The latest in the Jewish Lives series focuses on a flamboyant champion of modern art.
Art patron Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) was notable as much for her scandalous personal life as for her discerning aesthetic sense. In this deftly distilled biography, Prose (Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, 2014, etc.) draws on Guggenheim’s memoir, several biographies, and works by and about her wide circle of friends, offering a cleareyed assessment of the complicated woman and her indelible contribution to modern art. Guggenheim’s Jewishness is handily dispatched. Subjected to anti-Semitism when she was turned away from a hotel, she claimed that her “inferiority complex” stemmed from her appearance rather than prejudice: specifically, her nose, which she hated and believed was an inheritance from her German ancestors. Convinced she was homely, she nevertheless “boasted of having had more than four hundred lovers,” including artists Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy, and James Joyce’s son Giorgio. For a woman of independent wealth and strong will, Guggenheim made surprising choices in men. “She lived in an era and a milieu,” writes Prose, “in which women needed men to explain the world to them….Without a man to direct her, without the rewards of male attention…a woman was…a failed human being.” Yet seeking a man’s validation still does not explain why she endured a violent marriage to Laurence Vail, who beat her; nor to the drunken John Holms, “a writer who didn’t write,” who demeaned her; nor to Ernst, who married her, friends thought, for her money and connections. Prose notes Guggenheim’s “lack of empathy” toward her lovers, their wives, and especially her children, a flaw more egregious than “promiscuity, shallowness, stinginess, and a sense of humor that sometimes crossed over into malice.” The author also chronicles her groundbreaking galleries: Guggenheim Jeune in London; the exuberant Art of This Century in Manhattan; and her Palazzo in Venice, where her collection still resides.
An adroit and lively portrait.