I have just arrived in Venice, Italy to begin a three-month internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. It’s an incredible honor and privilege to have been accepted into this internship program. I will do a separate post about what my internship entails, but this post is just dedicated to Peggy.
Who was Peggy Guggenheim and what’s so special about her collection?
I’M GLAD YOU ASKED!
It’s hard to sum up who Peggy was and all of her many accomplishments.
You may recognize the Guggenheim name from the famous Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Peggy’s uncle, Solomon Guggenheim, was the founder of the first Guggenheim Museum and later its foundation.
First and foremost, Peggy was always considered to be the black sheep of her family. Her family gained its vast fortune through the mining and banking industries, while she had mere hundreds of thousands of dollars to her name.
When Peggy was 21 years old, she became financially independent, left her home in New York City and began to travel all around the world, spending a lot of time in Europe.
She married her first husband Laurence Vail, a Dada writer, in 1922. Vail was Peggy’s first glimpse into the alternative art world. Through Vail, she met many artists that remained a big part of her life; most importantly, Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp became a close friend and confidant to Peggy. He played a huge role in the development of her artistic taste and later became an adviser for her artistic endeavors.
At age 39, Peggy had somewhat of a midlife crisis. She was trying to find something to do with her life – deciding between opening a publishing house or opening an art gallery. She chose to open a gallery because she thought it would be less expensive to open and run.
Peggy opened her first gallery on Cork Street in London, England in 1938, calling it Guggenheim Jeune. With the help of Duchamp, she created one of the first modern art galleries, showing works from the newly emergent Surrealist and Abstractionist movements. This gallery gave artists like Jean Cocteau and Vassily Kandinsky their first solo exhibitions. It also showed work by Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Arp and Henry Moore.
In the years leading up to World War II, Peggy began to collect art. In 1939, she was living in Paris and had a mission to “buy one piece of art every day.” The threat of a German invasion made for good prices and many artists wanted to sell their work to her to ensure it would escape the war safely.
Peggy had planned to open a new gallery with these newly acquired works, but the war put this on hold. She and many of her close artist friends were forced to flee from Europe. Peggy asked around to try and find ways to assure the safety of her collection. She even asked the Louvre if they could store her pieces – to which the Louvre said, “they’re not worth saving.” She hid her collection in a barn in the south of France until she boxed them up, labeled them as household items and shipped them to the US.
In 1941, Peggy and a group of her artist friends arrived in New York City. In this group, most notably, were Andre Breton and Max Ernst, both Surrealist artists. Peggy actually married Ernst that same year.
Two years later, in 1943, Peggy opens a gallery in New York city called Art of This Century, featuring works of surrealist, abstractionist, futurist, and abstract expressionist artists. This gallery was unlike any other space before – the walls were curved, paintings were hung unframed from wires you would move; it was a very interactive space. Throughout its short existence, (1943 – 1947) Art of This Century displayed the works of Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Clifford Still and Jackson Pollock.
One of Peggy’s greatest accomplishments was her discovery of Jackson Pollock. When the two met, Pollock was working for Peggy’s uncle as a carpenter at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (then called the Museum of Non-Objective Art). Peggy commissioned a piece for the entryway of her NY apartment. This was Polluck’s first commissioned work and his largest ever. Titled Mural, this piece is a staggering 23 feet long and 8 feet high. It’s currently on a world tour and will be on view at the National Gallery in DC until October 28th, 2018. So, if you’re in or around Washington, DC, go check it out! For five years, Peggy gave Pollock a monthly stipend of $150 a month and he was eventually given a solo exhibition at Art of This Century.
After World War II, Peggy was eager to get back to Europe. In 1948, she was asked by the Venice Biennale to exhibit her collection. This was one of the first major exhibitions of contemporary art in Europe.
In 1949 Peggy bought Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, located on the south end of the Grand Canal. This palazzo, whose construction began in 1748, was often called the “Palazzo Non Finito” or “the unfinished palazzo” because it was – you guessed it – never finished. It was originally planned to have five stories, but only the first was finished before Peggy moved in. The name of the palazzo translates to mean palace of lions. It is rumored to have gotten this name because one of the previous owners had live lions walking around the garden. Another rumor is that one of the previous owners simply had sculptures of lions at the entrance gates.
Peggy later added on a “barchessa,” a typical Venetian garage, usually used for a boat or gondola storage. She kept some of her collection in there, as well as her personal gondola. She was one of the last citizens of Venice to have a private gondola.
In 1951, Peggy opened her palazzo to the public three times a week. Before her death in 1979, Peggy decided to leave her collection to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation. She only had three rules: the collection is never to be separated, nothing in the collection is to be sold and the collection is never to leave her palazzo in Venice.
Today, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is open to the public six days a week and has become one of the top attractions in Venice and all of Europe.
For a great depiction of Peggy’s life, I recommend the documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. Here’s a link for the trailer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8yy8Opyjcs
I’m currently reading her autobiography, Out of This Century. It is descriptive, honest, and I highly recommend it.