Of money and men. And art. She did it !

Forget all the gossip about Peggy Guggenheim. It distracts from what she really should be remembered for. True, her unconventional sex life, with reportedly over 400 lovers, combined with a lot of envy, hatred and deep emotional loneliness, was legendary. Add to this loads of money and an incredible desire to shock the world… and you have the perfect recipe for the creation of a legend among the living.

A sharp eye for modern art

When I visited her Palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice last month, I was in total awe. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is among the most important museums in Italy for Modern Art of the first half of the 20th century. It is one of the most stunning collections, especially when you consider it was all brought together by one person. So, if you ask me, Peggy Guggenheim was much more than a wealthy female Casanova. She truly was one of the most influential patrons of the arts of the 20th century, who brought together the works of the greatest modern masters – many of them virtually UNKNOWN at the time she collected them… Yes, there used to be times virtually anyone had heard of Klee, Mondriaan, Pollock and the likes. Hard to imagine today, but true. And she had an eye for collecting them.

Pollock whom? Pollock what?

Works of art by Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Mondriaan, Braque, Gris, Miró, Magritte, Pollock, you name them… have not always been famous. A larger part of what these gentlemen produced, would even have disappeared or have been destroyed in the Second World War if it wasn’t for Peggy Guggenheim.
At the beginning of the War, when Peggy (who was Jewish) wanted to safeguard her collection from the Nazis, she asked the Louvre to help her store her collection to protect it for the future. The Louvre told her her collection “wasn’t worth the trouble of saving”. There was no room for any of those works in the vast cellars of the leading Paris museum… Peggy did not give up on her dream however: she shipped a lot of art to America as household goods, and she found a “barn” near Vichy, in France, to hide the paintings. They were never found by the Nazis. She managed to safeguard everything. She just did it.

Not worth the trouble of saving

“An inventory drawn up in 1942 for Art of This Century includes, among others, Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Georges Braque, André Breton, Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, Joseph Cornell, Salvador Dalí, Robert Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst—and that’s just the first five letters of the alphabet.”
(the New Republic)

No matter how long the list went on up to the letter Z of the alphabet, all not interesting enough for the Louvre at that time. Eventually, recognition did come. Towards the end of her life, the Louvre welcomed Guggenheim and her in the mean time world famous collection to France for an exhibition.

Of money and men

The envious say:
“it was easy, she had the money and the power over the men.”

She was already incredibly rich at a young age, mainly because of her father’s unexpected tragic death in the sinking of the Titanic. Nevertheless, it is not because one has the money that one will be able to realise what Peggy Guggenheim did. Actually, close to none would succeed in doing what she did. Think of it… she could as well have spent it lavishly on eccentric parties, cruises, gambling, exclusive cars, … or just let it go down the drain haphazardly like many affluent heirs and heiresses do. She could also have done investments in real estate or companies. But she did not.  Instead, she used the money to follow her passion, to realise the dream she believed in: Modern Art.

In the then dominant male world of art, she indeed succeeded in finding her place amongst the men. There were years in which she bought a painting per day. Imagine how intensive that must have been. She did not buy whatever pieces of art she could lay hands on. She was a good listener and relentlessly sought advise to build her collection. She was not a saint and had some serious flaws… she indeed used and misused men, but she always had a higher purpose: Modern Art.

What a lady. She did it ! 

Peggy Guggenheim has done everything with art and for the arts, apart from producing art. She was art collector, patron of the arts, art dealer, and the founder of her own museum. All very different roles, Peggy Guggenheim filled them all, and in a very convincing way.

When I was at her beautiful Palazzo in the Dorsoduro in Venice, I stood for quite a while in silence in front of her very humble final resting place in her garden, overthinking what an exceptional lady she has been for the world of modern art. What would modern art have been without her? It would certainly have been different. What nobody else did, she did it.

No matter what her motivations were,
she did it. 
(Lee Krasner)

So, don’t judge Peggy too much for a lifestyle you may frown upon, and don’t let yourself be distracted by all the gossip and juicy stories.

Rather read “The Shock of the Modern”, by Francine Prose, a great biography and a beautiful tribute to this exceptional lady who never gave up and changed the face of art in a male dominated world:
Mrs. Peggy Guggenheim.

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