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NY Play Revives Interest in Art Collector Peggy Guggenheim

With record crowds flocking to the Salvador Dali show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and New York's Metropolitan Museum staging a retrospective of Max Ernst, there's been a resurgence of interest in surrealist art. And now, with a recent biography and an-Off Broadway play, there's also a renewed curiosity about the woman who helped bring modern art to the fore in the United States, Peggy Guggenheim.

Over four decades, Peggy Guggenheim assembled a collection of modern art rivaled by no one and yet she's often remembered mainly for her eccentricity and her free-wheeling private life. In the one-woman show, Woman Before a Glass, actress Mercedes Ruehl reveals many of the legendary collector's strange quirks. But on stage, Ms. Ruehl doesn't let us forget that without Peggy Guggenheim, the world may never have known artists like Max Ernst, Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko.

Mercedes Ruehl: "I encouraged them. I started sending them monthly stipends so they could paint or play or pay their rent or feed their kids or drink or whatever the hell else they wished just like regular, ordinary human beings. Except they're not regular, ordinary human beings. They are artists, they are sublime artists, and nobody wanted their work except moi!"

Mary Dearborn, author of the new Guggenheim biography Mistress of Modernism, says the play is biographically truthful.

"Oh, Peggy would have loved the way she is in this show," said Mary Dearborn. "She was shy in real life and she wasn't flamboyant but still the play also gives her her due as real shaper of 20th century art history."

This play, however, doesn't shy away from Peggy's notorious sexual escapades. She was married for a while to Ernst and had relationships with artists from Marcel Duchamp to Yves Tanguy.

Mercedes Ruehl: "Tanguy was the sweetest man I ever knew. I wanted to marry him. I asked him to marry me and he said he would. "But what about my wife?" he said. "She'd be so lonely, so very lonely."

Peggy Guggenheim, at 81 poses in sculpture garden at her 18th century palace, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, in Venice (1979 photo)
Nevertheless, Ms. Guggenheim tried not to let such emotional attachments mar her business acumen. Says biographer Dearborn:

"Peggy was a bargain hunter," she said. "She bought a picture a day in the shadow of World War II when artists were selling their work for next to nothing. Peggy paid only $250 for Giacometti's Woman with a Cut Throat, she paid $300 for a Paul Klee, $150 for a sculpture by Henry Moore, They're just phenomenal prices."

During World War II she risked her life to save art. Ms. Guggenheim, who was Jewish, smuggled art and artists out from under the Nazis in France.

"Hitler evidently made a connection between modern art, which he called degenerate, and the Jews," said Mary Dearborn. "He thought that kind of degenerate art could only be produced and understood by the Jews."

Ms. Guggenheim in her own way agreed, as Ms. Ruehl demonstrates while playing Peggy on stage:

Mercedes Ruehl : "We Jews understand it because wherever we go we're outsiders, we are always forced always to be outsiders. And because of that we see this art for what it is - not an answer but a question. It's why Hitler wanted to destroy it all. Because it forces us to see and feel and think differently and anew. And for ourselves."

Certainly Peggy Guggenheim thought for herself, whether as a lover of great artists or the savior and patron of their art. And in the process, she perhaps became something of a work of art herself.