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The Latest from American Women Artists

Carrie Waller Abundance

By Jann Haynes Gilmore, PhD, AWA Board Member

Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) was a character—not only an heiress but known best for her lifestyle.  She was the daughter of Florette and Ben Guggenheim and her uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim, established the New York Guggenheim Museum in 1939. With his six siblings he ran the Guggenheim family fortune in mining and smelting. Peggy’s maternal family were the Seligmans who also amassed great wealth in mercantile and later railroad holdings in America.  Benjamin Guggenheim dropped out of his brothers’ business accumulating little wealth and died with his chauffeur and valet on the Titanic’s maiden voyage in April 1912.  The first-class White Star steward who survived reported to the New York Times [April 20] that Guggenheim and his valet, after helping women and children into lifeboats, returned to their quarters and dressed in their evening clothes in order to die like gentlemen.1

Peggy Guggenheim in Paris, c. 1930 [background: Joan Miro, Dutch Interior II, 1928], www.pinterest.com.

Peggy Guggenheim’s childhood was unhappy, marked by absentee parents, unqualified nannies, and health issues. Typical of the period Florette frequently took her daughters to Europe. Peggy did not attend a formal school until she was 15 when she entered Jacoby School in NYC, a preparatory school for wealthy Jewish girls.  When her grandfather Seligman died her mother inherited a considerably more luxurious lifestyle.  By 1915 Peggy had reached a certain age and made her requisite debut in society then traveled the United States with a friend and eventually found a job through Harold Loeb, a relative and publisher, at New York’s infamous Sunrise Turn bookshop.  There she realized that this creative clientele who included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marsden Hartley and Charles Burchfield was the society in which she wanted to belong.

With her first introduction to the avant-garde, Peggy set out for Europe first to England and on to Paris where she quicky met art world icons like Picasso, Picabia, Matisse and writers like T.S. Eliot, Ernest Heminway and e.e. cummings, among others, who frequented the café society. She met Laurence Vail whom she had first met in New York, they moved in together and he introduced her to his own bohemian friends. They married in 1922, soon producing two children.

The couple trapezed through Europe then purchased their first home in Provence.  Peggy kept animals and Laurence became a collage artist. Bored in the south of France in 1928 Peggy fell in love with a married Brit, writer John Holms, in 1928 and she left Vail for Holms. She and Holms bought a house in the Paris suburbs built by Braque, where they lived for three years. Laurence Vail married writer/activist, Kay Boyle. John Holms and Peggy rented Hayford, a British country house, where the intelligentsia of London began to congregate as they had with the Vails in France.  After Holms died of a heart attack under surgical anesthesia, Peggy began a liaison with British publisher and poet, Douglas Garman. The couple eventually separated and Peggy lived alone in London on Woburn Square in the neighborhood of the former Bloomsbury group.  After years of protracted romantic turmoil, Peggy finally took note of European art movements swirling around her resulting in her lifetime promotion of modern art.

She was forty years old.  She had missed the monumental Surrealism exhibition at the Burlington Galleries in 1936 but knew of its sensational introduction of such artists as Margritte, Man Ray, and Dalí.  She became enamored with modern movements such as Dadaism and Surrealism in England and Paris. Inheriting $500,000 at her mother’s death and with Hitler and world war on the rise, Peggy ignored these threats and travelled to Paris to collect modern art. She opened her first gallery in London in 1938 called Guggenheim Jeune. Under the tutelage of Marcel Duchamp she developed a stable of modern artists including Calder, Cocteau, Kandinsky, Tanguy, and Max Ernst, among others.  During this period, Peggy also managed to have affairs with Hemingway, Samuel Beckett, and Tanguy.

While Guggenheim Jeune gained notoriety, it did not make money and with World War II at the doorstep, Marcel Duchamp advised her to again go to Paris to buy ALL the modern art she could. She acquired fifty more works including Klee, Picabia, Leger, Delauney, Miró, Max Ernest (whom she had met in 1936) Chirico, Magritte and sculpture by Brancusi, Lipchitz, Giacometti, Moore, Arp and others.  She closed her gallery in London in June 1939.  Artists living in Europe were leaving for the United States and Peggy’s support helped many of these figures escape Europe but she stayed, renting an apartment on Ile-St-Louis as she witnessed Hitler purge all modern art in Germany. Eventually she stored her collection in a barn in the south of France and escaped Europe herself, with family and more creatives including André Breton and Max Ernst with whom she had fallen in love. On July 13, 1941 a PanAm Clipper took off from Portugal for the United States carrying passengers Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, Laurence Vail and Kay Boyle. 2

Peggy Guggenheim with Lhasa Apsos terriers on the Grand Canal, Venice, 1964, Joanna Moorhead, “She was trying to find herself . . . ,” The Guardian, April 28, 2024, www.theguardian.com.

Living in America from 1941 to 1947, Peggy Guggenheim contributed immensely to the development of modernism in the arts while supporting and underwriting Max Ernst and paying the living expenses for Kay Sage and André Breton in Greenwich Village.  When Peggy toured Solomon Guggenheim’s collection she found it lacking under the stewardship of Hila Rebay, but she also became acquainted with the Museum of Modern Art, established in 1939, and the city’s modern art galleries. When she met Jimmy Ernst, Max’s son, he immediately became her assistant and was to become a well-known modern artist and teacher at Brooklyn College. Peggy and Max Ernest married and settled in New York City. Ernst (1891-1976) was a German painter who pioneered the Dada art movement and Surrealism in Europe.  He knew all the notables and was a favorite among André Breton’s group of Surrealists. Peggy had been living in Europe for two decades and had missed the major changes in her home country including the Jazz Age, skyscrapers and Americans opening their eyes to modernism

In New York Peggy began cataloguing her collection after it was shipped from France. Concomitantly she began to plot her next gallery of modernism and found high-ceiling space over a grocery store. Again advised by Duchamp in addition to Ernst and Howard Putzel, a collector/advocate for American artists who would become her second gallery director, she began buying American modern artworks.  Jimmy Ernst became the first director of what she called The Art of This Century advertising it as “a research studio for new ideas of the creative effort.”

Peggy hired Frederik Kiesler, an exiled German architect to design the gallery interior that would “raise eyebrows.” The gallery contained concave walls, unframed paintings hung from the ceiling that rested on wooden projections and biomorphic furniture staged throughout the space.  Duchamp devised a peep hole machine for viewing his work.  Turquoise and ultramarine were the dominate paint choices. When the Art of This Century opened on October 20, 1942, the critics were outraged comparing the gallery to “Coney Island”. The space was divided among four areas: Cubism, Surrealism, Kinetic, and Daylight, the latter being for temporary shows. Henry McBride wrote for the New York Sun that upon entering his eyes “bulged”.  Occasionally the sound of a roaring train would fill the gallery space.  A 25c donation to the Red Cross gained entrance and $3 would purchase the catalogue of Guggenheim’s over 170 artworks. Peggy had succeeded in breaking away from stupefying galleries of the past.

A solo show of Duchamp’s work was mounted first and next came an exhibit of Lawrence Vail’s decoupaged many liquor bottles. Joseph Cornell’s assemblage boxes followed which sold for $50 each. Peggy was prompted by Duchamp in 1943 to hold the first ever group show for American women modernist artists titled Exhibition of 31 Women. 3

Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Grand Canal, Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, “the extraordinary life of Peggy”, Thomas Page, CNN, December 21, 2015.

Peggy had tasked husband Ernst to interview and select the invitees. She lost Ernst to this effort when he fell in love with Dorothy Tanner, an exhibitor in the show.  While the exhibition was a first, few of these women’s works are known today. Leonor Fini, an Italian Surrealist used classical themes to transform figures into erotic, powerful women; Kay Sage exhibited a nightmare landscape, she married Yves Tanguy; Xenia Cage exhibited sculpture and was married to musician John Cage; Louise Nevelson exhibited her sculpture; Gypsy Rose Lee, vaudeville stripper, exhibited a self-portrait; Frida Kahlo showed her work; Meret Oppenheim, already famous for her Teacup and Spoon Covered in Fur, collected by the Museum of Modern Art, was included; American Djuna Barnes, more well-known as a writer, showed work; exhibitor Sophie Taeuber-Arp, recognized today, was the wife of Jean Arp;  and Aline Meyer Liebman exhibited who was a member of the Steiglitz circle with whom Peggy frequently interacted.  Peggy’s daughter, Pegeen Vail, exhibited her artwork and would later marry Jean Hélion, an abstractionist. A complete list of these women artists is given in the Endnotes. Georgia O’Keeffe declined to exhibit because she did not want to be identified simply as “a woman artist”. 4

Peggy Guggenheim wearing earrings designed by Alexander Calder, 1950s, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, images.search.yahoo.com.

Critics were negative, calling it alarming that women were revealing their subconsciousness; predictably Henry McBride stated that the Surrealist women artists were better than the men because they were naturally neurotic; and Art News lamented sarcastically that there were no watercolors of flower paintings in the show.

The next exhibition featured the works by Jean Hélion followed by seminal artists better-known today: Matte, Baziotes, Motherwell, Rothko, Virginia Admiral, Busa, Hare, Louise Bourgeois and Pollock. Peggy is credited with establishing Pollock as a major 20th century American artist. Peggy gave Pollock a one-year contract and commissioned him to paint a mural on canvas in her apartment which he famously completed a few hours before her open house. Peggy later donated this seminal work to the University of Iowa.

The fourth and fifth seasons of the Art of This Century showed only American artists: Motherwell, David Hare, and Pollock who received four solo shows. Marius Bewley, a literary critic, was the gallery’s last director as the war came to a close. Peggy was already thinking of returning to Europe with her family and collection as most émigré artists were also returning to Europe. The gallery closed permanently on May 31, 1947. Her collection was once again put in storage. She sold some of the unique gallery furnishings to MOMA and to other galleries while the curved walls went to a department store.

Reviewing one of the last exhibitions, Clement Greenberg, mid-century abstraction critic summed up Peggy’s contributions: “. . . as a New York gallery director she gave first showings to more serious young artists than anyone else in the country…. I am convinced that her place in the history of American art will grow larger as time passes . . . .” 5 Many later paid tribute to Peggy Guggenheim including Lee Krasner, Pollock’s artist wife in 1981:

Art of This Century was of the utmost importance as the first place
where the New York School could be seen. That can never be
minimized, and Peggy’s achievement should not be underestimated;
she did major things for the so-called Abstract Expressionist group.
Her gallery was the foundation, its where it all started to happen. There
is nowhere else in New York where one could expect an open-minded
reaction. Peggy was invaluable in founding and creating what she did.
That must be kept in the history. 6

Willem de Kooning, Untitled, oil on paper, 1958, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

Pablo Picasso, On the Beach, oil on canvas, 1937 [purchased in 1947], Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

Encouraged by Clement Greenberg in 1960, Peggy Guggenheim published her memoir with photographs titled Confessions of an Art Addict: A Memoir which she had begun in 1923.  Alfred Barr Jr. provided the introduction. Many had negative reactions calling it a tabloid because it included unreserved stories of her sexual exploits.  Reviewers criticized its lack of troublesome introspection comparing it with the way Peggy lived her life. Yet this memoir also served to establish Guggenheim at the center of the history of modern American art. Her memoir was last reprinted in 1979 and is still available.

During the last years of Peggy’s life in Europe she sought a permanent home for her art collection. The Louvre turned down her collection. When she accompanied friends to Venice for a holiday, Peggy discovered that there had been no modern art museum in Italy since the rise of Mussolini in 1922. Peggy rented a palazzo from the wealthy Curtis family of Boston and guests began visiting her in Venice.  In 1948 Peggy was asked to head the American legation in the Venice Biennale in existence since the mid-1890s and reestablished after the war.  Located in the unoccupied Greek Pavilion, her collection promoted in Europe American artists Rothko, Gorky, Pollock, Hopper, and O’Keeffe for the first time.  During this period Peggy gave 34 Pollocks to Tel Aviv Museum. The elitist art historian, Bernard Berensen, who had schooled Peggy in Baroque and Renaissance art, was horrified and insulted Guggenheim publicly but later became her houseguest and friend.

Peggy fell in love with the romantic city and bought her own residence, the two-hundred-year-old Palazzo Venier dei Leoni with a large garden on the Grand Canal near the Accademia Bridge, moving in 1949. It consisted of a modern interior and much of her heavy furniture from previous houses in England and America found its way to Venice where she increased her menagerie of dogs and other pets.   The pali, the Canal gondola posts were painted white with turquoise ribboning. The palazzo’s guest books include the names of Miró, Chagall, Cocteau, Cecil Beaton, Alfred Barr, Jr., Henry Moore, Virgil Thomson, Somerset Maugham, Tennessee Williams, Paul Newman and the Stravinskys, among others. Truman Capote visited in the late 1950s recording his stay in his savagely-written memoir, Answered Prayers. The garden showcased modern sculpture by Arp, Calder, Giacometti, and an infamous pornographic piece by Marino Marini that faced the Canal. Her palazzo museum opened in the early 1950s, admitting the public on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Her many houseguests retreated to the roof deck to sunbath and evade the public. Peggy became involved with her last paramour, an Italian sports cars mechanic Raoul Gregorich, who had participated in the war resistance.

In 1959 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, opened in New York and Peggy’s cousin Harry invited her to visit. She was 61 years old, growing plump, and ceased to color her hair.  Peggy did not like the design of the museum comparing it to “coils like an evil serpent.” During this trip conversation began in order to transfer her collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Several years of discussion passed and finally Peggy formed a foundation to protect her collection and she signed her palazzo over to the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1969. In her last decade Peggy enjoyed revenge when Paris’s Louvre mounted her collection in its Orangerie in 1974/75. In 1978 she had a heart attack but recovered. She had eye surgery in England. She fell after returning from dinner at Venice’s Cipriani’s and broke her foot.  She never recovered from the fall and died in a hospital in Padua. Her remains were interred in her palazzo garden alongside her many canines.

Peggy Guggenheim’s peregrinate life, filled with flamboyant sexual liaisons and celebrity status, has overshadowed her enormous contributions to twentieth century art. More should be known about her generosity as the “last duchess” of the Gilded Age and her legacy should be more celebrated in modern American art history. 7        

Constantin Brancusi, Maiastra, brass, c. 1912, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York.

 

Endnotes:

1. Anton Gill, Peggy Guggenheim: The Life of an Art Addict, HarperCollins Publishers, 2001, p. 7. This author has relied on this biography for details of Peggy’s life and her role in art history. This biography is an amazing read, thoroughly researched and helpful both to the casual and scholarly reader.
The names of the hundreds of artists and creative types encountered throughout Peggy’s life are presented here solely as names due to space limitations.
2. A current Netflix film titled Transatlantic examines in story form the trials, journeys and success of Europe’s many intellectuals and creatives fleeing Europe before World War II through the efforts of Varian Fry. Peggy Guggenheim, Max Ernst, Laurence Vail and André Breton appear in this series.
3. Marjorie Heins “The Notorious ’31 Women’ Art Show of 1943,” February 23, 2016, gothamcenter.org.
[a good overview of how critics viewed the ground-breaking show].
4. The 31 women artists who were invited to the Exhibition of 31 Women at the Art of This Century exhibition were: Leonor Fini (1907-1996); Kay Sage (1898-1963); Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012); Xenia Cage (1913-1995); Buffie Johnson (1912-2006); Louise Nevelson (1899-1988); Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970); Frida Kahlo (1907-1954); Leonora Carrington (1917-2011); Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985); Djuna Barnes (1892-1982); Irene Rice Pereira(1902-1971); Hedda Sterne (1920-2011); SophieTaeuber Arp (1889-1943); Hazel McKinley (1903-1995) Peggy’s sister; Pegeen Vail (1925-1967) Peggy’s daughter; Barbara Reis (1922-2013); Jacqueline Lamba(1910-1993); Suzy Frelinghuysen (1911-1988); Esphyr Slobodkina (1908-2002); Maria Helena Viera da Silva(1908-1992); Aline Meyer Liebman (1906-1978); Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874-1927); Julia Thecla (1896-1973); Sonia Sekula (1918-1963); Gretchen Schoeninger[Corazzo] (1913-2016); Elizabeth Eyre de Lanux (1894-1966); Meraud Guevara (1904-1993); Anne Harvey (1916-1967); and Milena Pavlovic Barili (1909-1945). These women represented America, Argentina, Mexico, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, Romania, France, Portugal, Switzerland, and Serbia.
5. Clement Greenberg, The Nation, quoted in Anton Gill, p. 348.
6. Lee Krasner [Pollock], to Angelica Zander Rudenstine, research curator, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, March 6, 1981.
7. “What Peggy Did: The artistic, outrageous life of a Guggenheim,” Ruth Yeazell, The New Republic, September 29, 2015. In this piece, Yeazell discusses the then new biography of Peggy Guggenheim titled Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern, Francine Prose, Yale University Press, 2015; and for a more remarkable and recent celebration of Peggy Guggenheim see Katie White, “How a Broadway Producer Recreated Peggy Guggenheim’s Groundbreaking ‘Exhibition of 31 Women’ on its 80th Anniversary,”
May 18, 2023, news.artnet.com.