Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict
Rich and eccentric expatriates on the more peculiar shores of art and letters are taking the place of the Bloomsberries on publishers’ lists. The American “Amazons”—Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, and Princesse Edmond de Polignac—have all been the subjects of recent biographies, and even the creepy Crosbys continue to have their day. Caresse Crosby’s diverting autobiography The Passionate Years has just been reissued by Ecco Press in a welcome series devoted to “neglected books of this century.” And now another long out of print account of a rich woman’s exploits in high bohemia, Peggy Guggenheim’s Out of This Century, has reappeared—emended, expanded, and dolled up with a lot of inappropriate period typography. However, Gore Vidal’s backward-looking foreword is a decided bonus.
In his original preface to Out of This Century Alfred Barr made somewhat excessive claims for Peggy Guggenheim’s patronage of twentieth-century art: “courage and vision, generosity and humility, money and time, a strong sense of historical significance as well as of esthetic quality”—claims which these pages and the walls of Peggy Guggenheim’s Venetian palazzo do not entirely substantiate. Pace Barr, in the absence of a trained eye, far more money and time and less humility (in this context “humility” means saying yes to museum directors) should have been expended on the creation of a collection touted as “Art of This Century.” As this book reveals, what differentiates Peggy Guggenheim from other millionairesses who set out to acquire status through art is the extent to which her patronage was motivated by family one-upmanship and sex. In these respects she occasionally reminds one of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. But the founder of the Whitney Museum was obsessively discreet, whereas Peggy—it is one of her many endearing quirks—is something of an exhibitionist.
Peggy’s account of her pre-1940 life in Europe recalls Mack Sennett. Everything is accelerated to the speed of farce. People race from bedroom to bedroom, studio to studio, vehicle to vehicle for no apparent reason; in the absence of custard pies, bottles of wine and bits of fish hurtle overhead. Those little jackanapes rushing about in the background are not Keystone Cops but Surrealists; what is more, she is chasing them. As for the solemn Buster Keaton-like character (named “Oblomov” in the first edition) whom Peggy pursues, he is none other than the young Samuel Beckett. Strange that Peggy should unconsciously conjure up the spirit of a comedian whom Beckett so admires!
Predictably Peggy has little time for women. “I don’t like [them] very much,” she confesses, “and usually prefer to be with homosexuals if not with men [sic].” But the “Athenians” or “pansies”—her euphemisms date her—whom she tries to convert to heterosexuality have a way of leaving their proselytizer high and dry. “I am furious when I think of all the men who have slept with me while thinking of other men who have slept with me before.” Hell hath no fury…. By almost the same token poor Peggy is apt to find her straight lovers a letdown. But then in life, as in this book, she has a way of selling herself short.
Apart from sex, boredom has apparently been another driving force in Peggy’s life. “In the winter of 1920, being very bored, I could think of nothing better to do than have an operation performed on my nose.” Unfortunately her bone structure did not permit a nose “tip-tilted like a flower,” and she emerged from hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, more bored than ever with a nose that swelled up in bad weather. Even the German invasion of France, twenty years later, did not deliver Peggy from the ennui endemic to poor little rich people, as she relates with the disconcertingly deadpan humor—shades of Anita Loos!—that gives these memoirs their artless (Gore Vidal says artful) flavor:
During the summer  I got rather bored and started having my hair dyed a different color every few weeks to amuse muself [sic]. First it was chestnut…[then] bright orange…[then] black. As a result…I conceived a sort of weakness for the little hairdresser who worked so hard on my beauty. From re-reading D.H. Lawrence I also got a romantic idea that I should have a man who belonged to a lower class…. Later…I was ashamed of him and kept him hidden…. Soon this got boring and I needed a change. There was not much choice. The only other man about was an old fisherman, who looked like Brancusi…. There was also a very amusing pansy who lived on the top of our hill….
Before propelling Peggy into hairdyeing, boredom had launched her into art. Around the time of her fortieth birthday a miserable love affair (a young Englishman had jilted her for the Communist Party) left her at a loose end. What sort of therapy would rekindle her spirits? Hitherto Peggy had favored writers rather than painters. A publishing house? Too expensive. Instead she opted for an art gallery which she provocatively named “Guggenheim Jeune.” A Surrealist jack-of-all trades called Humphrey Jennings was put in charge of it. He doubled as a lover. Emily Coleman had offered him to Peggy, “as though he were a sort of object she no longer required. And I took him in the same spirit.” Jennings naïvely thought he was onto a good thing; Peggy records how she disillusioned him.
At first, the author confesses, “I couldn’t distinguish one thing in art from another. Marcel [Duchamp] tried to educate me…. He taught me the difference between Abstract and Surrealist art. Then he introduced me to all the artists.” And indeed Peggy’s taste in art was largely dictated by her taste in artists. If her pantheon bristled with figures like Brancusi, Tanguy, and of course Duchamp, it was primarily in their capacity as studs. On her own admission, lack of concupiscence disqualified Antoine Pevsner—the distinguished Constructivist had conceived a great passion for Peggy—from inclusion in her harem: “as he was mouse, not man, I did not in the least reciprocate this feeling.”
Art-dealing did not keep boredom at bay for long. In March, 1939, Peggy decided to vie with her distant uncle, Solomon Guggenheim, and open a museum of modern art in London. Brains were picked—Herbert Read’s, alas—shopping lists were compiled, and, as war clouds gathered over Europe, Peggy started to buy: “a picture a day,” as well as numerous sculptures by Arp, Brancusi, and so on through the alphabet. Like a child let loose in a supermarket, she grabbed whatever caught her rapacious eye, from the sublime to the kooky. So long as she stayed in the Cubist department, Peggy made one brilliant purchase after another, but when she embarked on Surrealism her eye went a little awry. Surprisingly, this Parisian shopping spree got an extra boost from the outbreak of war: prices tumbled, and Peggy, fearless as always, was spurred on by the fact that there was little if any competition. The main problem was how to get her acquisitions out of occupied France to safety in the US. Not for the first time sex came to the rescue of art: France’s foremost shipper of paintings, René Lefèvre Foinet, saw to Peggy’s twin needs. Sated and crated, collector and collection reached New York safely on Bastille day, 1941.
Besides an ex-husband, his ex-wife, assorted children, and Surrealist hangers-on, Peggy’s suite included her next spouse: Max Ernst. Ernst was “cold as a snake,” Peggy subsequently complained; so, up to a point, was she, at least in her concept of matrimony: “After Pearl Harbor…I did not like the idea of living in sin with an enemy alien, and I insisted that we legalize our situation.” Deaf to her daughter’s remonstrations (“Mama, how can you force the poor thing to marry you?”), Peggy had her way; “the ceremony was very simple and I did not have to promise to obey.” The two egotists—three, if we count Duchamp who sometimes stood in for Ernst—put up with one another for a year of strife, much of it enacted in public. “Peace was the one thing that Max needed in order to paint, and love was one thing I needed in order to live. As neither of us gave the other what he most desired, our union was doomed to failure.” As usual, the author oversimplifies.
Meanwhile Peggy buckled down to her “museum.” The title, “Art of This Century,” was inaccurate (Fauvism and Expressionism were not the only major movements conspicuous by their absence); it was also a shade pretentious, but it put the top floor which had been rented off Fifth Avenue on the New York map. Even more attention-catching was Frederick Kiesler’s installation. If it made the exhibits virtually impossible to see, so much the better! People flocked to stare an unframed canvases mounted on baseball bats, tilted at varying angles to the wall, and illuminated by spotlights that went on and off every three seconds. Elsewhere paintings and sculptures dangled from the ceiling like so many chandeliers. For 1942, it was very far out. All the more perplexing that Peggy should now rail against the unsuitability of the building (“my uncle’s garage”) that Solomon Guggenheim, subsequently, had Frank Lloyd Wright design for his collection.
For all Kiesler’s inspired gimmickry, the Art of This Century gallery soon established a serious reputation for the exhibitions it sponsored. No less important, it became a place where young American artists could mingle with refugees of various persuasions—luminaries of the School of Paris, like Léger, of De Stijl, like Mondrian and van Doesburg, and above all of the Surrealist movement, like Breton, Masson, and Matta. It is thus partly thanks to Peggy that the painters who were soon to be known as Abstract Expressionists had firsthand contact with some of the pioneers of modern art. These crosscurrents had an equally beneficial impact on Peggy herself: from being a dizzy amateur, she became a canny impresario of the most important art movement to emerge in this country. “We had the great joy,” she writes with understandable pride,
of discovering and giving first one-man shows not only to Pollock, Motherwell and Baziotes, but also to Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and David Hare. The group shows included Adolph Gottlieb, Hedda Sterne and Ad Reinhardt…. We also gave one-man shows to Chirico, Arp, Giacometti, Hélion, Hans Richter, Hirshfield, Theo van Doesburg….
To her eternal credit, Peggy provided Pollock with a fixed monthly stipend that enabled him to work in peace. What is more, as the author emphasizes, this arrangement, which included moral as well as financial support, had none of the usual strings attached to it. The only trouble was that Peggy’s championship of Pollock left other members of her stable feeling slighted, and more than one artist walked out on her.
“Much as I loved ‘Art of This Century,’ I loved Europe more…and when the war ended I couldn’t wait to go back.” Peggy was wise to settle in Venice. Unlike Park Avenue, where so many apartment houses were turning into mini-MOMAs, the Grand Canal was mercifully free of modern art collectors. As a Maecenas she had the beautiful city and its group of attractive if not very gifted artists all to herself. Peggy soon settled into a spectacular little palazzo with a suitably bohemian past (in the Twenties the Marchesa Casati had entertained there surrounded by tranquilized leopards, drugged boa constrictors, and live putti coated with gold leaf).
On the great steps leading down to the Grand Canal, where her gondola—“the last private gondola in Venice”—is still moored, Peggy, who has always known how to advertise, installed a life-size Marini bronze of a naked equestrian. When nuns called, she would run out and unscrew the rider’s detachable erection, until the day it was stolen by a desperate guest.
“Daisy Miller with rather more balls.” Gore Vidal’s description of Peggy in her palazzo period is apt. Besides Henry James, Tennessee Williams should be invoked, not that Mrs. Guggenheim has any of Mrs. Stone’s self-destructiveness. On the contrary! Whereas Rome was the undoing of Williams’s leading lady, Venice was the making of Peggy as a celebrity. By throwing open her palazzo, her collection, not to speak of her person (as witness these “confessions”), Peggy has turned herself into not just a Venetian but an international landmark—as Vidal says, “a legend.” The perfect sublimation for an exhibitionist!
Compared to earlier chapters, the Venetian section of this volume is disappointing. For a more sharply observed glimpse of Peggy at this juncture of her life, readers are referred to Mary McCarthy’s caustic story, “The Cicerone,” in which a rich American lady, Polly Herkimer Grabbe, goes to bed with a not-so-young Italian—“another banana peel on the vaudeville stage of her history.” The coolness and rapacity are brilliantly caught, but to judge by Out of This Century, there is yet another side to Peggy: a breathless little girl compulsively chattering away. So long as it provides private glimpses of public figures, her chatter holds our interest. Unfortunately the stories are too often childish ones about herself, usually of the “He who gets slapped” variety. Even when real disaster strikes—for instance the death of her father on the Titanic—Peggy’s reactions are to say the least immature: “from then on we avoided the White Star Line like the plague.” In mitigation we should take into account all the sad things that have happened to Peggy, above all the dramatic deaths of most of the people close to her. Who can blame her for developing such a protective thickness of skin and skull, such a tough, if friendly, heart, such a juggernaut of an ego? Peggy may have aged but, for better or worse, she has not grown up.
Now past eight, Peggy lives up to the title of her book: she has opted “out of this century.” Life in Venice has helped preserve her as if in a time capsule. The cigarette-holder of the Twenties has given way to harlequin sunglasses that smack of the Sixties; the eagerness and curiosity, like the antics that they once redeemed, are things of the past. However, Peggy’s courage and forthrightness have come through unscathed. Art, she insists, “has gone to hell, as a result of the financial attitude.” She is not the first avant-garde collector to resent the thought that the modern movement will outlive her. And so, far from supporting new developments, she inveighs against them:
People blame me for what is painted today because I had encouraged and helped this new movement to be born…. In the early 1940s there was a pure pioneering spirit in America. A new art had to be born—Abstract Expressionism. I fostered it. I do not regret it. It produced Pollock, or rather, Pollock produced it. This alone justifies my efforts…. The twentieth century has already produced enough…. Today is the age of collecting, not of creation. Let us at least preserve and present to the masses all the great treasures we have.
And on this proud and wrongheaded note, “L’Ultima Dogaressa,” as Italian journalists sometimes refer to Peggy, takes leave of us.
“Miss Grabbe’s intelligence was flighty…but her estimates were sharp”: Mary McCarthy’s verdict is said to have dismayed Peggy when “The Cicerone” was read aloud to her by the author. “You didn’t put in my serious side,” the victim complained. The same objection could be made about Out of This Century. In the circumstances, the publishers’ claim that this is “an important cultural document” is open to question.
However, to do the author justice, one must admit that all the studio shenanigans and star-fucking that enliven these pages are of more than ephemeral interest, in view of the fact that they endowed Peggy with unexpected powers of pollination. For instance, she was present in 1942 when Ernst invented “oscillation,” a technique of dripping runny paint from a pierced can suspended above a canvas (e.g. Ernst’s Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidean Fly); she was likewise around three years later when Pollock painted his first “drip” picture. And yet, for all that she treats us to the occasional fanfare on her trumpet, Peggy does not seem to appreciate that she was unwittingly a link between these two events and many more besides. Yes, Out of This Century is “an important cultural document” to the extent that so long as the nascent New York school was cut off from the Paris school by war, Peggy’s bed (made of sterling silver by Alexander Calder) bridged the Atlantic.