on 22 June 2014
Having been to the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice and hearing a potted history of her life, I was interested to know more about her. As is often the case with autobiographies when the author isn't a writer, it isn't very well written - "I did this, I went there, I met so and so" - there was no exposition of motivation for her passion for 20th century art for example. I think of this book as a fair introduction to PG's life - I now want to read a well-researched, literate biography.
What a self-indulgent, rackety and restless life this woman has led, and she makes no bones about it! As a young woman she was part of a bohemian set in Paris, promiscuous, often drunk, dancing the night through, almost like a caricature of a flapper. She was quite neurotic, often had hysterical weeping fits, and her relationships were usually stormy and quarrelsome, punctuated by long sulks when she wouldn't speak to her husbands. The first of these, Laurence Vail, was as neurotic as she was and very violent, as often as not in public places. But she was obviously not easy to live with either, and tactful restraint in behaviour or utterance was never one of her qualities, even with men on whom she was dependent. (The book, too, is "frank" and completely lacking in reticence.)
Her immense wealth enabled her to travel constantly all across Europe (we always learn in which motor-car), and much of this book is an account of every journey she made. What she chooses to record seems quite undiscriminating, often jejune and sometimes positively verges on the Pooterish, not least because of its uninspired style.
She knew nothing about art or music until John Holms, her partner after her first divorce, began to teach her about it, and one always suspects that it was artists rather than art that really attracted her. She admits that even when in 1938 she decided to open an art gallery in London, at the time "I couldn't distinguish one thing in art from another" and acted on the advice of Marcel Duchamp who "taught me the difference between Abstract and Surrealist art"! (p.161). And "in spite of the fact that I was opening a modern art gallery in London, I much preferred old masters" (p.163). These of course were no longer sexually available, while living artists were. She slept with an amazing number of them (as well as with, for example, Samuel Beckett and the kinky Roland Penrose), so there must have been some powerful allure about her into her forties and beyond, which does not come across in the book.
She soon began to collect not only artists but also their works, making it a principle to buy at least one work of art from every show she gave (p.166), but in the whole book there is no genuine appraisal of any work of art - only an account of her perpetual acquisitiveness. However, one has to admit that her investments were excellent in commercial terms. She bought and gave the first showings to a number of modern artists whose work would become immensely more valuable in time, and she especially prides herself on having made Jackson Pollock famous.
She was living in occupied and then in Vichy France during the early years of the German occupation, getting out not long before the United States entered the war; but she never sets down any reflections on the war as such, not then nor after Pearl Harbour, commenting only on how bureaucratic matters (visas, currency transfers, restrictions on the movements in the United States of her second husband, Max Ernst, as "an enemy alien") affected her own activities. While France was in torment, she can write, "During the summer [of 1940] I got rather bored and started having my hair dyed a different color every few weeks to amuse myself. First it was chestnut ... but then I got the wild idea of having it bleached bright orange... As a result of all the time I spent in the beauty parlor, I conceived a sort of weakness for the little hairdresser who worked so hard on my beauty. From re-reading D.H.Lawrence I also got a romantic idea that I should have a man who belonged to a lower class" (p.221/2) and we are led to assume that she had a fling with him. "Soon this got boring, and I needed a change". (p.222). She was as promiscuous in her forties as she had been in her twenties.
The bulk of this book - 324 out of 385 pages - was first published in 1946 when she was 48 years old. One part of the rest she published first in 1960 when she was 62 and the other part in 1977 when she was nearly eighty. Those parts show her in a much more sober light, when she has become the grande dame of Venice. By that time she has no taste for what was then the avant garde: "I do not like art today. I think it has gone to hell, as the result of the financial attitude. People blame me for what is painted today because I had encouraged and helped this new movement to be born. In the early 1940s there was a pure pioneering spirit in America. A new art had to be born - Abstract Expressionism. I fostered it. I do not regret it. It produced Pollock or rather Pollock produced it. This alone justifies my effort. As to the others, I don't know what got into them. Some people say that I got stuck. Maybe it is true.... Today is the age of collecting, not of creating." H'm!
So at the end we have a rare moment of reflection. For the rest, this is basically a shallow, tedious and excessively long book written by a spoilt, wealthy and rather silly woman; and it would not have been worth persevering with if the incidents she records did not throw some light on the weird personalities and behaviour of some very famous people in the artistic world, most of whom were psychologically as mixed-up and temperamental as she was. One feels there must have been more to her than that, and perhaps the recent biographies written about her by Anton Gill or Mary Dearborn reveal another side of her; but after having read her own book, I have no interest in reading any more about her.
on 6 February 2016
Peggy Guggenheim comes across as an extremely generous character, handing out houses left right and centre to her friends. She does not dwell too long on her unhappy and stifling childhood, which she describes as a long agony - as soon as she was able she moved to Paris, mingled with the art world where, with all her money, she was welcomed with open arms and ready beds. Yet she was never happier than when wandering alone through the streets of Venice. Interesting, often funny, and well-written.
on 4 June 2011
Peggy Guggenheim had lots of money - LOTS - and fortunately she spent it on art and artists. This book (which I purchased at the Guggenheim Foundation in Venice) was a great mistake. It's a rambling, diary-like account of her life, full of unwanted detail and very little insight. She liked mixing with artists - difficult as they were (and are!) and I cannot but think that, apart from her largesse, they would have avoided her like the plague or regarded her with indifference.
on 4 May 2016
Pants! Peggy Guggenheim is an interesting person, and I'm eager to know more about her after and her accomplished art collection after visiting it in Venice - however, this book, from the first chapter, tells me she was never accomplished at writing! It's a gossipy account of her life, full of what feels like pointless titbits of information regarding some distant uncle, what kind of tree was in which garden and who wore what. I bought another author's biography on her, which cut out the B.S. and proved much more insightful. I think this would probably be useful for someone who was researching Peggy Guggenheim, but I doubt even they would find it enjoyable.