Peggy Guggenheim - a huge, lonely life in art


Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim, by Anton Gill. HarperCollins. 480 pages. $29.95.

The life of Peggy, the "poor" art-collecting Guggenheim (1898-1979), is the stuff of the tabloids, and this over-large volume is a protracted exercise in that genre. More than 500 tell-all pages chronicle in painful detail what seems like -- and Peggy claimed was -- a thousand lovers (e.g. Duchamp, Ernst, Tanguy, Beckett, Cage, etc.), perhaps a dozen abortions and a daughter's suicide, punctuated by a steady drumbeat of boredom-sparked, booze-fueled "rows," some culminating in the forced application, in public settings, of whiskey to Peggy's face and / or jam to Peggy's hair.

What is the residue of all of this fuss? It is that wonderfully quirky palazzo-museum on the Grand Canal, in whose garden lie the remains of Peggy's "beloved babies" -- her 14 Lhasa apsos -- and nearby, her own ashes, placed there in 1980 in the presence of just four mourners.

Peggy, La Dogaressa of Venice, died lonely, and mostly lived lonely. But what a life it was. By the age of 20, Marguerite "Peggy" Guggenheim, niece of the equally-famous art Guggenheim, Solomon, has lost her father on the Titanic, inherited the trust fund (from the elder Guggenheim's mines) that will sustain her through a lifetime of travel, sex, art collecting and friend-buying, and has already revealed an insatiable hunger for being around creative people. She soon marries and moves to Europe, which she much prefers for its freedom, returning to America only during the war years.

Peggy Guggenheim is mildly compulsive (burnt matches worry her), irritatingly cheap, a quick study though not self-analytical and just plain unattractive ("Dog Nose" to some), which seems to have fueled her insecurity and, by extension, her nearly lifelong obsession with sexual conquest.

By age 30, Peggy and her first husband, a failed writer, are the social leaders of the American artistic set in Paris. They hang out with, among many others, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Sasha Berkman, the anarchist who 30 years earlier had nearly succeeded in assassinating Henry Clay Frick. (How different the New York art scene would have been!)

By 40, with war about to break out, Peggy has moved into the freedom of her "post-family" life, which allows her to indulge her sensual and aesthetic-acquisitive appetites to their fullest. Indeed, it is between the late 1930s and the late 1940s, when Peggy Guggenheim is in her 40s, that she is burning hottest -- having her most notorious affairs, acquiring her best artworks, and, through her Art of this Century Gallery on West 57th Street, influencing most profoundly the course of 20th-century art. By 50, she is alone in Venice and the drama is mostly over.

Does Peggy Guggenheim deserve a biography? Certainly, and given how she lived, perhaps this is the right kind. Was she a great art collector? Perhaps, though for me, the impact of the 200 or so works she assembled over her lifetime (contrast 14,000 for Henry Walters) has as much to do with the refreshing contrast they provide to the thick impasto of Baroque Venice as with what they reveal of a great collector's eye (contrast the Menil Collection in Houston).

And finally, and most important, was Peggy Guggenheim a significant player in the history of 20th-century art? I think so, though perhaps as much for what she did through her New York gallery in the 1940s to support emerging artists (most notably Jackson Pollock) as for the friends she had, the art she bought or the museum she created.

Do we need to wade through 500 pages of a tabloid to find that out? Definitely not.

Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum, has written five books, including Two Unpublished Pilgrim Tokens in the Benaki Museum and the Group to Which They Belong. Before becoming director, Vikan was assistant director for curatorial affairs and curator of medieval art at the Walters.

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