Just off Bond Street, in the center of London, Peggy Guggenheim set a course that was to alter both her own life and the development of contemporary art. Guggenheim Jeune was a small yet influential art gallery and though it barely lasted a year, the enterprise was the first step in a journey that would ultimately find its home in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, beside the Grand Canal in Venice.
In 1938 Peggy Guggenheim was 39 years old, her life a rollercoaster of tragedy, love, and travel. Born into a fabulously wealthy New York family, Guggenheim lost her father in 1912 when he drowned on the Titanic. His death affected her deeply. In 1921, independently wealthy from an inheritance and cultivating a rebel persona for herself, she moved to Paris. There she cultivated her interest in classical art, met modern European artists such as Marcel Duchamp – who was to be a strong influence on her career – and fell in love. In 1922 she married Laurence Vail, an American writer, and painter who had been born in Paris and was at the center of the Montparnasse bohemian and intellectual circle. He may have been the ‘King of the Bohemians’ and a knowledgeable teacher for Guggenheim, but Vail was also an abusive husband. The couple had two children together then divorced in 1928.
As war loomed, Guggenheim had a string of failed relationships behind her. She decided to focus her energy on a new project. Supported by an inheritance from her mother’s death she opened Guggenheim Jeune in a small unit on Cork Street, exhibiting work by Cocteau, Picasso, Kandinsky, and Mondrian. The gallery put her in the midst of the burgeoning modern art scene, and she built an emotional life there surrounded by friends and lovers such as Duchamp and Samuel Beckett. Finally, after all her searching, Guggenheim had found a world that seemed to give her life meaning.
Her plan was to open a museum of contemporary art in London. She had the funds, and a long list of artworks to acquire, but war stymied the project. Having got into the habit of buying one piece from each of her Jeune exhibitions, she had the beginnings of a collection. Now, as war broke out across Europe, she set off on a grand shopping trip. With a budget of $40,000 and a coterie of advisers to help spend her money, Guggenheim began buying work by Picasso, Man Ray, Ernst, Magritte, Dali, Klee, Miro and more. At one point she was buying a painting a day, all destined to be masterpieces. The timing of this spending spree was fortunate; the war prompted many artists to sell work at modest prices to raise cash. Guggenheim took her new collection to Paris, but when the Germans invaded France in May 1940 she knew she had to return to the United States to protect her paintings. To avoid confiscation at the ports, she packed and labeled her paintings as household items. So, tucked in the ship’s hold among chairs and frying pans, this precious cargo returned to New York.
After the war, disheartened by the critical reaction to her autobiography Out of This Century; Confessions of an Art Addict, which included an unflinching account of her bohemian lifestyle, with its many love affairs, Guggenheim sought escape. She settled in Venice, a city with a deep-rooted sensitivity for art and parties. Guggenheim was a New Yorker with a European soul. In Venice, she felt at home. There she could build her museum and her considerable legacy.