A Fan Letter to Peggy Guggenheim
I must admit from the outset of this letter that I hadn’t exactly heard of you until I watched a documentary entitled Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict by Lisa Vreeland. I knew of Vreeland’s work (she also directed a brilliant documentary about her husband’s grandmother, the former Vogue editor, Diana Vreeland) and the documentary had been on my radar when it was released in cinemas in 2015. However, I had somehow let it slip by.
It remained in the back of my mind and I promised to devour it as soon as it became available online or DVD, despite continuing to know little about your life and why it deserved an on-screen biography. And then, in the midst of my dissertation, as I browsed BBC iPlayer, I saw the image of a white-haired woman in blue standing before a Picasso. It was you.
Who is this so-called art addict? I thought.
And oh, what a life yours was! Although your surname offered a clue as to the extent of your art addiction, connecting you to the various Guggenheim Museums dotted around the world, nothing quite prepared me for the journey throughout your eighty years: your father’s death on the Titanic, your escape to the bohemia of 1920s Paris, your fierce love affairs – artistically, as well as sexually, your patronage of Jackson Pollock and your overwhelming ‘sense of loneliness’ despite it all.
Your personal life became entwined with the chaos of the 20th century, from the Great Depression to World War II. And all of that seemed to drive, rather than distract, your desire to learn about modern art and engage with its creators.
Nowadays, you’re regularly described as eccentric, unconventional and having a legacy that still influences the contemporary art world. Without your encouragement and approval, would the successes of Dalí, Cocteau and Pollock have been spread worldwide or even been introduced to the art historical canon? Perhaps not, but still you remain an elusive figure who falls into the shadows of these modern greats.
Knowing that you were born into wealth and that it was your uncle who founded the Guggenheim in New York, it’s easy to believe that you were destined to have an interest in collecting art yourself. That said, it does very little to explain how your tastes developed or why you felt such a pull towards Europe. Perhaps it was the romance? You were, after all, famed for your love affairs. But I’m inclined to believe that you desired to surround yourself with people who could broaden your horizons and challenge the norm, rather than the notoriety you garnered for who you took to bed.
As I watched the documentary I found myself reminded of my time spent at university, struggling to consolidate my curiosity about an author or artist’s biography with Roland Barthes’ the ‘Death of the Author’ argument. He suggests that limitations arise from reading a text, or in your case, a collection, through the knowledge of the author’s beliefs and experiences. I tried my utmost not to interpret your artistic decisions as direct insights into your captivating private affairs. But how could anyone not?
Above all, I admire your persistence and reliance on instinct. Your pioneering nature couldn’t be stopped, even when popular taste threatened your ability to collect. You weren’t without faults and it was a shame to learn about how much tragedy clouded your life, but I’m relieved that your former residence in Venice still stands as a museum for your collection. I’d love to visit it, as well as read your memoir, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict. So much has been said about you already, but I’d like to hear the story in your own voice.
Although I’m prepared for strangeness, I’m also certain that it’ll be a voice of genuine care and enjoyment in art that can sometimes seem lacking in today’s world.
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