When Meyer Guggenheim, of Swiss-Jewish origin, landed on the new continent in 1847 his aim, like any immigrant, was to seek a better life. He literally struck it lucky with his mining company and by the end of the nineteenth century the Guggenheims were one of the richest families on the globe. Fortunately, their wealth came along with a philanthropic spirit. Solomon Guggenheim was particularly interested in art collection and started buying old masters. He then was converted to supporting contemporary American artists, His niece, Marguerite Peggy Guggenheim, was the daughter of Benjamin who famously sank with the Titanic. For him ‘women and children’ truly came first and he and his friend nobly awaited their fate slowly submerging into the icy arctic waters on their deck-chairs while sipping brandy and smoking cigars.
Although her father’s fortune was smaller than those of her uncles and aunts, Peggy became interested in the new American art scene and began to befriend a post-post-impressionist set of artists. In fact, it’s said that Peggy collected artists as much as she collected art. Some say that she’d actually had more men in her life than paintings.
Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition ‘From Kandinsky to Pollock’, which opened on 19th March and ends on the 24th July, is placed in a particularly appropriate location since it was here in 1949 that Peggy Guggenheim held her first exhibition of new art which would eventually find a permanent home in her palace in Dorsoduro district Venice.
With the intimate consultation of Marcel Duchamp, famous for his urinal sculpture, and one of the most innovative creative forces in modern art (he also espoused Dada, Surrealism, and what came to be known as abstract expressionism – quite apart from being an excellent chess player) Peggy built up a collection within a relatively short space of time which included seminal works by such pioneers of artistic expression as Max Ernst (who became her husband for a short while) Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Mark Rothko, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and even extending into Roy Lichtenstein.
Of Jackson Pollock I wrote these haiku after an exhibition of his work in London in 1999 :
Neuron lines enmesh
in layer upon layer:
mind’s nucleus reached.
You will never paint
the car crash against the tree
when event is you.
White light, infinite
light, is life everlasting
like this and like this?
solution: no centre here
by galaxies’ edge.
guides your hand, catches your eyes,
seeks your heart.
City of my mind
contains alleyways of thought
within blue fences.
You taught me that life,
melting picture of the mind,
has five dimensions.
Could you paint nature,
confabulate weird objects,
when nature is you?
This Florence exhibition will enthral lovers of abstract expressionism and will disappoint those who just like to look at figurative paintings. For me the highlights were the room dedicated to Mark Rothko, who slashed his wrists and died before he could see his paintings installed in Houston’s memorial chapel. His iconic works in the exhibition are very atmospherically back-lit and one could easily spend a whole day in this untypically uncrowded exhibition meditating on the essence of form and colour which Rothko so beautifully expressed.
Kandinsky and Bacon and are also in on the act:
I missed, however, any paintings by Peggy Guggenheim’s tragic daughter Pegeene, who overdosed herself at the early age of 42 in 1967. I’ll have to wait to see her work on my next visit to Venice.
(Pegeene Vail Guggenheim 1925-1967)
After multifarious amours which greatly increased her own self-esteem (Peggy Guggenheim felt her nose was particularly ugly) one of the twentieth century’s greatest art patronesses, and the one who brought the old and new artistic worlds together in a very special way, died in her Venice palazzo in 1979. Next to her lie buried her ‘beloved babies’, the fourteen Lhasa Apsos which kept her company in her declining socialite world when she’d stopped collecting both art and men.
I thought at this stage that I too had a beloved baby in the form of a Lhasa apso which had accompanied me on my hikes in the Himalayas many years ago.
In the end we all die alone though, happily not lonely thanks to our babies which can also take the form of works of art and beloved animals.