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Remembering Peggy Guggenheim, the Sexually Liberated Socialite Who Shaped Modern Art

She was divorced, globe-trotting Jewish aristocrat who championed modern art in the face of the Nazis, and paved the way for women's sexual liberation and freedom.

Peggy Guggenheim. Image courtesy of the Peggy Gugggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

Two images define art collector, socialite, and muse Peggy Guggenheim for me: the headstone of the 14 beloved dogs she had buried beside her; and the enormous dolls house she had as a child, full of mini bearskin rugs and ivory furniture, which she kept locked and allowed nobody to touch.

These images, put together in a new documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, show a woman overflowing with affection, which was often directed at the unexpected. She was a collector of the precious and the ridiculous almost from birth; a woman who imbued objects with almost more value than people; someone who would name a pet dog Pegeen and then be surprised that her daughter of the same name could be offended; a product of two of America's most wealthy families who served up cheap, tinned food at her legendary dinner parties; a flamboyant, eccentric, ambitious, Jewish woman who pushed to the front of one of the male-dominated art world at a time when being both female and Jewish were, to say the least, challenging.


Peggy Guggenheim was the centre of mid-century art world. She dragged together a collection of some of the most successful, weird, difficult, and progressive artists of her generation; Pollock, Mondrian, Beckett, Nash, Kandinsky and Picasso all showed at her galleries and contributed to her art collection. It's hard to image the art world today without her. She made modernism happen.

Roloff Beny / Courtesy of National Archives of Canada

Born in 1898 in New York City on East 69th Street, she was the daughter of businessman Benjamin Guggenheim, and niece of Solomon Guggenheim – founder of the famous New York museum. She was 13 when her father died on the Titanic, after which she describes being demoted to a "poor relative", moving to a "cheaper apartment" with 'fewer servants'. It's hardly poverty, but it did mark her out from the wealthy Jewish girls at her school. So she shaved off her eyebrows and planned her escape.

By 1921 she had moved to Paris where she played tennis with Ezra Pound and decided to "get rid of my virginity" with the writer and artist Laurence Vail. A son, Sinbad, followed who, according to most interpretations, she gave up in order to follow her new lover, the writer John Holmes. "She was a single woman, a divorcee, with a reputation, travelling on her own, with an influence in London, Paris, New York and Venice," says Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the director of Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. "There aren't many figures in the art world in an influence in so many places. I'm not sure that she was even aware of it; this was just her life and she lived it in her own terms and her own terms were to just push forward and do it."


This was just her life and she lived it in her own terms and her own terms were to just push forward and do it.

In 1938, just before the outbreak of war, she opened the Guggenheim Jeune gallery on Cork Street, London, exhibiting the work, among many others, of Jean Cocteau, Henry Moore, and Yves Tanguy, whose wife apparently once tried to throw a fish at her during dinner after finding out they'd been having an affair. At the time, they were all struggling artists whose work was misunderstood. But they survived thanks to her determination to foster them.

At the outbreak of war she decided to buy one picture a day, using the money she'd inherited upon her mother's death. During this spending binge, she bought up Picassos, Ernsts, Mirós, Magrittes, Man Rays, Dalís, and Klees. From 1941 to 1947, fuelled by the art-hating Nazi regime, she shipped the lot to New York, to open The Art of This Century Gallery in 1942. The gallery was as much an artwork as the pieces it displayed – she hung paintings at strange angles on huge jutting poles, jumbled in with sculptures and vitrines, so visitors could walk right round the exhibits.

In 1941, she married her second husband, notorious painter Max Ernst, who she would divorce in 1946. One image that stands out from this period is that of him dressing up in her clothes. While cross-dressing in the art world is hardly revolutionary, it says much of Guggenheim's give-a-shit attitude that she discusses this in interviews featured in the documentary with the same matter-of-fact tone in which she describes her seven abortions and botched nose job. As Gore Vidal wrote in his foreword essay to her memoirs, "Although she gave parties and collected pictures and people there was – and is – something cool and impenetrable about Guggenheim. She does not fuss."


She may not have fussed, but Guggenheim certainly fucked. In Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, we hear about the four days she spent in bed with Samuel Beckett, about her "wholly unsuccessful" sex with Jackson Pollock and her voracious sexual appetite well into her grey-haired years. "Her outlook was more progressive than the people, the men, around her," says Lisa. "There were no rules attached to her life when not many people were living like that."

Courtesy of the Peggy Gugggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

Despite being mentored by Marcel Duchamp, she is perhaps an ambivalent feminist icon. In 1943, she put on an exhibition of 31 women exhibited an all-female collection including work by Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, Xenia Cage, Guggenheim's own daughter Pegeen and even a self-portrait by the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

When in 1948, she was invited to exhibit her collection in the disused Greek Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, she stayed on and in 1949 established her own gallery in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal. She started to get grief for the sculpture at the entrance to the museum – a huge Marino Marini figure of a naked man on horseback with a huge boner – so made the penis detachable, so she could unscrew it when cardinals and other puritans came to look round. Sara Carson, who worked at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, writes in an email to me: "Art was built in to every aspect of her life – she had so many paintings she had to stack them in her bathroom, where they got splattered with toothpaste."


Courtesy of the Peggy Gugggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

One of the later pictures taken of Guggenheim was her in the Palazzo, lying on her bed, below an enormous sculptural bedstead. Even in her last days and in her most intimate spaces, Guggenheim brought together sex and art to produce a powerful, lasting collection and impression. "She grew up in an environment with certain rules and she broke them all," argues Lisa. "That speaks to a sort of courageousness."

An art-lover who acted as muse and mentor to much of the modernist movement; a single, divorced, globe-trotting Jewish woman who built a collection during the era of Hitler and Moseley; Peggy Guggenheim was, as Gore Vidal puts it, "the last of Henry James' transatlantic heroines – Daisy Miller with rather more balls." More balls, perhaps, and also a detachable penis.

@NellFrizzell Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is out on DVD now.

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