Peggy Guggenheim

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I stopped by the Venice Guggenheim, located in Peggy Guggenheim’s former palazzo, to see the joint Joseph Beuys/Matthew Barney show. (More on that later.) I got distracted by her permanent collection. Guggenheim moved to Venice in 1949, after the gradual disintegration of the community of emigre artists who had fled to New York during the war. Kandinsky and Mondrian were both dead. Her ex-husband Max Ernst had moved on to Dorothea Tanning. Yves Tanguy had married well enough to be drinking himself to death in Connecticutt. It was time to go.

She found a house with the largest private garden in Venice and had the last private gondola in the city for her daily long rides . She entertained frequently, though not lavishly. She was notorious for her scanty food and cheap wine. From her biographers you get the sense of a full life — the guest book carried names like Giacometti, Paul Bowles, Cocteau, Chagall, Saul Steinberg, Cecil Beaton, Stravinsky, Tennessee Wiliams, Paul Newman and Truman Capote — but not always a happy one. She lavished fast cars on one of her younger lovers. He died in one.

But her collection, much of which she brought with her from New York, was a great time capsule of advanced taste prior to 1960. (She never quite made the leap to Pop or Minimalism.) There are some good Picassos, including The Dream and Lie of Franco, his impromptu cartoon attack on the Generalissimo, a wonderful Magritte, The Empire of Light, and a magnificent Mondrian, black bars on white with just a single rectangle of red along the bottom right. Mondrian’s concerns were formal, not psychological. All the same, couldn’t this be the work of a man feeling cornered by history? It was made in 1938, one year before Europe went to war.

And she had been buying the Abstract Expressionists early. There’s an interesting Motherwell “Self-Potrait” from 1943, before he had locked into the Elegies. And an early Clifford Styll from before he began turning out existential Naugahyde by the yard. Her enthusiasms were not always well understood by her Venetian neighbors. One local aristocrat, Princess Pignatelli, is supposed to have told her: “If only you threw all those dreadful paintings into the canal. What a lovely home you would have.” Peggy Guggenheim could be foolish and difficult and wrong headed but who isn’t at times? She had taste and courage, and her museum is one of the most agreeable spots in Venice.

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