Features / Art

Essentials: Peggy Guggenheim and her dazzling bohemian existence

First published in Printed Pages Autumn 2014

Words by

Maisie Skidmore

Illustration by

Alice Tye

Type her name into Google and the results you’re faced with – “collection,” “lovers” and “Venice” – go some way to crystallising Peggy Guggenheim’s ongoing presence in public consciousness. She’s a figure bound by mythology; the poor little rich girl brought up in the midst of Manhattan’s social elite; the father who went down with the Titanic; the hundreds of lovers she supposedly entertained over her lifetime. She played up to the scandal with a leisurely audacity from the start.

In her memoir she describes her childhood as “gilt-edged,” but that barely seems to cover it; her grandfathers, a Seligman and a Guggenheim, amassed their respective fortunes from modest beginnings, creating for Peggy an affluent if unhappy childhood. Her father took mistresses while her mother took teas. He forfeit his future in the family businesses to pursue his own schemes in Paris, while she dressed her daughters in finery and paraded them among New York’s German Jewish aristocracy. It was a stokers’ strike which led to Benjamin Guggenheim’s booking a place on the ill-fated Titanic in 1912; his initial crossing had been cancelled. Family members arriving at the harbour hoping to find Mr Guggenheim in the lifeboats were met instead by his mistress (a French singer) and the harsh reality of huge financial losses incurred in Paris. Peggy carried the weight of the absent, much-loved father figure for the rest of her life.

At school Peggy picked up little aside from a revolutionary lean and an appetite for reading, and when her sister Benita talked her out of going to college she found herself working at Sunwise Turn, a radical bookshop in Greenwich Village. It was unpaid, but arguably a ten percent discount and a clientele of artists and writers did more to shape her future than a paycheque ever could. “They were so real, so alive, so human,” she said in her memoir. “All their values were so different from mine.” Curiosity piqued, she escaped stuffy Prohibition-era Manhattan soon after coming into her sizeable fortune, finding expat Paris to be an excellent antidote. She quickly fell in with the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Djuna Barnes, Constantin Brâncusi and other members of the French Avant-Garde. 

Her dazzlingly bohemian existence in Paris might be partially to blame for her reputation as a femme fatale; historians would have a tricky time naming patrons she didn’t take to bed at some time or other. Her marriage to writer and “king of the bohemians” Laurence Vail – who fathered her two children – ended when she fell in love with the English intellectual John Holms, a war hero who became the love of her life, but died tragically early during a routine operation, leaving her devastated. Several trips across the world and a love affair with a devoted Marxist later, it was a mixture of heartbreak, boredom and a life-long appreciation that drove Peggy to start collecting art, aged 40.

In 1937 she resolved to buy artwork instead of her beloved couture, and two years later opened the Guggenheim Jeune at 30 Cork Street, London, with exhibitions of Cocteau, Kandinsky, Arp and Tanguy. It wasn’t a resounding success: the Jeune introduced the London art community to Surrealism, but when it lost money in its first year, Peggy decided to close it and open a museum based on historic rather than commercial principles. “I felt that if I was losing money that I might as well lose a lot more and do something worthwhile.” So she set aside $40,000 and recruited Herbert Read as director, although the Second World War struck soon after hindering her plans somewhat. 

Undaunted by the prospect of war, Peggy decided to buy a painting a day for its duration, amassing a vast collection of abstract art while most in Paris were living off rations and hiding behind blackout curtains. She acquired works by Man Ray, Kandinsky, Dalí, Magritte and Mondrian, buying paintings right up until the night that Paris fell to the Nazis. To her dismay the Louvre refused to safeguard her collection from the bombs that battered the city, insisting the work was too modern to be worth saving. So Peggy returned to New York in 1941 – some 20 years after she had left – having stored her entire art collection in a friend’s barn near Paris, from which it was shipped back to the States as household goods. 

In many ways Peggy’s collection was an odd one, shaped and curated by the men she chose for the purpose; Marcel Duchamp, Herbert Read and (erstwhile husband) Max Ernst among them. She often bought according to taste rather than for investment, accumulating an archive that was the product of her extraordinary life, and bore the prejudices, whims and flourishes to match. This was her greatest achievement. The collection gained great attention when in 1942 she opened Art of This Century, a modern art museum in New York praised for the ingenuity of its design, which became the centre of the city’s avant-garde activity. The new school of Abstract Expressionists, including Mondrian, Giacometti, Rothko and Pollock, were all regulars, with the latter quickly becoming her greatest discovery. As a result Peggy was invited to exhibit at the 1946 Venice Biennale; a show that went down in history as the most comprehensive exhibition of modern art the world had ever seen.

Peggy eventually settled in Venice’s Palazzo Venier dei Leoni and spent the rest of her days taking gondola rides on the Grand Canal, surrounded by her beloved Lhasa terriers. After years of disputes between family members, she finally left her collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum – “my uncle’s garage, that Frank Lloyd Wright thing on Fifth Avenue” – on the condition that it remain in the Palazzo as it was. As recently as last month lawsuits were still being filed regarding the way her final requests have been carried out, which seems to suit her enduring influence to a tee. Creating new moulds for herself faster than could she cast off the old ones, she played the heiress, the lover and the entrepreneur simultaneously and with ease. It would keep her entertained to see historians
still struggling to pin her down today.