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.

Visitors to ‘the Guggenheim’ who pick their way across the modern sculpture garden assess the building before them without any apprehension of fatigue. The 18th-century palace, often said to have been left unfinished, was really hardly begun, and it now amounts to little more than a bungalow of Istrian stone. We quickly discover that the rooms are modest in size and the plan simple, that daylight – so frequently banished from art galleries today (and especially from galleries of modern art) – abounds, and that the art and the other visitors aren’t the only things to look at. Above and beyond Brancusi’s shining bird, dark cypresses soar and, when the grids of Theo van Doesburg or Mondrian, or the tangled ribbons of a Pollock, seem too demanding, there is relief, beyond the curls and spikes of the iron gates, in the rippling surface of the Grand Canal.

The floors of the palace are of traditional Venetian terrazzo with occasional fragments of mother of pearl shimmering among the marble chips. The walls are white, or nearly so, which makes the whites in Léger, Mondrian and Malevich look rather grubby but provides a foil for the pronounced black which is a feature of so many of the pictures. There is no obtrusive signage, but a glance at the floor plan reveals that the rooms are devoted to different artistic movements. Turning right, we are among the Surrealists. Magritte’s sinister suburban L’Empire des lumières is on the end wall. There is a Delvaux on the left and an Ernst to the right. Every work occupies the space it requires and seems completely at home – as no work ever could in the gallery built by Frank Lloyd Wright for Uncle Solomon’s foundation in New York. After Guggenheim left New York, artists, including several whom she had supported, began to make huge paintings. She did something to encourage this by commissioning a very large Pollock, and the spaces available in the new museums did so too. But her collection was formed at the end of the period in which a domestic scale was the norm.

The director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Philip Rylands, has done more than display the works of art at the right height and in the right place. Each one is enhanced by contrast or by subtle association with its neighbours, in a manner that unobtrusively affects our understanding of what we see. Thus, Ernst’s The Forest hangs beside Giacometti’s plaster Femme qui marche. Ernst’s black, blade-like plants are as taut and vertical as the white sculpture, and both have a scraped-down surface. Opposite, there is Miró’s Seated Woman II, in which an oozing black growth seems to emit spark-like signals. The menace is even more explicit in the bronze sculptures flanking it: Giacometti’s Woman with Her Throat Cut and González’s ‘Monsieur’ Cactus, in which the life of insects and of desert plants is evoked by domestic equipment (nails, combs, cutlery).

Perhaps it is an accident that we turn from the Miró to Kandinsky’s Weisses Kreuz in the hall beyond. With its numbers, symbols and clippings of bright colour, floating in, or hurtling towards, the infinite night, it provides a similarly compelling and disconcerting glimpse of a black world beyond or beneath our own. In any case, moving into the rooms on the canal side of the building, we understand how American painting, as it developed in the 1940s, owed something to Russian Constructivism as well as to Franco-Spanish Surrealism, and that the blobs and explosions, stains and traces seem to be conditioned by the sublimities seen through telescope or microscope, as well as by popular anthropology and the fictions of pseudo-science.

As we cross the building, we may turn down a corridor where smaller works are displayed. Among miniature sculptures in a wall case is Henry Moore’s reclining figure of polished bronze, one of the artist’s first experiments with cast forms. Guggenheim ‘infinitely’ preferred the bronze version to one in lead. Its viscous, fluid character (more marked in the lead version, now in the Museum of Modern Art, because the forms suit a fast-melting metal) is very different from the noble stones and sacred bones, the patriotic survivors and the patient, caring monogamists that we now associate with the sculptor. There is something highly disturbing about its stretched and suspended character, which finds a distant and surprising echo on the wall opposite, in a miniature landscape delicately painted by Dalí, where a deliquescent female corpse is draped over the black sand. Berenson is said to have especially disliked this little sculpture.

Braque’s Bowl of Grapes of 1926 in which forms and their shadows, and the spaces between, are turned into overlapping shapes – black, dark grey, green with white superimposed – may seem too grand to hang in a corridor, but it faces a door, and from the room opposite we can see it together with an Ernst (the Kiss of 1927) and a painted low relief by Arp of 1925, which reveals how the witty dissolutions of the solid and the fascination with the silhouette in Surrealist art derived from the Cubists. This is a perfect example of how Rylands’s ingenious but tactful hang makes a point more effectively than any didactic wall panel.

There is a certain amount of writing on the walls, the purpose of which is to explain how things were when Guggenheim lived in the Palazzo Venier – when Bacon’s Study for Chimpanzee with its fuchsia background kept company with several hundred earrings and a sari on the turquoise walls of the bedroom, and all the sofas were covered in white plastic on account of her many Lhasa terriers (the ‘babies’, who are buried alongside their mistress in the garden). And some things which in more public collections would have been stored or sold have remained on the walls. Guggenheim was too often susceptible to the quaint faux-naïf, but perhaps her biggest mistake is not the collection of paintings by her daughter Pegeen, nor those by Victor Brauner or Morris Hirschfield: it is Picasso’s very famous La Baignade of 1937, in which two Cubist robots bend over a toy boat, a painting which almost seems to have been designed to discredit Cubism by showing that even its austere language can be pointlessly grotesque as well as ingratiatingly cute.

A wing of the palace houses Gianni Mattioli’s fine, if less spectacular, collection of Italian avant-garde painting of the first half of the 20th century. The rooms here have no daylight, except for the foyer facing the garden, where four early paintings by Morandi hang – paintings of trees and flowers and figures made before life was banished from his work. These Morandis are paintings that Guggenheim would have been unlikely to buy. With rather few exceptions she wanted art that was more aggressively modern. Among the great names of 20th-century art which are absent from her collection, that of Matisse is the most notable, and this may be because domestic repose and pastoral reverie, to which so much of his art was devoted, lacked the excitement and the shock she preferred. Her own taste may be most evident in such omissions.

The fact that, when approached by the Dial Press, Guggenheim agreed to write her autobiography – the first version of which, Out of This Century, appeared in 1946 – suggests that she had begun to believe that she represented something as modern as her collection. In small doses it is rather intoxicating. Children, husbands, nannies, houses, cars and lovers come and go as if in a dream; the focus is never predictable and stray facts collide with fantastic hyperbole. Anton Gill’s biography removes a lot of the charm. Here, from the autobiography, is Arp on his visit to England, prior to the contemporary sculpture exhibition at Guggenheim Jeune:

He served me breakfast every morning and washed all the dishes. We had so much fun together that it really was a delightful week. We went to Petersfield. Arp was enthusiastic about the English countryside and loved the little Sussex churches. He went back to Paris with a porkpie hat and a breadbox under his arm. He knew only one word of English, ‘Candlesticks’. His vocabulary did not improve during his stay.

The repetitive syntax suggests that Guggenheim may have learnt something from her affair with Samuel Beckett. The second sentence is genuinely banal, and its comic contrast with the uninhibited selfishness of the first was probably not intended. The remainder is not untouched by Surrealism and we are left to wonder about the candlesticks – no doubt they were bulbous brass balusters of a kind suggestive of the assemblies of somewhat mechanical shining metal parts with which Arp was then experimenting. In Gill’s account, Arp ‘was enthusiastic about the English countryside, about the local Gothic churches, and learned one word of English: “candlesticks”’ – which isn’t even right, since the point was surely that it was the one word he knew when he arrived.

Gill is mercifully uncensorious, without being condescendingly ‘understanding’, about Guggenheim’s promiscuity (though he is far less tolerant of her failings as a parent). Her own account of her sexual adventures is certainly frank. But ‘frankness’ often conceals something. Here is her staccato characterisation of Humphrey Jennings: ‘He was a young Surrealist painter of 30. He was also a photographer, a poet and a producer of films. He was dynamic and was always bursting with a new idea; but as he had too many, he never got much accomplished. He was a sort of genius, and he looked like Donald Duck.’ (The redundant ‘young’ can be explained by the fact that he was ten years younger than Guggenheim.) At the suggestion of Emily Coleman – who ‘was finished with him’ – Guggenheim had a brief affair with Jennings. They discussed establishing a gallery, but the collaboration ‘petered out’ and it was Wyn Henderson who became manager of the Cork Street gallery, which opened in January 1938.

Gill tells us more about Jennings and about Edouard Mesens of the London Gallery (in Guggenheim’s words, ‘a gay little Flamand, quite vulgar, but really very nice and warm’) and about the collector Roland Penrose, all of whom were close associates and with all of whom Guggenheim had affairs, but he doesn’t bring out quite how much the breezily condescending tone that Guggenheim adopts in describing her relations with them conceals the fact that they knew, and had long known, infinitely more about modern art than she did.

There is a myth about Peggy Guggenheim, which Gill never questions, that she began as a serious art lover who was converted to Modernism. Armand Lowengard, a nephew of Duveen and an admirer of Guggenheim, told her, when she first came to Europe, that she would never understand Berenson’s work. Her response, Gill tells us, was to buy Berenson’s books, where she studied his theories and ‘absorbed her lessons’. Guggenheim herself is the source for this, but the way she describes her lessons makes us suspect that Lowengard had a point: ‘After that I was forever going around looking for Berenson’s seven points. If I could find a painting with tactile values I was thrilled.’ There is, however, no evidence of her taking any more interest in art than the average cultured tourist. Laurence Vail, her first husband, ‘knew every painting’ in Venice and they bought some old furniture together. John Holms, for whom she left Vail, seems to have been less well informed. ‘In Toledo,’ she tells us, ‘we spent the whole day searching for El Greco’s painting of that city, not knowing that it was in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.’ Alfred Barr, in the preface to her autobiography, claims that she had ‘loved and studied Italian Renaissance painting, particularly that of Venice. Berenson’s books were her guide.’ But Berenson is not much of a guide to Venetian art, which in any case was not well endowed with that thrilling ingredient of ‘tactile values’.

Later, Guggenheim told Berenson that she hadn’t been able to afford Old Masters, a point that Gill also makes, but that is nonsense (although it is of course true that she couldn’t have competed with Mellon or Kress for Rembrandts and Raphaels). It is also surprising – and it surprises Gill – how little evidence there is of her ever taking an interest in modern art before 1937. Not only did she not bother to go to London for the Surrealist exhibition in 1936, even though her lover, Douglas Garman, was excited about it, but she never took much interest in avant-garde developments in Paris, despite living there during the 1920s and 1930s on the smart edge of bohemia. The remarkable fact is that her entry into the art world may have been stimulated by a friend, Peggy Waldman, who, thinking she was in need of occupational therapy, suggested, in a letter of May 1937 which Gill quotes, that she should do something – ‘the art gallery, book agency . . . something for good painters or writers, or better still, a novel yourself’. Friends and lovers, notably Beckett and Duchamp, nudged her towards the idea of a gallery partly because it was something that would help their friends. She didn’t immediately fall in love with modern art, but she did fall in love with the idea of doing so, and the gallery gave her some of the same opportunities that a salon provided for women with greater confidence and grander homes – that is, opportunities to exercise influence and have their generosity acknowledged. She could serve a cause and create a stir. Moreover, an association with Surrealism proved to be of special value to an unhappy and confused woman in her forties. It enabled her to describe her life – to herself, as well as to us – as a jerky, capricious motion picture. At the same time, her lack of interest in theory made it easy for her to support other types of art as well. Admiration for what she achieved need not conceal the absence of any truly personal mission and profound intellectual commitment behind it. She had the flair to borrow or the modesty to adopt the ideas of the right people. And she did it at the right moment.