Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern

Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern

by Francine Prose


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A spirited portrait of the colorful, irrepressible, and iconoclastic American collector who fearlessly advanced the cause of modern art

One of twentieth-century America’s most influential patrons of the arts, Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979) brought to wide public attention the work of such modern masters as Jackson Pollock and Man Ray. In her time, there was no stronger advocate for the groundbreaking and the avant-garde. Her midtown gallery was the acknowledged center of the postwar New York art scene, and her museum on the Grand Canal in Venice remains one of the world’s great collections of modern art. Yet as renowned as she was for the art and artists she so tirelessly championed, Guggenheim was equally famous for her unconventional personal life, and for her ironic, playful desire to shock.
Acclaimed best-selling author Francine Prose offers a singular reading of Guggenheim’s life that will enthrall enthusiasts of twentieth-century art, as well as anyone interested in American and European culture and the interrelationships between them. The lively and insightful narrative follows Guggenheim through virtually every aspect of her extraordinary life, from her unique collecting habits and paradigm-changing discoveries, to her celebrity friendships, failed marriages, and scandalous affairs, and Prose delivers a colorful portrait of a defiantly uncompromising woman who maintained a powerful upper hand in a male-dominated world. Prose also explores the ways in which Guggenheim’s image was filtered through the lens of insidious antisemitism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300224290
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/22/2016
Series: Jewish Lives
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 607,266
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

New York Times best-selling author and National Book Award finalist Francine Prose has written more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Caravaggio and Reading Like a Writer.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

April 1, 1947

Place of Birth:

Brooklyn, New York


B.A., Radcliffe College, 1968

Read an Excerpt

Peggy Guggenheim

The Shock of the Modern

By Francine Prose


Copyright © 2015 Francine Prose
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21652-3


The Angel of the City

I begin to see Peggy Guggenheim as the last of Henry James's transatlantic heroines, Daisy Miller with rather more balls.

— Gore Vidal

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is visible from the water, from the private boats, and from the vaporetto, the public ferry that crisscrosses the Grand Canal on its serpentine course through Venice. The museum is located in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, a palace that was begun in the eighteenth century and left unfinished, its construction interrupted some decades before the Napoleonic Wars. The white building, with its stone façade, is arresting, partly because it has only one story and is so unlike the tall, elaborate Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque palazzi that line the Canal, and partly because something about its spare, slightly severe elegance makes it a bit difficult to place in time. Is it eighteenth century, neoclassical, or modern? An ancient Roman temple with a hint of the 1950s ranch house?

For thirty years it was where Peggy Guggenheim lived and where she installed one of the world's greatest collections of modern art — and it is where that art has remained since her death in 1979. Among the artists represented in the collection that she began to assemble long before the significance and value of their work was widely or fully recognized are Picasso, Pollock, Brancusi, Arp, Braque, Calder, de Kooning, Rothko, Duchamp, Ernst, Giacometti, Kandinsky, Klee, Léger, Magritte, Miró, Mondrian, Man Ray, Henry Moore, and Francis Bacon.

It was Peggy's decision to place Marino Marini's 1948 bronze The Angel of the City (L'Angelo della Città) at the entrance to her home, front and center on the landing facing the Grand Canal and nearly impossible not to notice if one is passing by boat. The bronze statue depicts a heavily simplified and abstracted horse and rider, reminiscent of Etruscan sculpture. The horse's neck and head are more or less parallel to the ground. The rider's body rises from the horse, at a right angle. His arms are outstretched and flung open wide, his head tipped back, as if in ecstasy. His body is arched, his phallus erect. The statue's most striking visual elements are: horse, rider, penis — specifically, a penis pointed at the traffic, the boats and passengers traveling between the museum, and, on the other side of the Grand Canal, the massive Palazzo Corner, which serves as the headquarters of the prefect of Venice. In her memoir, Peggy claims that Marini fashioned the statue so that the phallus was removable and that she detached it when she knew that nuns might be passing by.

There were many works of sculpture that Peggy could have chosen for the landing, and it says something about her nature — her ironic, playful, lifelong desire to shock — that she selected this particular piece of modern art with which to amuse or con front the officials and citizens of Venice. Peggy's mentor and adviser, the art critic and historian Sir Herbert Read, described the statue's placement as a challenge to the prefect.

Peggy claimed that the best view of it was in profile, from her living room, where she liked to sit and observe visitors reacting to Marini's work. What also makes the gesture so characteristic of Peggy are the contradictions and the ambivalence it expresses, the particular mixture of affection and provocation: Venice was, after all, a city that she deeply loved.


Out of This Century

In 1946 Peggy Guggenheim published Out of This Century, a wry and revealing account of her life so far. She was forty-eight years old. In New York, her avant-garde museum-gallery, Art of This Century, was a critical and popular success. Opened in October 1942, the innovatively designed exhibition space on West 57th Street had become a gathering place for the most important artists then working in New York, a showcase for exiled European émigrés and talented young American painters.

One of Peggy's assistants, Marius Bewley, noted who came to the gallery, how often, and for how long: Breton ("around a great deal"); Tanguy ("often"); Fernand Léger, Ossip Zadkine, and Marc Chagall; Matta, Pavel Tchelitchew ("was there a lot"); Duchamp ("frequently"); Man Ray ("once or twice"); Barr ("frequently"); Kiesler, Alexander Calder ("all the time"); James Johnson Sweeney ("would stay all day"); Motherwell, Jean-Paul Sartre ... Pollock, Gypsy Rose Lee, David Hare, Clyfford Still, Herbert Read ("spent a lot of time"); Mary McCarthy ("occasionally"); and so on.

Art of This Century, itself an example of what would later be called installation art, remained a cultural force in New York (and the wider world) from 1942 until 1947. At the gallery, viewers could study masterpieces such as Brancusi's Bird in Space, works that might possibly have survived without Peggy's intervention, but which she had rescued — along with many examples of what the Nazis termed "degenerate art" — from Europe on the brink of World War II. At Peggy's gallery, one could contemplate the work of the Surrealists in a setting that was livelier and more exciting than any existing museum or exhibition space.

Peggy was neither the first nor the only person to introduce Surrealism to the United States; there had already been shows at the Museum of Modern Art and at private galleries. But she was very good at making sure that it was talked about by critics and seen by younger artists. She encouraged and showed the work of a new generation of Americans, and it is partly thanks to Peggy that American artists shook off the influence of Europe. One can only speculate about how different the history of modern art would have been had Peggy not commissioned Jackson Pollock to paint a mural for the hallway of her East Side apartment — a work that helped change the ways in which Pollock and his peers thought about painting.

By 1944, when Peggy's friend the art critic Clement Greenberg began urging her to write her memoir, the gallery no longer required her constant presence, as it had at the start. Her marriage to Max Ernst had ended the previous year, when he'd left her for the painter Dorothea Tanning. Peggy was living in a brownstone on East 61st Street with a wealthy British art collector, Kenneth Macpherson, a homosexual with whom she was having a complicated and disappointing love affair. Her penchant for brief, casual erotic entanglements had taken on a frenetic edge, and she had reason to be concerned about her daughter Pegeen, whose unhappiness and instability were becoming increasingly obvious and who had gotten into trouble in Mexico, from which she had had to be rescued by her father. Peggy was also disturbed and depressed by the war, and by the news from Europe, where she had spent much of her adult life, and which, as an American Jew in Nazi-occupied France, she had been forced to leave.

Encouraged by Greenberg, who had interested Dial Press in Peggy's book, and by her first husband, Laurence Vail, who was himself a writer and who agreed to help edit the manuscript, Peggy began serious work on the project while staying at the Cherry Grove Hotel, on Fire Island, in the summer of 1944. The literary critic Marius Bewley, who worked as Peggy's receptionist and assistant at Art of This Century, recalls her writing, propped up in bed, three sentences to a page. When she returned from vacation, she brought to the gallery, every morning, notepaper on which she'd written, in green ink, the previous night.

Peggy wrote to Laurence Vail, saying that her work on the memoir not only allowed her to forget the war but that it was currently more interesting than the gallery, which had become a "bore." She promised (or threatened) to write a book so honest that Laurence would never forgive her, and she added, "I've written 3,400 words since eleven today." In a letter to her friend the diarist and novelist Emily Coleman — who, on the strength of Peggy's journals, had long considered her to be a gifted writer — Peggy reported that she lived and breathed for her book. Interviewed in Time magazine after her memoir was published, Peggy remarked that it was more fun writing than being a woman — a statement that would have come as no surprise to readers of her memoir, who could compare the unhappy saga of Peggy's bad luck in love with the book's jaunty, confident tone.

It was Vail who suggested that she call her book Out of This Century, a vast improvement over Peggy's original idea: "Five Husbands and Some Other Men." Peggy's title would have guaranteed that her memoir would be taken even less seriously than it was. Yet it would have revealed something about her character at that moment in her life: her tendency to define herself and to base her sense of importance, self-worth, and identity on the men with whom she was involved. Though Peggy always claimed that she never meant her memoir to be shocking but merely honest, there is something purposefully provocative about a title that is essentially a boast about her broad sexual experience, much of it with famous men.

As she wrote each chapter, Peggy gave the pages to Greenberg and Vail for their comments and edits. She also consulted the British art collector Dwight Ripley and the Anglo-Irish short story writer James Stern. Warned by Dial Press lawyers about the possibility of libel suits, she changed the name of some, though not all, of her relatives, lovers, and friends, giving them transparent pseudonyms that barely cloaked their true identities. Laurence Vail became Florenz Dale, his second wife, Kay Boyle, became Ray Soil, the painter Dorothea Tanning became Annacia Tinning. But Max Ernst remained Max Ernst, and Peggy's portrait of him — self-serving, faithless, and cruel — is one of the harshest in the novel.

Clearly, Peggy was still smarting from the pain of their separation, and her literary revenge disturbed Ernst. Max's son Jimmy, who had been Peggy's close friend, confidant, secretary, and gallery assistant, was horrified. In his own memoir, A Not-So-Still Life, Jimmy Ernst recalls the argument that erupted after Peggy showed him the chapter about his father and told him that Max should consider himself lucky that she hadn't been more explicit:

I was appalled by its devastating pettiness and I could not believe that she could let such vindictiveness stand. Barely avoiding vulgarity, it seemed almost an act of self-flagellation in its frequent failure of rational thinking. It was tailor-made for the scandal press and it would hurt her almost as much as the intended subject of destruction, my father.... Peggy and I did not see each other for a long time after that.

Jimmy's fears, at least about the response of the press, turned out to be prescient. When it was published in March 1946, Out of This Century received reviews that ranged from the negative to the venomous, a critical reception that might well have discouraged another author from ever writing again — anyone, that is, except Peggy, who by then had developed the defensive persona of a woman with the odd gift of seeming puzzled and even amused by slights and insults that others would have found intolerable.

Time found the "all-too-frank" memoir to be "as flat and witless as a harmonica rendition of the Liebestod, but it does furnish a few peeks — between boudoir blackouts — at some of the men who make art a mystery." In the New York Times, in a review headlined "Mechante — and de Trop," E. V. Winebaum objected to Peggy's "activities, worthy of tabloid headlines and recounted in tabloid prose" and to the "singular lack of grace and wit" with which she recounts her "world's series of love affairs" and her "long parade of amours." Ultimately, Winebaum threw up his hands at the task of decoding Peggy's motives. "It is useless to wonder what stimulates a well-known woman to write a book like this.... To be shocked is to fall into the trap laid so carefully and knowingly by the author." The Chicago Tribune proposed Out of My Head as a more descriptive title for Peggy's compendium of "nymphomaniacal revelations." Writing in The Nation, Elizabeth Hardwick lamented its "astonishing lack of sensibility," its "limited vocabulary," its "primitive style," and called the book "an unconsciously comic imitation of a first-grade reader."

Peggy's friends and associates were more encouraging. Fred Licht, the former curator of the Guggenheim collection in Venice, wrote that her books "are not to be read — as they have been read by most of her reviewers — as the confessions of a rich and wayward woman eager to shock people with the number and variety of her lovers. They are instead conversations with friends she can trust to understand.... The tempo of her prose, the asides, the sprinkling of anecdotes transmit with great precision her conversational tone and rhythm.... But above all, her autobiographies are exercises in self-irony and self-surprise."

The New Yorker contributor Janet Flanner, who published excellent essays on European culture and politics under the name of Genet, echoed Licht's opinion of "the book that I recall as a kind of annal of her emotional private life which, just as I had prophesied it would be, had been regarded as scandalous. Her detachment in looking back on life struck me as remarkable and in its way quite admirable. I felt she was telling the truth." And Gore Vidal remarked, "What I really liked about Peggy was her writing. I admire her style which was unaffected but effective. She was almost as good as Gertrude Stein. High praise. And a lot funnier."

Despite its succès de scandale, the memoir sold poorly and was not reprinted. Though it was rumored that the Guggenheim family had paid teams of messengers and scouts to buy up the entire first edition — a rumor that Peggy helped spread — there is no evidence that this occurred.

By 1959, more than a decade after her book's original publication, Peggy had closed Art of This Century and left New York for Venice, where she had displayed her collection at the 1948 Venice Biennale, a groundbreaking and controversial show that had introduced American Abstract Expressionism to Europe. She had come to take herself, her career, and her legacy more seriously. And she began to reconsider the version of her life that had so outraged critics and readers.

She produced another edition of her memoir, Confessions of an Art Addict, a condensed and bowdlerized version that focused on her art-world career and omitted the more sordid details of her love life. She restored the real names of nearly all of the principal characters but merely summarized or suggested the dramatic events surrounding the ends of her marriages to Laurence Vail and Max Ernst.

In revising the book, Peggy couldn't bring herself to excise some of the passages that others had found to be what today might be called inappropriate ("The day Hitler walked into Norway, I walked into Léger's studio and bought a wonderful 1919 painting from him for one thousand dollars. He never got over the fact that I should be buying paintings on such a day.") But she did edit out her accounts of casual affairs and painful romantic betrayals.

Twenty years later, she looked back over the two extant versions of her life and decided, "I seem to have written the first book as an uninhibited woman and the second one as a lady who was trying to establish her place in the history of modern art. That is perhaps why the two books read so differently." Consequently, she resolved to make yet another attempt at telling her life story.

Again called Out of This Century and published in 1979, the year of Peggy's death, the third volume reads like the work of an uninhibited woman who had already established her place in art history. The scandalous revelations of the first edition have been restored, along with the real names of nearly all of her friends and enemies and the details of the insults and romantic perfidies that Peggy endured. There is an additional (and rather beautiful) section that covers her final years in Venice and brings the narrative up to date.


Excerpted from Peggy Guggenheim by Francine Prose. Copyright © 2015 Francine Prose. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

The Angel of the City 1

Out of This Century 4

June 1941 16

Her Money 36

Her Nose 52

Education 56

Hayford Hall 75

Guggenheim Jeune 89

Paris Before the War 109

New York 122

Art of This Century 134

Pollock 150

Venice 161

Pegeen 174

A Death in Venice 185

A Note on Sources 193

Bibliography 196

Credits 201

Index 203

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Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I feel like now I'd like to read Peggys words for myself...