“Artists are more interesting that business people”
Think of the Guggenheim name and great wealth and great art come to mind. In New York it’s the Frank Lloyd Wright icon of modernism that started it all; in Bilbao it’s the Frank Gehry designed steel-wrapped structure that redefined an entire city; and in Venice it’s the intimate and elegant gated palazzo facing the Grand Canal that reigns as the premier art destination of this ancient Italian city, with or without the Biennale pavilions vying for visitors’ attention. As I wrote in my earlier article, the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice is widely considered to be the jewel in the global franchise, but not many people know much about the woman who assembled it. Thankfully, now there is a documentary that lifts the veil of history and allows a candid peek into the life and passions of this remarkable woman.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s well-paced portrait of an heiress with an eye and an inextinguishable passion for art. Through a series of interviews with friends, fellow dealers, artists who knew her, collectors and Guggenheim herself, we begin to compile a mental collage of this vivacious and colorful woman, who readily admitted to ‘rarely knowing what [she] was doing’ when it came to art or collecting it. A woman who, nonetheless, was responsible for giving Wassily Kandinsky his first exhibition in London, discovering Jackson Pollock and promoting Abstract Expressionism, all the while putting together one of the most precious private collections of 20th Century art we have today.
Her personal life story was an interesting one: by no means unusual by today’s heiress’ standards but, nonetheless, not your run-of-the-mill tale either. Born into a prominent banking and mining family, Seligmans on her mother’s side and Guggenheims on her father’s – her paternal uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim was the founder of the Guggenheim Museum, Peggy Guggenheim grew up with her parents, and two sisters Benita and Hazel. She admits to having a trying relationship with her mother, and adoring her father – Benjamin Guggenheim, who drowned when the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic in April of 1912. Devastated by her father’s death and wanting to ‘shock her family,’ Peggy opted for a rebellious life style. She defied expectations traveling alone in Europe, having multiple love affairs with artists, and ultimately, investing her inheritance into opening an art gallery, because ‘it was cheaper than opening a publishing company.’ Imagine that!
It’s not all about the money
Even though Art of This Century Gallery in New York was Guggenheim’s most celebrated commercial art venture, she began her “adventures in the art world” with a small gallery she opened in London in 1938. On Vreeland’s tapes we hear her talk about Guggenheim Jeune, as the gallery was called, in a tone of affection mixed with ambivalence, making it sound more like Duchamp’s effort than her own. Marcel Duchamp, she says, was her biggest influence and the man who molded her preferences in art. She cites Duchamp’s guidance, influence and direction in the curation of the gallery’s first exhibition of the Surrealists where Yves Tanguy, Andre Breton, Fernand Leger, Dali and others. Even though the gallery was open for only about a year, Guggenheim Jeune managed to make some impressive marks on art history: the gallery was the first to show Jean Cocteau and Kandinsky and held exhibitions for Alexander Calder, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. Peggy famously married Max Ernst, brought him to New York and was instrumental in promoting his career. Ernest, in return, cheated on her relentlessly, fell into jealous fits over things like fur coats she’d would buy for herself, and left her for the Surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning, whom he met while preparing the Exhibition by 31 Women show for Art of This Century.
A “painting-a-day” keeps the Nazis away
In the time leading up to the WWII Peggy put herself on a self-described “regime of buying a work of art a day.”
“Some of the masterpieces of her collection, including works by Francis Picabia, Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí, and Piet Mondrian, were bought at this time. She astonished Fernand Léger by buying his Men in the City on the day that Hitler invaded Norway. She acquired Brancusi’s Bird in Space as the Germans approached Paris, and only then decided to return to her native New York.”*
Her voice livens up and we hear a spike in enthusiasm as she talks about buying as many paintings as she could, primarily to save them from the impending Nazi invasion and probable destruction of what the German State branded “Degenerative Art”. She describes making several trips from London to Paris in 1940 and buying the artworks with the money she set aside for a private art museum, an idea that was soon shelved. She bought, and bought, and bought. Forty thousand dollars – that’s the amount Guggenheim spent on amassing one of the most important and comprehensive art collections we have today.
Let’s put this number into perspective, shall we? Her $40,000 budget was sufficient to acquire ’10 Picassos, 40 Ernsts, 8 Mires, 4 Magrittes, 3 Man Rays, 3 Dalís, 1 Klee, 1 Wolfgang Baalen and 1 Chagall among others’. Compare that to today’s cosmic art market with Modigliani and Picasso paintings, selling for $170 million+ each and you’ll soon realize that the $40,000 would not even cover the buyers’ premium for one of the record-setting paintings. And you thought math wasn’t fun!
History is written by the victors
One of the most unexpected revelations in Vreeland’s film involves Hilla Rebay and Wassily Kandinsky. Look at it as an anecdote on “history being written by the victors”. In one of the scenes Guggenheim recalls how Kandinsky, then at the start of his art career, asked her for an introduction to Hilla von Rebay, Solomon R. Guggenheim’s famous art adviser. Peggy talks about sending Rebay a letter, along with some images of Kandinsky’s work. And then we hear her read Hilla’s ascorbic reply where she called Kandinsky’s work ‘borderline trash’ and made it very clear that she had no respect for Peggy’s taste in art or her curatorial decisions. Peggy laughs… Of course she does. Kandinsky has since been acknowledged as the principal founder of non-objective abstraction, and one of the most influential figures of Modern Art, its theory and techniques. When Kandinsky began to gain international attention, not at least because of Peggy’s dedication, Rebay swiftly claimed to have discovered the artist all on her own, and to have introduced him to Solomon R. Guggenheim. History, as you can see, is a funny and a pliable thing, especially when credit is involved.