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Randi Hernandez
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Women Who Made History: Peggy Guggenheim

Bohemian Socialite. The words together seem to cancel each other out, but embodying these terms seems to be the emerging trend with the richest of celebrities nowadays. Mary-Kate Olson wears oversize flannels that make her appear homeless, while other celebrities downplay the privileges they have enjoyed to gain street credibility.  Such is the case with Peggy Guggenheim, niece of the wealthy Solomon R. Guggenheim, who made a name for herself by dispelling bourgeois social conventions and throwing herself into an avant-garde world of writers and artists. By doing this, Peggy managed to make history in the world of art by amassing a “collection consisting of works of Cubism, Futurism, European abstraction, avant-garde sculpture, Surrealism, and American Abstract Expressionism by some of the greatest artists of the 20th century.”

Peggy grew up in New York City and got her first job in a bookstore, where she was surrounded by writers and intellectuals. It was here that she met writer Laurence Vail, who would later become Peggy’s first husband. Peggy moved to Paris with Vail, where she promptly broke up with him and dated various other men in his circle of associates. She was heavily influenced by the talent around her, and in 1938, Peggy opened up an art gallery in London named the Guggenheim Jeune after the well-regarded French Bernheim Jeane gallery. Her gallery featured works by such artists as Wassily Kandinsky, Alexander Calder, Pablo Picasso, and Max Ernst (who would later become Peggy’s second husband).

Although Peggy gained personal satisfaction from her gallery, she was losing money by keeping it open. She decided a more economically feasible solution would be to open up a museum featuring the art….and it certainly helped that her uncle opened the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation just two years earlier. Peggy began collecting funds to open a Museum of Modern Art in London and asked art critics Herbert Reed and Marcel Duchamp to compile a list of artists to procure paintings from. Peggy took advantage of the low WWII “wartime” prices (much like buying designer brands at discounted prices during the Recession)! and bought a different painting every day. But Shortly after Peggy started purchasing the paintings, the Germans started closing in on Paris. When the Louvre refused to help safeguard her collection from the Germans, Peggy fled the Nazi-occupied France and shipped the whole collection back to NYC.

More on this intriguing cultural figure, after the jump!

In 1942, Peggy opened the museum Art of This Century, which became a haven for contemporary art in NYC. It was here that Peggy gave Jackson Pollock his own show and commissioned some of his largest paintings to date. Soon Peggy grew tired of NYC, and decided to bring the art to Venice. The move to Venice marked the debut of Cubist, abstract, and Surrealist art in Italy, and it also marked the first time artists such as Rothko, Arshile, and Gorky were exhibited in Europe.

One of the last stops for the growing collection was the at the Venice Biennale, where Peggy purchased an unfinished palace called the Palazzo Venier del Leoni on Venice’s Grand Canal. She opened this palace to the public in 1951 and set up the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation to help provide funds for the operation of the museum. Eventually, in 1976, Peggy Guggenheim transferred ownership of the collection to her uncle’s foundation under the condition that the collection stayed in Venice.

Peggy Guggenheim contributed to art history by collecting all of these works and sharing them with the world. Although she may not have discovered these painters on her own, Peggy recognized that the avant-garde art being created was revolutionary and deserved international attention. She succeeded in bringing high art to the masses and making it more accessible to various different cultures through use of a traveling collection. In this way, we can truly say Peggy G. started an artistic movement. ☺

To check out the works in the Peggy Guggenheim collection, click here!

For more on Lady Guggenheim, visit the great links below:

BBC Documentaries: Peggy: The Other Guggenheim

The New York Times: Books of the Times; The Poor Little Rich Art Collector

Left Bank ReviewPeggy Guggenheim, Profile

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