The vein of invention indeed runs in the family: coming from humble origins, the Guggenheims managed, as miners, to become a mining dynasty, so when Marguerite “Peggy” was born in 1898 – the second of three sisters – the Guggenheims were among the wealthiest families in New York. Her childhood was fairy-tale-like on Fifth Avenue but ended abruptly in 1912 when her father, Benjamin, died in the sinking of the Titanic. In addition to mourning, Peggy and her sisters had to face a sort of marginalization from the Guggenheim clan: if Benjamin’s death left his daughters with several million, Peggy and her sisters saw the fortune of their cousins (and of their uncle Salomon, the future founder of the Salomon Guggenheim Museum in New York) grow dramatically compared to their own; the paradox, for Peggy, is that she grew up feeling “poor” and somehow neglected by the rest of the family.
Deviating from the destiny foreseen for her – to marry as soon as possible to a rich man – at the age of twenty, Peggy starts working in an art bookshop. This is her first contact with the intellectual environment, and the European avant-gardes fascinate her to the point of inducing her to leave for Paris. She is twenty-two years old, and her first Parisian friends are Man Ray, Duchamp, and Brancusi, who will also become the first artists she will support. Here she meets her first husband, Laurence Vail, a Dada writer and painter, with whom she has two children, Pegeen and Sindbad, but soon the marriage ends. As a divorced woman, Peggy has many flirts and relations within the artistic scene: Cocteau, Duchamp, Pollock, Tanguy, Giacometti, and Max Ernst. In 1938 Peggy moved to London. “I was torn between opening a publishing house and a gallery; I opted for the second one because it was cheaper.” Thus, out of “thrift,” she inaugurated the Guggenheim Jeune gallery, presenting the European avant-gardes for the first time in England.
Her exhibitions are, right from the start, extraordinary: in 1939, a unique show displays together works from Picasso, Ernst, Kandinsky, Dalì, Magritte, Arp, and Mirò. However, since Guggenheim Jeune sells little or nothing (the only sold-out exhibition is by Yves Tanguy), Peggy decides to close it and devotes herself to founding her museum. As a consultant, she hires Herbert Reid, who draws up the “legendary list” of artists who will make up the collection:
The most significant art masters of the twentieth century. The outbreak of World War II accelerates her plans: Peggy knows she has little time. So she leaves London for Paris, with the “legendary list” in her pocket, to grow her collection: “I bought a painting a day. Word got around, and so the artists would bring the works home to me. I bought a Dali lying in bed”.
In 1940, with the Nazis at the gates, Peggy asked the Louvre to take in the collection and keep it safe, but the Louvre refused, considering it not important enough. So, she decides to rescue the works and ships them hidden among furniture items on a cargo to the United States. Having saved her paintings, she also reserves many artists, paying for their escape trip to New York: among these is Max Ernst, who becomes her second husband.
In New York, Peggy opens Art of This Century, the first gallery to bring together European and American art: the new team includes Clifford Still, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. “He seemed a chaotic artist: Mondrian told me to look better.” Pollock, at the time, worked as a carpenter, and Peggy decided to commission him a mural for her new home: it was the beginning of a dazzling career.
Art of This Century also organizes thematic exhibitions, such as an all-women show with 31 female artists. One of them, Dorothea Tanning, takes Max Ernst away from her.
In 1947 she decided to move to Venice: in search of a suitable building for herself and the collection, she chose Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on Canal Grande because, having only one floor, it was cheaper. During the renovation works, she decides to lend her collection to the Biennale, marking the fate of Venice as a new pole of contemporary art. “They had given me a pavilion all to myself, between Greece and Austria: as if I were a nation!”
Her new home becomes a hub for artists and collectors, and the Gotha of contemporary art attends legendary lunches, dinners, and parties.
It is here that her dog swarms – she has 57 in twenty years – and it is here that she finally manages to realize her dream of having her museum, which opened its doors in 1951. The private lodgings, open to the public only after her death, collect works made to measure for her, such as the bed headboard Peggy asks for from Calder.
They were happy years, dedicated to the growth of the museum and the tireless search for new artists, but in 1969 her daughter Pegeen, aged 42, commits suicide. It’s a drama that Peggy tries never to talk about and which she only survives through art. In these final years, some past wrongs are also repaired. The Paris Orangerie belongs to the Louvre and asks her to exhibit her collection. She accepts, but in the opening speech, she reminds the public that that same collection had been considered by the Louvre too unimportant to be saved from the Nazis, and, most importantly, the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York asks her to acquire her collection. The condition is that the works remain in Venice: “I would not have liked to imagine my works in that sort of ‘garage’ that my uncle had built.” This is how the first intercontinental museum was born, like an ingenious bridge between Europe and America.
Peggy Guggenheim died in 1979 at the age of 81. She is buried in the garden of her museum, along with thirteen of her dogs.
– Stanislav Kondrashov