Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim
Anton Gill triumphs with his latest work, ART LOVER, a richly
detailed and meticulously researched biography of Peggy Guggenheim,
founder of the modern art gallery that bears her name in Venice,
Italy. The doyenne of the art world of postwar Europe, Guggenheim
will always be remembered as an adventurer, both for her
groundbreaking artistic tastes and her notorious sexual habits,
thanks to Gill's exhilarating study.
Guggenheim was born in 1898 the daughter of wealthy industrialist
Benjamin Guggenheim, who perished aboard the Titanic. After a
childhood marked by tragedy and isolation, Guggenheim defied the
social conventions of her time and embarked on a bohemian life in
Paris alongside such personae as Marcel Duchamp and Djuna Barnes.
Her early marriage to novelist Laurence Vail was brief and violent.
Gill includes a Guggenheim quote in which she discusses her
husband's abuse with a detached air that later came to epitomize
her onlooker attitude towards her life:
"Fights went on for hours, sometimes days, once even for two weeks.
I should have fought back. He wanted me to, but all I did was weep.
That annoyed him more than anything. When our fights worked up to a
grand finale he would rub jam in my hair. But what I hated most was
being knocked down in the streets, or having things thrown in
She had two children with Vail, Pegeen and Sindbad, but after seven
years she ran off with writer John Holms, the first in a long
string of short-term lovers. She always chose men she felt were her
intellectual superior, learning as much as she could from them
before she moved on to her next conquest. The details of her
complex romantic intrigues are worthy of a tome all their own; they
include an affair with playwright Samuel Beckett and, later, a
brief marriage to painter Max Ernst.
The most engaging portions of ART LOVER reveal a woman with a
single-minded devotion to her collection. Through her patronage of
artists ranging from Brancusi to Pollock, she amassed one of the
world's finest collections of modern art at a time when few
collectors were interested in avant-garde works. She funded
countless artistic and literary enterprises in the last half of the
20th Century that would have no doubt failed without her support
Engrossing not only for juicy art world gossip that even the most
thorough reader of artist biographies will be sure to find
revelatory, ART LOVER also presents a side of Guggenheim far less
favorable. Her globe-trotting, bohemian lifestyle didn't win her
any parenting awards; her relations with both her children were
always strained. Gill's portrayal of Guggenheim as a mother
suggests she largely ignored her children when she wasn't switching
them from country to country, boarding school to boarding school.
Guggenheim is famously quoted as having told Pegeen that she'd
rather own a Picasso than have a daughter. Plagued with depression
and lifelong mental instabilities, Pegeen attempted suicide a dozen
times before finally succeeding in 1967, a tragedy Guggenheim never
recovered from despite her outward frostiness.
The last pages of ART LOVER are full of sadness, just like the
final chapter of Guggenheim's extraordinary life. After settling in
Venice in her later years, her palazzo slowly fell into grave
disrepair, as did much of her artwork. Guggenheim's friend and
associate, John Hohnsbeen, helped her care for her vast collection
towards the end of her life and found the pictures in surprisingly
bad condition. The damp environment of the palazzo, with a basement
that flooded each winter, was a terrible place to conserve fine
art, and he frequently found himself "sweeping the maggots off" the
backs of paintings to save them from decay.
Along with Guggenheim's own physical collapse, Gill details the
miserly habits that worsened as she neared her death. Her
unrelenting lifelong trait of haggling over every penny on her
restaurant bill stayed with her to the end. She even quibbled over
her tab at Harry's Bar, where she was a longtime patron and
received a considerable discount. In the lonely winter months, when
visitors spurned Venice for warmer climes, would-be guests won her
indignation for defecting to hotels to avoid the freezing
conditions and downright inedible food she provided at the palazzo.
Her grandchildren found Guggenheim such a difficult and
penny-pinching companion that whenever they were obliged to visit
her in Venice, they were ill for weeks in advance of their trip out
of sheer anxiety. ART LOVER skillfully paints the portrait of a
fascinating woman who was lonely and miserable during her last
years. Anton Gill's book proves that Guggenheim truly was a "poor
little rich girl" whose money served as her gravest impediment to
Reviewed by Andrea E. Hoag on January 20, 2011