Peggy Guggenheim was born in New York on 26th August 1898, the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim and Florette Seligman. Benjamin Guggenheim, who died on April 1912 on the SS Titanic was one of Meyer Guggenheim's sons, emigrated from German Swiss in Usa in the half of XIXth century, founder of the family fortune, based on mining and smelting of metals, especially silver, copper and lead. The Seligmans were a leading American banking family.
In her early 20s, Peggy volunteered for work at a bookshop, the Sunwise Turn, in New York and thanks to this began making friends in intellectual and artistic circles, including the man who was to become her first husband in Paris in 1922, Laurence Vail: a writer and Dada collagist of great talent. In 1921 she travels in Europe and the following year she marries.
Thanks to Laurence Vail, father of her two children Sindbad and Pegeen, Peggy soon found herself at the heart of Parisian bohéme and American ex-patriate society. Many of her acquaintances of the time, such as Constantin Brancusi, Djuna Barnes and Marcel Duchamp, were to become lifelong friends. Though she remained on good terms with Vail for the rest of his life, she left him in 1928 for an English intellectual, John Holms, who was the greatest love of her life.
In 1937, encouraged by her friend Peggy Waldman, Peggy decided to open an art gallery in London; inaugurated on January of the following year, the Guggenheim Jeune gallery opens with a show presenting works by Jean Cocteau, followed by the first one-man show of Vasily Kandinsky in England. At 40 years old, she was beginning a career which would significantly affect the course of post-war art; her friend Samuel Beckett urged her to dedicate herself to contemporary art and Marcel Duchamp introduced her to the artists and taught her, as she put it, “the difference between abstract and Surrealist art.”
In 1939, tired of her gallery, Peggy conceived “the idea of opening a modern museum in London,” with her friend Herbert Read as its director. From the start the museum was to be formed on historical principles, and a list of all the artists that should be represented, drawn up by Read and later revised by Marcel Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg, was to become the basis of her collection. Peggy used to say that it was her duty to protect the art of her own time and she dedicated half of their life to this mission and to the creation of her museum.
In 1939-40, apparently oblivious of the war, Peggy busily acquired works for the future museum, keeping to her resolve to “buy a picture a day.” Some of the masterpieces of her collection, such as works by Francis Picabia, Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí and Piet Mondrian, were bought at that time. She astonished Fernand Léger by buying his Men in the City on the day that Hitler invaded Norway.
In July 1941, Peggy fled Nazi-occupied France and returned to her native New York, not after helping a lot of artists to leave Europe; among them Max Ernst, who was to become her second husband a few months later.
In October 1942 she opened her musem/gallery Art of This Century. Designed by the Rumanian-Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler, the gallery was composed of extraordinarily innovative exhibition rooms and soon became the most stimulating venue for contemporary art in New York City.
Of the opening night, she wrote: “I wore one of my Tanguy earrings and one made by Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art".
There Peggy exhibited her collection of Cubist, abstract and Surrealist art and produced a remarkable catalogue, edited by André Breton, with a cover design by Max Ernst.She held temporary exhibitions of leading European artists, and of several then unknown young Americans such as Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, David Hare, Janet Sobel, Robert de Niro Sr, Clyfford Still, and Jackson Pollock, the ‘star’ of the gallery, who was given his first show by Peggy late in 1943.
Pollock and the others pioneered American Abstract Expressionism, one of the principal sources of this was Surrealism. More important, however, was the encouragement and support that Peggy, together with her friend and assistant Howard Putzel, gave to the members of this nascent New York avant-garde.
Peggy and her collection thus played a vital intermediary role in the development of America’s first art movement of international importance.
In 1947 Peggy decided to return in Europe, after closing her gallery in USA and divorcing from Max Ernst; in 1948, finished the world war, her collection was shown for the first time at the Venice Biennale. In this way the works of artists such as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko were exhibited for the first time in Europe.
In 1948 Peggy bought Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal in Venice, where she came to live. In 1949 she held an exhibition of sculptures in the garden, and from 1951 she opened her collection to the public.
In 1950 Peggy organized the first exhibition of Jackson Pollock in Italy, in the Ala Napoleonica of the Museo Correr in Venice. Her collection is in the meantime exhibited in Florence and Milan, and later in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Zurich. During her 30-year Venetian life, Peggy Guggenheim continued to collect works of art and to support artists. In 1962 she was nominated Honorary Citizen of Venice.
Between 1964 and 1975 the collection is again shown in different places abroad: in 1964 in the Tate Gallery of London, in 1966 in Stockolm, in 969 in ew York, in 1974 in Paris and also in Italy, Turin, in 1975. Determinating is the exhibition in New York at Solomon R Guggenheim Museum; on that occasion Peggy Guggenheim resolved to donate her palace and works of art to the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation. The Foundation had been created in 1937 by Peggy Guggenheim’s uncle Solomon, in order to operate his collection and museum which, since 1959, has been housed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous spiral structure on 5th Avenue.
She died aged 81 on 23rd December 1979.
Her ashes are placed in a corner of the garden of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, next to the place where she customarily buried her beloved dogs. Since this time, the Guggenheim Foundation has converted and expanded Peggy Guggenheim's private house into one of the finest small museums of modern art in the world.
Up to now, the Foundation controls the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Solomon R Guggenheim in New York, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the Deustche Guggenheim in Berlin, the Guggenheim Hermitage in Las Vegas.
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