Usually when we talk about art, we do so referring to artists and their work, historians, critics, researchers and art curators, but it turns out that behind all visual production and its author there are other figures who have also contributed to the assessment, promotion, dissemination and sponsorship of art and its creators, these are the collectors and patrons, a task carried out by the American Peggy Guggenheim in Europe and the United States, while she lived between Paris, London, New York and Venice.
Peggy Guggenheim was born in New York in 1898. Her parents came from Jewish families that had immigrated from Europe to the United States; Her father, Benjamin Guggenheim, a businessman dedicated to the mining and steel industry, was of Swiss-German origin, and her mother, German Dutch. When Peggy was 14 years old, her father died in the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912, and when she came of age, 21, she received part of the inheritance that corresponded to her from the fortune left by her father, to which was added the inheritance from her mother when she died in 1937, which allowed her financial independence. However, Peggy, who from a very young age was characterized as having a restless, rebellious, and eccentric spirit, upon concluding ─or abandoning─ her studies, worked in a bookstore that sold avant-garde literature and art, where she first heard about European avant-garde.
In 1920 Peggy traveled to Paris, the capital of art at the time; there she met some of the most important artists of that decade, but the one who initially brought her closer to the artists of the Parisian bohemian and cultural world was the French artist and writer Laurence Vail, whom she married in 1922. Together with Vail, Peggy made friendship with Marcel Duchamp (with whom she became a close friend), Man Ray, Constantin Brâncuşi, Tristan Tzara, James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, among other notable artists and writers. Despite the fact that she had two children with Vail, in 1928 she separated from him due to his aggressive behavior and the psychological and physical abuse he caused her.
After their divorce, Peggy traveled to England, where she stayed until 1939. Those who have studied her career comment that, despite the friendship she had with the artists of Parisian bohemia, she didn’t show much interest in modern art at the beginning, until the late 1930s during her stay in England. There she began to be interested in the currents of modern art; She even stated that her knowledge of art went as far as Impressionism, but her intuition, sensitivity, taste for art and her desire to know and learn led her to strengthen relationships with the most relevant artists of the European avant-garde such as Duchamp and art theorists like Herbert Read. With Duchamp, her teacher and art adviser, she learned to differentiate between abstract art and surrealism, to him, in particular, she owed her training in terms of knowledge of modern art. About him Peggy said that he was the most influential person in her life. «I took advice from the best (…). That’s how I finally became my own expert,” she says in her memoir Confessions of an Art Addict.
With the fortune that her mother left her, Peggy considered investing in some cultural project, then a friend of hers suggested that she create a publishing house or an art gallery. Obviously, her passion for art led her to choose the second option, also thinking that the investment would be less than the first proposal, which it was. In 1938 Peggy created a modern art gallery, the Guggenheim Jeune, which she inaugurated with a solo show by Jean Cocteau, and subsequently exhibited Vassily Kandinsky and Yves Tanguy, among other artists.
In 1939, thinking of a more ambitious project, Peggy decided to close Guggenheim Jeune and open a museum of modern art, modeled on the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For this project, Read drew up a list of artists to be included in the museum, which was later corrected by Duchamp and Nelly van Doesburg, which would end up making up a large part of what is today the Peggy Guggenheim collection. The museum project was finally not carried out because of the beginning of the Second World War; Consequently, Peggy decided to return to Paris where she undertook the task of acquiring works on the basis of the list suggested by Read, Duchamp and Nelly van Doesburg. There she began her famous collection of avant-garde art; Despite the German invasion in France, instead of fleeing, Peggy took advantage of the uncertainty generated by the war situation to buy works of art at a good price, motivated by her goal of “acquiring one work a day”. During this time, she acquired works by Max Ernst, Constantin Brancusi, Albert Giacometti, Fernand Léger, Giacomo Balla, Piet Mondrian, Francis Picabia and many other artists.
Shortly before the fall of Paris to the Germans, Peggy fled to Marseilles where she began a romantic relationship with Max Ernst; With him and a group of artist friends, in 1941, she left for the United States. In New York, she married Ernst and in 1942 she opened a gallery, The Art of This Century Gallery, where she exhibited her collection of art from the Parisian school. Around her collection and the European artists who emigrated to the United States in search of refuge and support in the gallery of Peggy, Duchamp, Mondrian, Breton, Tanguy, Leger, Chagall, Dalí and others, the young American artists had the great opportunity to see the works of European avant-garde art, in front of which they were amazed. There they met Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell and De Kooning, who would be the new artists sponsored by Peggy. Under the influence of European avant-garde art, abstract expressionism was born; that is, modern American art. It could be said that, thanks to Peggy’s management as a collector and patron, the capital of art moved from Paris to New York starting in 1942.
Peggy died in Venice, Italy, in 1979, the city where she bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, to live with her works, where her collection is currently housed under the administration of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, created by her uncle, to whom she donated on the condition that it remain as it is, in that building, today the Peggy Guggenheim Museum of Venice, considered one of the best collections of European and North American art, in which works by important artists of the first and second half of the 20th century stand out.