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Francine Prose’s Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern

Peggy Guggenheim with Constantin Brancusi’s Maiastra, Paris, ca. 1940. Photo: André Rogi.

Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern, by Francine Prose. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. 224 pages.

WHO WAS PEGGY GUGGENHEIM? This new biography may not provide a complete answer, but it does give a whirlwind tour in a compact, peppy car through the tumultuous life of the most famous patron of modern art. Chapters flash by like cinematic scenes: “Her Money” (she was born into a great deal of it, though not as much as many imagined, and, by one friend’s account, she eventually gave away three-quarters of her wealth), “Paris Before the War” (where she was drawn to a bohemian lifestyle at odds with her upbringing), “Pollock” (encouraged by Piet Mondrian, she became the artist’s first dealer, giving him the down payment for his house on Long Island in addition to a regular allowance), “Venice” (the city that saved her, where she finally settled after a peripatetic life). Francine Prose’s spirited if blurred portrait is hardly the first; Guggenheim wrote three versions of her own memoir, there are countless biographies, and she appears as a character (often unflattering) in many contemporaneous novels. Yet the well-documented life still eludes us, and Prose applies her gift for bringing history to life, whether in fiction or nonfiction (see the 2005 biography of Caravaggio, among dozens of books), to produce an animated summary and extension of this vast literature that focuses on the network surrounding the heiress, including her family (this volume is part of the Jewish Lives series from Yale University Press) and a shifting coterie of artists, friends, lovers, leeches.

Who was Guggenheim, and how did she amass one of the most spectacular collections of twentieth-century art without—other than acknowledging emotional voids to fill, and the fact that she loved to shock and “unnerve”—ever quite explaining why she chose what she did? Prose offers us glimpses into the life of a woman who opened her first art gallery in London in 1938, called Guggenheim Jeune to distinguish its contents from her uncle Solomon’s collection, and counted Marcel Duchamp and Herbert Read among her most trusted art advisers. She swore, in 1939, that she would begin buying a painting a day. During World War II, she wrested the brass sculpture Bird in Space, 1932–40, from a weeping Constantin Brancusi for a song. And she claimed that while refugees began to fill the streets of Paris, she kept drinking champagne in cafés.

Prose spins a vivid account of Guggenheim’s wartime situation—flippantly in denial of her own danger, she still managed to help many friends (and artworks) escape Europe—expertly crafted to provide the greatest impact per word:

Days before the Germans entered Paris, Peggy left the city with another friend, Nellie van Doesburg, in the Talbot sedan powered by the gasoline that Peggy had been hoarding on the balcony of her apartment. Eventually, they reached Megève, where Peggy was reunited with her son and daughter, and where (after renting a house on the Lac d’Annecy) she spent the summer having her hair dyed different colors to provide a cover for her secret love affair with the hairdresser.

Once safely back in New York in 1942, Guggenheim founded Art of This Century in a loft on West Fifty-Seventh Street, bringing in the set designer and artist Frederick Kiesler to turn the former tailor shops into a modern gallery. As Prose points out, Guggenheim had a gift for “finding beautiful and interesting places in which to live”; her “ultimate triumph” was the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice (now the Peggy Guggenheim Collection), where her art finally came to rest, and where she sometimes showed strangers around in her bathrobe.

Who was Guggenheim, and how was her conflicted relationship to her upbringing and her wealth and her independence borne out in the series of dramatic, entangled love affairs that carried her across the globe? She slept with friends’ husbands, and endured husbands sleeping with friends; she wrote, in her late thirties, about the liberation of just “fucking.” She said, the day after her first wedding, to Laurence Vail, the writer, bon vivant, and father of her two children, “As soon as I found myself married, I felt extremely let down.” She was the lover of the writer Samuel Beckett, with whom she attended James Joyce’s birthday party in Paris, and she married the artist Max Ernst, who was in turn in love with the artist Leonora Carrington (and, later, with the artist Dorothea Tanning). Her difficult relationship with her daughter, Pegeen (who may have become an artist, Prose suggests, in order to garner her mother’s attention), ended in a tragedy that still haunts a room of Guggenheim’s museum in Venice, where Pegeen’s art is on permanent display.

“The anxiety-ridden eyes were warm and almost pleading,” the artist Jimmy Ernst once said of Guggenheim, “and the bony hands, at a loss where to go, moved like ends of broken windmills.” The poet Gregory Corso wrote of her final decades, ruling over Venice’s art scene: “She is a liver of life, and life is fading away.” A restless, compulsive force, Guggenheim never stayed still long enough for anyone to snap a clear picture. You finish Prose’s book in a rush, too, head swimming with the breadth of Guggenheim’s cultural web and a sense of the reckless energy with which she wove it—the source of her profoundest accomplishments and heartbreaks.

Prudence Peiffer is a senior editor of Artforum.