Laurence Vail, nannies that they became more attached to than their parents, and Guggenheim’s homes with their rotating casts of lovers.
Pegeen had a host of devastating ailments that included depression, alcoholism, and anorexia. She was also a painter of naïve art, which some speculated was to attract her mother’s attention. Guggenheim often exhibited Pegeen’s work in Art of This Century and bought several of her daughter’s works.
But as Prose observes, “Long established patterns of bad behavior involving Peggy and Pegeen – intense affection and worry, reckless criticism, dramatic outbursts, sexual competition, and contempt for the other’s lovers and husbands – had become intensely destructive to them both.” It was as if Pegeen was doomed from the start of her life. And in 1967, after her troubled third marriage to an English painter, Pegeen killed herself in their Paris apartment. She was 42 years old.
Peggy Guggenheim would go on to live twelve years after her daughter, dying of a stroke in 1979 at the age of 81. Francine Prose’s excellent biography is a vivid and empathetic tribute to the woman who still has a lasting, unprecedented impact on Modern Art in the world and, in particular, Venice, the city that she loved —the city that she described in her memoir as “enveloped with a diamond-like haze.”
Judy Bolton-Fasman writes about arts and culture for various publications and has completed a memoir entitled ‘The Ninety Day Wonder ’