Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) was one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated art collectors but she belonged to a relatively “poor” branch of an illustrious family. Her grandfather, Simon, had arrived in the United States in 1847 as a penniless Jewish migrant from Switzerland. So astutely did those early Guggenheims manage their affairs that by World War I they owned between 75 and 80 per cent of the world’s known resources of silver, copper and lead.
Peggy’s father, Benjamin, did not inherit the Midas touch. He withdrew from the family company in 1901 to pursue his own interests, but only managed to lose money. Nowadays he is chiefly remembered as one of the wealthy men who chose to go down with the Titanic in 1912 rather than take up a place in a life boat. He even changed into evening dress for the occasion.
For Peggy, being a poor Guggenheim still meant being wealthy beyond the dreams of most other people. She was able to indulge her taste for avant-garde art in an era before the market succumbed to hyper-inflation. In retrospect we might say that era continued until the late 1980s, when a small-scale millionaire such as Charles Saatchi, could become one of the most influential figures in contemporary art. If Saatchi or Peggy were starting their collections today, with relatively similar resources, they would not make an impression on a market dominated by Russian oligarchs, American financiers, Chinese entrepreneurs and oil-rich Sheiks.
It is wryly appropriate that Perth should be the only Australian venue for the exhibition, Peggy Guggenheim: A Collection in Venice. Like the Guggenheims, Western Australia has grown fabulously wealthy through the mining industry. Like Peggy, the Art Gallery of Western Australia is the poor relation among Australia’s public art museums – with the possible exception of the criminally underfunded Art Gallery of South Australia.
With all that money from the resources boom it is mildly surprising that a few wealthy miners haven’t bothered to help out the local gallery. This was never the case in places such as Dallas or Houston, where extraordinary patronage has helped build extraordinary collections. AGWA has not had the same luck. It feels shabby and unloved, and is crying out for a face-lift.
The Guggenheim show is intended as a modest step in the right direction. It is the first of a projected series called Great Collections of the World, which will bring to Perth a small but choice selection of works of art from famous international museums. It is fitting that the first installment in this series comes from Venice, which is also the città natale of AGWA director, Stefano Carboni.
Signor Carboni makes a virtue out of necessity in introducing this show, arguing that large-scale ‘blockbusters’ have become financially unsustainable for most museums, and tend to induce audience fatigue rather than pleasure. Those who queued up earlier this year for the National Gallery of Australia’s Masterpieces from Paris would probably agree. The crucial component of any touring exhibition is not the quantity of work but the presence of a few guaranteed drawcards. How many masterpieces does it require for a critical mass?
The Guggenheim show cuts it pretty fine, but most visitors will not be disappointed. There are only 35 works in this selection, including three photographs of Peggy – although one can hardly complain when the photographers are Berenice Abbott, Gisèle Freund and André Kertesz. There is more of a question mark over paintings by artists such as William Congdon, Edmondo Bacci and Tancredi, who never made it to the first division of modern art. On the other hand, in a collection devoted to Surrealism and Abstraction, there is a brace of representative works by Picasso, Brancusi, Pollock, Ozenfant, Tanguy, Magritte and de Chirico. Artists such as Mondrian, Rothko and Kandinsky are represented by relatively minor pieces, but nothing by such figures is without interest.
No modern artist has a more exalted reputation, on the basis of a slender body of work, than Marcel Duchamp. As the grandfather of conceptual art, the Svengali who charmed rich heiresses and antagonised traditionalists, Duchamp holds a lurid fascination for art historians and theorists. His Nude (study), Sad young man on a train (1911-12), like its notorious relation, Nude descending a staircase (1912), was exhibited at the Armory Show of 1913 – the event said to have launched modern art in the United States. It belongs to a time when Duchamp was working through the influences of Futurism and the analytical Cubism of Picasso and Braque. This dark, complex canvas provides a tantalising glimpse of Duchamp the painter, before his successful self-reinvention as sage and trickster.
Some would argue that Alberto Giacometti’s Surrealist sculpture, Woman with her throat cut (1932) is more original and striking than the emaciated figures for which he would later become famous. While the figures were a kind of post-war endgame, the earlier piece had a liberating impact on sculptors who appreciated its open, unorthodox approach to form. The work avoided a sense of monumentality by relinquishing the pedestal – touching the ground lightly at various points in a series of convulsive hops.
Surrealism began as a literary movement, and the title of Giacometti’s work plays a central role in its interpretation. While it’s possible to discern the figure of the murdered woman, the piece also resembles a large insect. The distortions of limbs, neck and head suggest a cadaver turned into a grotesque object, the spark of life having been violently extinguished.
If Duchamp was a slippery but charming character, what can one say about Max Ernst? In his biography and his art, he comes across as an amazing opportunist, ready to borrow an idea from any source, and to jump from one relationship to the next. He was Peggy Guggenheim’s second husband, but left her after a few years for the artist Dorothea Tanning.
Ernst is better sampled in small doses, but it may be that he never painted a better picture than Attirement of the bride (1940). This mysterious, arresting image features a woman whose naked body is encased in a red feather cloak and mask. Her attendants, including a small, green, pregnant hermaphrodite, who weeps at her feet, are even more puzzling. The painting has the cryptic character of a dream and the familiarity of several Old Master compositions, to which it bears more than a passing resemblance. It was made while Ernst was living with another artist, Leonora Carrington, whom he abandoned when Peggy offered him the chance to escape to the United States during the war.
As the title of this show suggests, there has been a concerted effort to concentrate on the personality of the collector, not simply the works themselves. But despite a lucid biographical essay by Philip Rylands, the Director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, we never get a very precise picture of the great lady.
This may be because Peggy was as remarkable for her bad behaviour as she was for her achievements. On the dustjacket of Anton Gill’s 2001 biography, we learn that when once asked: “Mrs. Guggenheim, how many husbands have you had?” she replied, “Do you mean my own, or other people’s?”
Although she was very far from being a raving beauty, Peggy was a famous man-eater, who delighted in bedding the great figures of art and literature. In today’s parlance she was a sex addict, who never felt the need to check into an expensive clinic for a cure. She was a careless and selfish parent, who was shattered when her daughter, Pegeen, committed suicide at the age of 41. Even her talents as a collector are vitiated by the fact that she always relied heavily on advisors such as Herbert Read, Howard Putzel and the ubiquitous Duchamp.
None of this is immediately obvious from this exhibition. Indeed, it would pose quite a challenge to parcel the facts of Peggy Guggenheim’s life into a few sterile rooms. Like many collectors she was single-minded to the point of obsession, and became acquainted with virtually everybody worth knowing in the world of modern art -apart from Picasso, who never bothered to conceal his dislike. When she visited his studio he is reputed to have said: “Madame, you will find the lingerie department on the second floor.” Even this did not put her off. She allegedly told Pegeen she would rather have a Picasso than a daughter – and it came to pass.
Published for The Sydney Morning Herald, January 1, 2011
Peggy Guggenheim: A Collection in Venice
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until 31 January.