It’s hard to pin down where I nurtured my love for art because it’s as though it has been in my blood since I was born. I grew up hearing “We’ll be back late tonight, it’s opening night at the gallery,” and the endless phone calls my father would get from international clients in languages I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Many of the things my parents did made no sense to me, but they felt like premonitions of what my future held; they felt right.
My parents were the foundation of that passion, but the turning point became learning about Peggy Guggenheim — one of the most fascinating women to have walked this earth, in my humble opinion.
I discovered her spontaneously when wandering around Venice, in the summer before my freshman year of college. When I walked into the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, I instantly recognized a Picasso painting to my right, in front of me a hanging Calder, to my left a Magritte. In the far back I could see a Jean Arp, a Pollock and a Dalí … it seemed that every important modernist artist was there, present, in the room.
She had lived within those walls, and every work in sight had been hers. Before I left the museum, I bought her autobiography “Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict” and embarked on a journey of becoming someone I never knew I could be. And though I discovered her rather late, life ever since has been a bit more exciting — as though she could make all dull things shine, and all far dreams seem attainable.
Guggenheim was born into the wealthy New York City Guggenheim family, destined for a life of ostentatious riches and pretentious people. Her father died in the Titanic tragedy in 1912; she was left with her mother and her two sisters, Hazel and Benita. Death and dissociation became the pillars of her youth, and she was always regarded as the “black sheep” of the Guggenheims.
She married the writer Laurence Vail and had two children: Sindbad and Pegeen. Their problematic marriage led to an unfair divorce in which her kids were separated — Sindbad went away with Laurence, and she kept Pegeen. In her memoir, she mentions having felt like she had nothing in common with Sinbad other than their physical resemblance. Pegeen, on the other hand, was the “love of her life” — they were close and adored each other, but no matter how hard she tried, Guggenheim felt she didn’t know how to be a mother to Pegeen.
They led awfully similar lives, so much so that it was Pegeen’s own problematic marriage that led her to suicide at age 41. Wrecked motherhoods didn’t cease either. Peggy’s sister Benita died in childbirth, and both of Hazel’s sons “fell off” of the Surrey Hotel rooftop — speculation has it that she dropped them because she’d rather them dead than with their father, with whom she was in the middle of a divorce. Tragedy after tragedy. Kafkaesque, almost.
Actually, it was thanks to her own mother’s death and the $450,000 fortune left to her name that she could open her first gallery, “Guggenheim Jeune,” in London in 1938. With the war, she was forced to leave London and move to New York City. In 1939, artists were desperate to sell art, and at one point, Guggenheim was buying one painting a day for ridiculously low prices — in her memoir, she recalls having bought a Dalí while in bed. In addition to buying, she also urged artists to leave Europe and move to the United States. In 1942, she opened her second gallery, “Art of this Century,” and with this opening, Guggenheim came to be the bridge between European and American art, between surrealism and abstract expressionism. The link between masterminds like Picasso, Miró and Giacometti and Paul Klee, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, her newfound jewels. She saw herself as “the midwife” of the American avant-garde, having given many of the big names of modern art their first solo exhibition.
Perhaps her most incredible work as a matron was the discovery of Jackson Pollock, who was working as a maintenance man in his uncle’s museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim of New York (then the Museum of Non-Objective Painting), at the time of their first encounter. She saw potential and invested, as she had done previously with several other artists. She “made him.” Guggenheim commissioned Pollock to create a mural that would go on the outside wall of her house in the city; to this day it’s the artist’s largest work.
Art was Guggenheim’s identity — she married herself to the wall, the medium, the work and the artist. She was her greatest creation. Guggenheim managed to own the greatest collection of modern art for the ridiculous sum of 40,000 dollars. Today, there isn’t a single painting in her collection that could be bought for an eighth of that value.
What art would be today if she hadn’t been, we will never know. What is certain is that she was the first of her kind. A reincarnation of Isabella d’Este but eccentric, sensual and promiscuous. She nurtured art as one nurtures their last breath of air. She bred artists and created a haven for them to bloom and develop in. Guggenheim became the Mecca for connoisseurs, patrons and appreciators to come together.
Her role as a matron is all-encompassing, from doomed familial bonds to the mother of a whole generation. An incessant one, for I too have found a mother in Peggy Guggenheim. And though I won’t get to marry Max Ernst, nor have Marcel Duchamp as my mentor and best friend, I would love to find my very own artists and invest in the magic of a brushstroke. Art is a way of living. A way of growing. A way of dying.
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.