Peggy Guggenheim: Mistress of Modernism

Mary V. Dearborn: Peggy Guggenheim: Mistress of Modernism (Virago Press Ltd, 2007).

Peggy Guggenheim was born in 1898 and died 81 years later, in 1979. She was born into the rich Guggenheim family although she was one of the ‘poor’ Guggenheims. She didn’t want the traditional life of a Jewish girl in New York so she strived hard to find her place in life. She became an avid art collector, especially abstract and Surrealist art. She lived among the artists, payed artists regularly to help them, had various galleries where she showed her collection and also other works – among these works by Jackson Pollock, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Wassily Kandinsky. She also lived life to the fullest, was married several times, had lovers and was very frank and open about her sex life. Although she wasn’t very pretty, she seemed to have had something about her that attracted people to her.
There’s no doubt in my mind that Peggy Guggenheim was a very special person, a woman who broke free of her family’s expectations and through trial-and-error carved her own place in the world – and at least to some extent in art history as well.
Unfortunately, the book doesn’t take full advantage of this. In fact, the book isn’t very good. It has a lot of issues. First of, the first chapters are really confusing with lots of namedropping. Both Peggy’s paternal and maternal family are rather big and both are mentioned in few pages and I never quite got the idea of who’s who. In fact, the author never solves the problem of introducing new persons to the book. Peggy meets so many interesting people in her life but the continuity of the story is often broken when new people show up and we then get their life stories in a few paragraphs or pages – or in some cases, just get the one interesting fact from the life in a sentence or in parentheses (no matter if the fact has any relevance for Peggy’s story and life or not). When you’re writing a biography about a person who meets a lot of different persons, you have to make their introduction into the biography smooth – this didn’t happen here.
Another issue was that the writing didn’t make you really connect with Peggy. You felt distanced for most of the book – even when various heart breaking issues happened, you didn’t feel any emotional reaction. You never felt like you got under her skin. Now, I know Peggy was a complicated woman who had issues with being close to people and who seems like an exceptional bad mother – but we still ought to be able to feel her, to sense her, not just get a rational idea about who she was.
As if this wasn’t enough, this book was also very repetitive. The same thing was said over and over. Sometimes in the beginning and end of a chapter, sometimes several chapters later. It made me feel that neither the author or the editor have done the final editing of the manuscript well enough.
I have no doubt that the author really likes Peggy. And I do too. But the author thinks that Peggy has been overlooked in art history books because she is a woman and because she had a rather healthy sexual appetite and wasn’t afraid to talk about it. I’m not sure. I don’t doubt that she was important in her day, that she made a difference in for instance Jackson Pollock’s career. But I’m not sure that she was all that important when you look back. She had two important galleries, one in London and one in New York, but neither of them was open for more than a few years. She also had the museum in Venice but still. I think she had some impact but I don’t think the author makes the point persuasively that she has been overlooked. I lean towards the thought that she has been given the credit she was due.
So – after all these negative things, I still gave the book 3 stars. The reason for this is Peggy. I’m not sure I liked her but she was extremely fascinating and I do like people who take their lives in their own hands and do something with it. Who fight against tradition and expectations and go after their bliss, so to speak. So even though I think the author makes a really bad job of writing about Peggy, Peggy herself makes the difference and thus, the 3 stars. I do also think the book becomes slightly better as it progress – but I’m not sure if I just got used to the badness.
I hope there are better biographies out there about Peggy because I think she deserves it. If not, then I recommend this one. Otherwise, I would definitely go for one of the other first.

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