THE number of artists’ lives Peggy Guggenheim had a part in is staggering. She gave Lucian Freud his first show in London. She was responsible for discovering and giving patronage to Jackson Pollock, which included a monthly $300 stipend and the loan to buy a house in Long Island away from the temptations of New York City.
Her art collection contains works by the likes of Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. She hoovered up a large tranche of them in Paris in 1940 as the Nazis were laying siege to Europe, oblivious to her own personal safety as a Jew. Just as Adolf Hitler’s soldiers were about to march into the city, she had the works spirited to New York hidden amongst bedclothes and casserole dishes.
She was schooled by Marcel Duchamp, a friend of hers since arriving in Paris in 1921, married Max Ernst and interestingly promoted work by both of Robert De Niro’s parents. The actor is interviewed about his memories of the grand dame in the documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, which will be screened tomorrow (November 11) as part of the Cork Film Festival.
“The art historian John Richardson said she was ‘a pollinator’,” says the film’s director, Lisa Immordino Vreeland. “She was also a conduit and a facilitator. She was at the right place at the right time. She was interested in supporting the artists. At the same time, she was a friend with these artists. She was in the middle of the great art movements of the twentieth century.” Immordino Vreeland was drawn to her subject because Guggenheim re-invented herself. She was born in 1898 and was ordained to live a domesticated, bourgeois life amongst New York’s moneyed class, but it was a role she rejected. She became the family’s enfant terrible.
Guggenheim’s father, Benjamin, died on the Titanic in 1912 while wearing full evening dress; this left his three daughters to be raised by his wife, Florette Seligman. She was an heiress of the wealthy Seligman banking family. She liked to do everything thrice, including wearing three coats, three watches and saying everything three times; her sister, Peggy’s Aunt Fanny used to sing all her phrases, which drove her husband to try and kill her with a baseball bat.
When Guggenheim came of age, she took her first inheritance payment, $450,000, with her to Paris and found sanctuary in the city’s famous avant-garde community. She used to play tennis with Ezra Pound. She weathered an unhappy marriage to the artist and writer, Laurence Vail. They had two children, Sinbad and Peggy, but divorced after seven years. “He became my best friend afterwards, after he stopped beating me up,” she told a biographer.
She had five years with the love of her life, John Holms, but their affair ended when the English writer died following a minor operation. For the rest of her life – including the wartime marriage to Ernst who said he married her as part of a career move – she took a string of lovers, rumoured to total a thousand. She was, by her own admission, a nymphomaniac. She once spent four days in a hotel room with Samuel Beckett, only rising from bed to receive room service. She never met anyone like him, she said, his conversation was so stimulating. “My book was all about fucking,” she said of her memoirs.
“I love the honesty of it – the courage to be able to talk about these affairs,” says Immordino Vreeland. “She was alive. Look at these lovers that she had. I would love to have had those lovers. I think there were many other women who were doing this, but it wasn’t talked about in that way. Men were doing it. In the Sixties, there was rampant sex, free love. The Twenties also was like that.
“She was also trying to find a way. She lost her father at a young age. Perhaps it was a way of trying to replace a father figure. Perhaps also it was a way to feel less insecure. She clearly felt insecure. There was also something very attractive about her because otherwise all these men would not have been involved with her. It wasn’t about the money because she was quite cheap and tight about her money.”
She was a boon for the art scene in New York, having moved to the city during the Second World War. She championed work by modernist masters like Pollock and the émigré Mark Rothko and facilitated Exhibition by 31 Women in her gallery Art of This Century in 1943. It was the first of its kind, a show devoted to the works of female artists. One of the painters featured, Dorothea Tanning, had an affair though with Guggenheim’s husband, Ernst. “I should have had 30 women. That was my mistake,” she said.
Guggenheim hankered after Europe, and decided to set up stall in Venice where she lived until the end of her days in 1979, having opened a museum there in 1951. Her ashes are interred in the garden of her beloved Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. It was the sadness that pervaded Guggenheim’s life that surprised Immordino Vreeland from her research. She had a nervous breakdown when her father drowned on the Titanic. Guggenheim’s sister, Benita died in childbirth; her daughter, Peggy, committed suicide aged 42.
“In her autobiography, it was startling that she would write down things like having seven abortions, and sleeping with all these artists. But these incidences that happened to her – the loss of her father, the loss of her sister, the loss of lovers, then the loss of her daughter, she had a nonchalant attitude in the way that she handled it on the pages of her autobiography. You could really she how damaged she was. That’s why what she achieved is so much bigger because she was never really loved in a big way and never understood as a child.” Guggenheim said she loved her daughter but didn’t know how to be a mother. “Her life commitment was to her collection and not her children,” said Karol Vail of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. Guggenheim truly was an art addict.