An artless life that made art available for all
Peggy Guggenheim knew more about paintings than love
At first glance, biographies about flamboyant figures seem ripe for enjoyment, both for their writers and for a public eager to experience vicariously the highjinks of spirits unburdened by the chains of conventions. But a life of glamorous escapades frequently reduces, under the microscope of close reading, into a mere patchwork of anecdotal living.Skip to next paragraph
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Such is the case with Anton Gill's admirable "Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim." Clearly written, scrupulous in its assessment of virtue and vice, thorough in its coverage of a long life ranging over various continents and concupiscence, the book falls flat for those of us expecting a more profound read. One can imagine the excitement with which the author undertook such a study of this great 20th-century art collector. From the outside, Guggenheim's eight decades promise delight. But if the three juicy versions of her own memoir that Guggenheim wrote become boring after her glancing treatment of everything from Max Ernst's imprisonments during World War II to her mistake in giving away at least 14 Jackson Pollocks as inconsequential gifts, how is a biographer supposed to energize the life?
Peggy (Marguerite) Guggenheim, born in New York City in l898, lived a life powered by trust funds and beholden to the financial acumen of relatives who had left Switzerland and Germany 50 years earlier encumbered by little more than their acute intelligence and belief in hard work. Gill is at his best in judiciously explicating the routine anti-Semitic context that Guggenheim's family escaped by emigrating from Europe to the United States in the mid-19th century.
Guggenheim was fatherless by age 14, when Benjamin Guggenheim sank with the Titanic. Although in later years she would allude to the tragedy as the shaping event of her life, Ben, who maintained his own residence in Paris, where he spent most of his time with his mistress, had been missing in action for many years before the iceberg finalized the separation between him and his wife.
Exactly what significance this paternal loss exerted over Peggy's long life is unclear. Gill's gentle speculations, admirable for their restraint on what cannot, truly, be defined by anyone, nonetheless become frustrating in their careful avoidance of reductive hypotheses. After all, a major theme coursing through the biography is Guggenheim's extraordinary number of lovers, the final count being a source of amazement to other worldly men and women of her time. And the peculiar self-image that allowed Guggenheim, year after year, practically to force herself upon men who did not find her attractive, lends credence to her own Freudian explanation of her behavior.
She felt herself odd from the beginning. On the one hand, Florette and Benjamin Guggenheim's middle daughter was blessed with a tall, slender, much admired figure, and a face that, if one ignored her nose, was nominally pretty. Unfortunately, this "eggplant" or "potato" protuberance became an impressive enough sight to become the most referenced proboscis outside Cyrano de Bergerac's.
As if to defy the odds that such a defect might handicap her would-be seductions, Guggenheim set out to bed as many men (and the infrequent woman) as she could. Seldom, it seemed, was she the first choice for anyone else's libidinous impulses. But her financial influence, her mastery of erotic and slightly sadistic word games, and the relentless drive she exhibited ensured that she would seldom be without takers.
Guggenheim set her sights on the fashionable artistic and intellectual set in Paris following the Great War. Such people, she decided, would confer upon her a kind of castoff significance as she basked in their lights. Visits to America became infrequent and, even then, basically enforced by dramatic circumstances such as World War II.