An Art Patron's Extraordinary Life

Peggy Guggenheim was no ordinary art collector. In her lifetime, she acquired a treasure trove of Cubist and Surrealist artworks at bargain price right before the onset of the Second World War; she ran art galleries in London and New York championing then-little known artists such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell; and she also played a significant role in positioning Venice as a contemporary art city after she moved there permanently in 1948.

After her death in 1978, her Venetian home, the 18th-century Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, was transformed into a permanent exhibition space housing the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. It is now the second most visited museum in the city after the Dodge’s Palace with over 427,000 visitors a year.

But while her collection is primarily renowned for its Cubist, Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist masterpieces, the new exhibition “Peggy Guggenheim: The Last Dogaressa” – running until January 27, 2020 - is aiming to showcase how wide her collecting endeavour span, highlighting some of her lesser known collecting interest.

“The exhibition shed light on how she significantly continued to add works to her collection during her thirty years in Venice,” explains Karole Vail, the director of the Collection, a former curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York for 20 years, and Peggy’s grand-daughter.

“She continued to add significantly once she arrived in Venice and her choices were varied and eclectic,” she adds. Her purchases included works by Italian artists active from the late 1940s, such as Edmondo Bacci, Tancredi Parmeggiani, Emilio Vedova; British painting and sculpture of the 1950s and 60s, with pieces by Lynn Chadwick, Francis Bacon and Henry Moore, Optical (Op) and Kinetic art of the 1960s as well as works by the CoBrA group, a short-lived (1948-1951) but influential avant-garde movement in Paris, known for their spontaneous and colourful work heavily inspired by the art of children and the mentally ill.

“The exhibition also highlights how she was a supporter and collector of works by women abstract artists, but also had an interest “in contemporary takes on Japanese aesthetics,” says Vail, pointing to works such as Above the White (1960) by the Japanese-born American painter Kenzo Okada and Drifting No 2. (1959) by the Japanese sculptor Tomonori Toyofuku.
Pierre Alechinsky, Dressing Gown, 1972

A Bridge Character
In her own words, Guggengheim was an “art addict,” who couldn’t help herself and her unrelentless collecting of what was “in the now” means her collection offers a bridge between Surrealist to Abstract Expressionist.

“She trusted her intuition in making her purchases, but was also wise to surround herself with the best advisors. She trusted their opinion. One might say, her collection reflects her personal taste, guided by their sound advice,” Vail says.

The daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim and niece of Solomon Guggenheim (founder of the famous New York museum), Peggy inherited 450,000 (the equivalent of about $6.4 million) when she was 21 after her father died on board the Titanic. The passing of her mother in 1937 left her an annual income of about $40,000 a year (roughly $675,000) which she used wisely to feed her life-long obsession.

She acquired a large part of a collection which is today estimated to be worth billions of dollars for a mere $40,000, when right before the onset of the Second World War she had the foresight to assiduously buy “a picture a day.”  On the advice of several friends who guided her choices, including Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett and art historian Sir Herbert Read, she went to artists’ studios buying directly from them, and as the war looming, she found artists were keen to sell and the prices were cheap as buyers were few.

Jackson Pollock, Circumcision, gennaio / January 1946

During the last months before Paris fell to the Germans, she bought 50 works, including pieces by Brancusis, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, Robert Delaunay, Giacometti, Paul Klee, Fernand Leger, Rene Magritte, Man Rays, Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, and Francis Picabia, amongst others.

After the war, she paid close attention to the advice of Mondrian, who pointed to her the work of Pollock which she duly started to support, giving him a monthly income and some money to buy a house in Long Island to he would have peace and quiet to pain.

The Audacious Gallerist
Between 1938 and 1939, she ran the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London, located at 30 Cork Street, championing the work of Jean Cocteau, Alexander Calder and Henry Moore, among others. She gave the first public airing to Lucian Freud in an exhibition of children’s art and organized the first solo exhibition of Vasily Kandinsky in the British capital.

“She dedicated herself to contemporary art, as it was “a living thing,” and she was not afraid to take risks in supporting artists that were not yet established at the time. Even if modern art perplexed much of the public at that time, her commitment and resolve to promote the most contemporary art of her time was unshakable,” remarks Vail.

Francis Bacon
Study for Chimpanzee / March 1957
“In spite of its brief existence, Guggenheim Jeune played an instrumental role in the context of the London art market from the late 1930s onwards, and it was consequential to the development of the London Surrealist art market,” she adds.

Between 1942 and 1947, Guggenheim also ran the ground-breaking Art of The Century museum-cum-gallery on 57th Street, where she exhibited her collection and works by such emerging artists as Pollock and Motherwell, giving them their first solo show.

“Her progressive character was reflected not only in her art and exhibition choices, but also in the way she installed works,” says Vail, pointing out how the gallery space designed by the visionary architect Frederick Kiesler offered innovative exhibition rooms. For instance, the black wall of the Surrealist Gallery displayed unframed Surrealist paintings mounted on adjustable arms attached to the concave walls, made of eucalyptus, while the Abstract gallery had movable walls made of stretched deep blue canvas and its floors were painted turquoise, Peggy's favorite color. Unframed pictures 'swaying in space' at eye level were actually mounted on triangular floor-to-ceiling rope pulleys, Vail says.

Supporting Women Artists
Her support for the women in the art world was important, as she organized in New York two seminal exhibitions 31 Women in 1943 and The Women in 1945. The first exhibition brought together Frida Kaldo, Dorothea Tanning, Sophie Tacuber Arp, Louise Nevelson, and Leonara Carrington, and she also gave solo exhibitions to Janet Sobel, Teresa Zarnower, Sonja Sekula and Virginia Admiral, while personally collection works by Grace Hartigan and Irene Rice Pereira (which will be on display at the exhibition).

“She showed women’s substantial contributions to the most advanced movements of the day, even if not everyone understood this back then. Her exhibitions served as a key starting point for the careers of many women and Art of This Century became a key space to set the discourse on gender that continues to this day,” Vail says.

This story was first published in the November edition of A: The First of magazine