She lived a life of sex, privilege and money – but all she wanted was credibility within the male-dominated art world. Stuart Jeffries on Peggy Guggenheim, millionaire collector
Peggy Guggenheim had an ugly nose. In 1920, she asked a Cincinnati surgeon to make it like the one she had read about in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, “tip-tilted like the petal of a flower”. But he botched the painful operation and, then, after stitching her up as best he could, still charged her $1,000. Guggenheim left town with one of her least welcome inheritances intact – the family potato nose.
Jackson Pollock reportedly said that you would have to put a towel over Peggy Guggenheim’s head to have sex with her, which is a particularly vile thing to say given that she was his most ardent and committed patron. But he was one of the few heterosexual acquaintances with whom she didn’t have an affair. Despite the nose, or maybe even because of it, Peggy Guggenheim had a lurid sex life that she, her contemporaries and those who have written about her since, enjoyed embroidering. When asked by an interviewer how many husbands she had, Guggenheim replied: “Do you mean mine, or other people’s?”
Two new biographies – by Anton Gill and Laucrence Tacou-Rumney – suggest that it was our old friend, low self-esteem, that prompted this sexual voracity. The nose, the early death of her father (in 1912, copper-mining heir Ben Guggenheim bravely stepped off the sinking Titanic into the night waves), the difficulties of being a Jew in America, the leap over the ghetto walls and the headlong rush of a moneyed Yank to be part of European bohemia, all played their part. “Peggy’s most successful relationships were with animals and works of art,” writes Gill. He reports she had a large collection of Lhasa Apsos dogs whom she loved unconditionally and they, let’s hope, returned the compliment.
So the myth that attaches to many women art collectors, from Catherine the Great onwards, crystallises: Guggenheim collected men like she collected art, only faster. Which is saying something because, in 1940 when Guggenheim was in Paris and the Nazis bearing down on the city, she was buying a picture a day. No wonder the British edition of Guggenheim’s memoirs was called Confessions of an Art Addict. But, unlike the art, she didn’t hold on to her men. When she seduced a great surrealist painter, one of her former conquests remarked: “Max Ernst is now said to be Peggy Guggenheim’s consort no 3,812.” The young Samuel Beckett, improbably, was another.
What was in it for her lovers? Guggenheim herself provided the most devastating assessment when she wrote about her first marriage to an anti-semitic brute called Laurence Vail. She had, she claimed, no beauty, no artistic talent, all she could offer him was money. And live off his wife’s money he did, in between bouts of beating her up, walking on her prostrate body and rubbing jam into her hair.
What sort of money did Guggenheim have at her disposal? Rather less than the Empress of all the Russias. At 21, she inherited $450,000 from her father’s estate. This capital, in the first few years, yielded $22,500 a year, an income that rose in later decades. That, plus the $500,000 inheritance she received on her mother’s death in 1937, enabled her to put together an extraordinary collection before Paris fell to the Germans. It consisted of several Klees, a Gris, a Léger, a Kandinsky, a Braque, as well as paintings by Miró, De Chirico and Magritte.
None the less, the Louvre thought it worthless and refused to store it during the war. But then what we now think of as the stewards of the great collections were hostile to the modern art that Guggenheim assiduously championed. For example, James Bolivar Manson, then director of the Tate Gallery in London, dismissed some modernist sculptures that she wanted to be shown in London, saying that they were “not-art”. As a result of his intervention, British customs would not let them into the country. Guggenheim later, along with Sir Herbert Read, tried and failed to set up a modern art museum in London, proof, if proof were needed, that Tate Modern has been an absurdly long time coming.
Guggenheim fled wartime France for New York, where between 1942 and 1947 she ran Art of this Century, a gallery-cum-museum in which her European collection was displayed alongside temporary shows devoted to American artists whose work she commissioned and collected. There is hardly a significant American artist of the mid-20th century who didn’t receive her patronage.
But what is the importance of Guggenheim as a collector? To Americans in particular, a great deal. American curator and art writer Gail Stavitsky argues: “Unlike Europe, America had neither royalty nor aristocracy, papacy nor civic organisations to develop collections that would eventually form the basis of publicly administered, government-funded museums.”
Yes, Peggy Guggenheim’s collection may be housed now in a Venetian palazzo, and admittedly the most important Guggenheim collection in the US is now that of her uncle Solomon, mainly housed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s building in New York. But Peggy Guggenheim is important to American art lovers: she generously donated to public museums all over the US and distributed 20 paintings by Jackson Pollock.
What is distinctive about women collectors? “Almost without exception, the significant women in this typically overwhelmingly masculine field have been rich – some very rich – and they belonged to the upper classes,” write Charlotte Gere and Marina Vaizey in their book Great Women Collectors. “They have had money; and they have had time.”
They cite among others Catherine the Great, a self-confessed glutton, whose sexual voracity, though exaggerated, and artistic acquisitiveness may have made her, to some, resemble Guggenheim with a deeper purse.
Collection after collection, made by men of the leading families and politicians of Europe, fell to her imperial might. She bought Sir Robert Walpole’s magnificent collection, for example, in 1779 when his heirs were left in debt after he built Houghton Hall in Norfolk. She was predatory and aggressive, leading Gere and Vaizey to suggest she collected like a man.
But what, if anything, is it to collect like a woman? From the Renaissance onwards, women’s collections were often by-products of homemaking. “These impulses, so distinct from men’s collecting instincts, produced the types of collection that, broadly speaking could be categorised as feminine,” write Gere and Vaizey. Porcelain, embroidery, dress and fans were all widely collected by women, but not men. Couturier Coco Chanel amassed a collection of 18th century French furniture, cosmetics magnate Helena Rubinstein collected African and Victorian glass.
But women historically haven’t just collected applied art; Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour may have intervened to ensure the future security of the Sèvres porcelain factory and thus promoted French decorative art, but she was also a great collector of fine art – her name is closely linked with painter François Boucher’s. He painted her portraits regularly and she commissioned or bought much of his work. Nellie Jacquemart and Josephine Bowes were both artists who worked with their husbands to build up two great collections of art (the Jacquemart-André museum in Paris and the Bowes museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham) but in each case it’s hard to see which works were acquired by the feminine and which by the masculine half of the partnership.
Equally, there’s nothing distinctively feminine about Guggenheim’s collection. Ah, sceptics might well say, there’s a reason for that – her reliance on men of taste to advise her. The suggestion is that Guggenheim was a galumphing klutz who had a showy life but little aesthetic sensibility. Guggenheim had a bad nose – could it be that she had an even worse eye? Anton Gill’s biography contends that, “the jury remains out” on that. When Guggenheim’s collection went on display at the first post-war Venice Biennale, one of the visitors was Bernard Berenson, the great historian of Renaissance art, whose writings had been her guide when she first visited Europe. Guggenheim ran up to him and said: “Oh this is the greatest moment of my life Mr Berenson – you were the first person to teach me about painting.” To which Berenson, looking dismissively around the collection, replied: “My dear, what a tragedy I wasn’t the last.”
Berenson’s jibe, at least, wasn’t so much sexist as the remark of a man out of temper with modern art. Guggenheim was astute enough to cultivate tasteful men who were not. The French artist Marcel Duchamp became her unpaid modern art tutor and astute adviser. If not a great judge of art, then Guggenheim was clearly savvy, sensitive and humble enough to know who was. And that is, surely, a kind of artistic sensitivity.
What’s more, Guggenheim was a great collector in the sense that Gere and Vaizey define. “Collecting must, in our view, significantly alter the repute of the objects collected, not only by adding to knowledge and expanding appreciation, but perhaps even more by conferring status: the collector can make the unfashionable or ignored more central to the culture of the day.”
This is what Guggenheim did. The extent of her commissioning went beyond just what is housed in the Guggenheim in Venice. She was a woman whose commission, certainly after her return to New York, could transform the reputation of an artist. Indeed, the promise of that prestige may have been an aphrodisiac for some of her artist lovers. Without her, Pollock and other abstract expressionists might well not have got art-world status conferred on them so readily.
That said, it must have been difficult sometimes for Guggenheim to be such an indefatigable supporter of these men (and it was work by male artists that she overwhelmingly collected). One day Pollock, Duchamp and Guggenheim had a row over a canvas she had commissioned for the foyer of her East Side townhouse in New York. At 20ft wide, it proved too big for the allotted space. Duchamp proposed cutting eight inches off one end. Pollock disappeared to get drunk, wandering back later into a party at Guggenheim’s apartment and peeing into her fire.
Art world sexism followed Guggenheim wherever she trod. One day in 1940 she walked into Picasso’s Paris atelier, seeking to buy a picture. The great master ignored her for several minutes, before dismissing her with: “Madame, the lingerie department is on the second floor.”
Sex, money and rude artists – was there any more to Guggenheim’s life? Yes. A determination to commit herself to what she described as “serving the future instead of recording the past”, something which she best did with a collection of 300 works of art housed in the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice. But what is particularly distinctive about her collection is the responsibility she felt for the art and the artists she collected.
That, at least, is something that it is rather hard to imagine male collectors doing.
Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian