Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict
by Peggy Guggenheim
Universe Books, 396 pp., $17.50
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 …