Peggy Guggenheim and the History behind the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice
Sophia Hill, Foreign Correspondent in Italy, pieces together the background behind Peggy Guggenheim. She explores her life and her art collection in Venice.
‘It is always assumed that Venice is the ideal place for a honeymoon. This is a grave error. To live in Venice, or even to visit it, means that you fall in love with the city itself. There is nothing left over in your heart for anyone else.’ (Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict).
It would simply be woefully wrong to describe the life of Peggy Guggenheim as dull. Be it her work and her ceaseless impact on the art world, or her turbulent personal life; there’s a fascinating story to be heard from every inch of the art realm’s promiscuous and transcendent daughter. The range of artists whose lives she had a megalithic effect on is astounding. From opening the world’s eyes to the illustrious Lucian Freud for a debut show in London, or her heroic discovery of Jackson Pollock, Peggy led the way. Having created collections containing the works of world-renowned artists such as Picasso, Bacon and Salvador Dalí, Peggy ensured art-lovers would continue to flock to her collection and cemented the revered Guggenheim name. Fortunate enough to travel the world, Guggenheim ventured from her home in New York to Paris, then to the South of France during the war and finally retired in Venice; a place we know left her with little space for much else in her heart.
In a bid to become more culturally genteel during my year abroad, I vowed to visit as many galleries and exhibitions as possible. But, I must confess that, so far, simply wandering around Palazzo Venier dei Leoni has been a personal highlight.
The current exhibition ‘Peggy Guggenheim: L’ultima Dogaressa’ is a collection, and ultimately, a celebration, of the work and life of Peggy Guggenheim herself. In 1948, Guggenheim uprooted her life from New York and travelled across the pond to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice. Having closed her gallery in New York – Art of This Century – with her four-legged companions in tow, she travelled and took her collection to Italy. This exhibition not only displays the collection of, quite literally, a lifetime and the stories of the many lives Guggenheim lived from 1948-1979, but also displays significant milestones in 20th-century art. The exhibition utilised a variety of works from both the famous, such as Study for Chimpanzee by Francis Bacon, and lesser-known artists such as Japanese-born artists Kenzo Okada and Tomonori Toyofuku.
In July 1949, Guggenheim acquired Palazzo Venier dei Leoni as an unfinished eighteenth-century building on the Grand Canal. By September, she had opened her garden to the public with the ‘Exhibition of Contemporary Sculpture’, where she showcased twenty objects – all representing different idioms of modern sculpture. Works by Henry Moore, Jean Arp and Alberto Giacometti from her collection, were all on display, alongside pieces chosen by Giuseppe Marchiori, an Italian art critic, who she asked to select works from other Italian artists. The sculptures chosen to be displayed all conveyed Guggenheim’s diverse taste in European avant-garde sculpting.
For those of you who, like myself, are not experts in all things art, fear not. The social and personal life of Ms Guggenheim was equally as thrilling as her artistic endeavours. The Guggenheim gallery in Venice is one of the most visited tourist attractions and I highly recommend it. In a bid to become more culturally genteel during my year abroad, I vowed to visit as many galleries and exhibitions as possible. But, I must confess that, so far, simply wandering around Palazzo Venier dei Leoni has been a personal highlight. Maybe it is the relaxed nature of the gallery – you can gently amble around admiring the vast collection of art Guggenheim amassed. Or maybe, it is knowing that everything you see was personally chosen by Peggy herself. Collections are so personal, so open. A glimpse into the mind and character of an icon.
The social and personal life of Ms Guggenheim was equally as thrilling as her artistic endeavours.
Despite the name Guggenheim being synonymous with a relatively modern take on art, the family is best known for their involvement in the mining industry. By 1918, the family fortune was estimated between $250-300 million, which led to a hefty inheritance for Peggy Guggenheim following her father’s death when she turned 19. Today Guggenheim partners manage over $200 billion in assets.
At first glance of her grave in the gardens of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni it is clear that, alongside Venice, her 14 dogs had pride of place in her heart. While her deep adoration for her dogs seems blatant, the romantic escapades of Peggy Guggenheim are hardly secret. Her first marriage was to Laurence Vail, with whom she had two children, but they divorced after seven years. John Holms entered the scene and they were together for five years until his death. For the duration of the rest of her life, including a wartime marriage to artist Max Ernst, she enjoyed a string of lovers. It is even estimated that this self-proclaimed nymphomaniac had been with a thousand men. There is speculation that Ms Guggenheim was another woman who fell victim to the modern psychological term… “daddy issues” – following her nervous breakdown after the death of her father. Her autobiography is a raw insight into her life as she openly speaks of her seven abortions, her sister’s suicide following their father’s death and her sexual affairs. Karol Vail has commented on Guggenheim’s “nonchalant attitude in the way that she handled it” all. Nicknamed an “Art Addict”, Guggenheim was in fact a mother of two, but confessed that she did not feel she knew fully how to be one. This confirms that her greatest life commitment was, above all, to art.
During her time in Venice, Peggy Guggenheim became a celebrity; the sexually liberal lady with the butterfly sunglasses, always seen with her dogs in her private gondola. Her “open book” personality is admirable, and still, despite her lifelong collection of art …and men, she admitted to suffering from loneliness. She died in 1979, alone and unmarried – surrounded by ‘The Room’, ‘Bird in Space’, ‘The Bowl of Grapes’, ‘Study for Chimpanzee’ and countless more paintings. Her ashes remain in the gardens of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, still side-by-side with her 14 dogs.