At the Palazzo Venier

Nicholas Penny

  • Peggy Guggenheim: The Life of an Art Addict by Anton Gill
    HarperCollins, 506 pp, £25.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 00 257078 5

Almost every North American museum of art today includes a gallery of modern and contemporary work, and little separates the colonial furniture, the Romantic waterfall and the careworn Rodin nude from the huge splashy hieroglyph, the bold candy-striped canvas, the colossal obese sunbather and the flashing neon message. Things are different in Europe, but contemporary artists are nonetheless frequently invited to perch on the tombs of the Old Masters, brandishing testimonials of long-standing devotion as evidence of the continuing ‘relevance’ of museums. Half a century or so ago, by contrast, avant-garde artists and their champions strove to present their work in separate spaces, to create museums of modern art.

Peggy Guggenheim wanted to create such a museum. A list of the artists who should be represented, whether by loan or by purchase, was drawn up by her chief adviser, Herbert Read. According to Guggenheim, it was later revised by ‘Marcel Duchamp, Nelly van Doesburg and myself because it contained so many mistakes’. Works by many of the artists on the list were acquired in Paris just before the outbreak of the Second World War; purchases resumed in 1941, in New York, with André Breton, Howard Putzel and Max Ernst also advising. The catalogue of Guggenheim’s collection, Art of This Century, published in that year, amounted to an ‘anthology of modern art’ – that is, a sourcebook of approved models of thirty years of European avant-garde art. At the end of his long biography of Guggenheim, Anton Gill, whose years of research have not deepened his regard for his subject, wonders whether she was in the same league as Walter Arensberg or the Cone sisters or other collectors who devoted more years of their life to buying paintings, and perhaps exercised more independent judgment in doing so. This isn’t a question which need detain us here. What gives her collection more historical importance than most others of a comparable scope was the impact it had in New York in the early 1940s.

Guggenheim Jeune, the gallery Guggenheim opened in Cork Street before the war, helped significantly to promote Continental avant-garde art in London, but it was doing the same sort of thing as the earlier London Gallery and Mayor Gallery. Art of This Century, the gallery Guggenheim opened in New York in October 1942, caused a far greater stir, chiefly because of the sensational installation devised by Frederick Kiesler. Guggenheim wanted to dispense with frames, so Kiesler found ways to attach the Surrealist pictures to rods projecting from the curved walls, to suspend the abstract and Cubist pictures from strings so that they appeared to float in front of drapery, and to fix paintings by Klee to a rotating wheel. Less obviously original was the way that this dazzling, indeed deliberately dizzying, museum of modern art was combined with a white, daylit exhibition space for contemporary work – the idea of mixing the two functions was one that Read had outlined in an article of May 1939. The contemporary American art, which included work by Jackson Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell and Baziotes, was legitimised, and in some measure influenced, by the European imports that hung around the corner.

What we find in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice today encapsulates this relationship between her European collection and the North American artists who followed. She died happy in the belief that her collection would remain in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, her home in Venice, protected by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, established by her uncle. The Foundation commissioned the richly informative catalogue of 1985 by Angelica Zander Rudenstine – surely the finest catalogue of any public collection of modern art. Gill wonders whether, under ‘its present energetic management’, the Foundation will try to subsume her collection (there are plans for a huge new exhibition space – the last thing Venice needs – beyond the church of the Salute). It would be a tragedy were this to happen, just as it would have been sad had her collection sunk into the Tate Gallery, as seems nearly to have happened.

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