Authors: Peggy Guggenheim
For Alfred H Barr Jr
The photograph of the author, is by Curtis Bell; those of Laurence Vail, Yves Tanguy and Marcel Duchamp, are by Isabey, Man Ray and Sidney Waintrob respectively; the one of Art of This Century, is by George Karger Pix. The photograph of Max Ernst, is by Leonar;
those are by Cacco, Sidney Waintrob and Jerome Zerbe respectively, and those of the author, by Cacco and by Roloff Beny, as is the one. The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, is by Jerry Harper.
In the winter of 1945-46 I was a Warrant Officer in the Army of the United States, stationed at Mitchell Field, Long Island. I had just finished a first novel,
based on my experiences as the first mate of an army freight supply ship in the Aleutians. Before I enlisted in the army at seventeen, I had lived in Washington, D.C. My family was political-military. I give these little personal facts to set the scene for my first meeting with Peggy Guggenheim.
In the early part of that winter I had met AnaÃ¯s Nin. I was twenty. She was forty-two. Our long and arduous relationship, or Relationship, began in the cold, as the sweet singer of Camelot would say. AnaÃ¯s was a shining figure who looked younger than she was; spoke in a soft curiously accented voice; told lies which for sheer beauty and strangeness were even better than the books she wroteâperhaps because what she wrote was always truthful if not true while what she said was intended only to pleaseâherself as well as others.
“I shall take you to a party,
,” she announced. We were in the five-floor Greenwich Village walk-up where she lived with her husband (a banker who made movies and engravings and helped AnaÃ¯s play at being a starving
Bohemian). AnaÃ¯s always called me
with a slightly droll inflection. Since I had not yet read Colette, it was several years before I got the joke. But then she did not get all my jokes either. So
and AnaÃ¯s went to Peggy Guggenheim's house and
has never forgotten a single detail of that bright, magical (a word often used in those days) occasion. In a sense, like the character in
Le Grand Meaulnes
, I still think that somewhere, even now, in a side street of New York City, that party is still going on and AnaÃ¯s is still alive and young and
is very young indeed, and James Agee is drinking too much and Laurence Vail is showing off some bottles that he has painted having first emptied them into himself as part of the creative process and AndrÃ© Breton is magisterial and LÃ©ger looks as if he himself could have made one of those bits of machinery that he liked to paint; and a world of color and humor is still going onâcould be entered again if only one had not mislaid the address. Recently I came across an old telephone book. I looked up AnaÃ¯s's number of thirty-five years ago. Watkins something-or-other. I rang the number; half-expected her to answer. If she had, I'd have asked her if it was still 1945 and she would say, Of course. What year did I think it was? And I'd say, No, it's 1979, and you're dead. (
was never noted for his tact.) And she would laugh and say, Not yet.
Not yet. Well, “yet” is here. And so is Peggy Guggenheim. When I first saw her she was smilingâa bit
sleepily. I remember something odd hanging about her neck .Â .Â . Barbarous jewelry? My memory's less perfect than I thought. Actually, I remember Agee's red-rimmed drinker's eyes and Vail's white streaming hair rather more vividly than I do Peggy, who drifted effortlessly through her own party, more like a guest than a hostess.
There. I am getting, as it were (as Henry James would say),
thing of Peggy's aura then and now. Although she gave parties and collected pictures and people, there wasâand isâsomething cool and impenetrable about her. She does not fuss. She is capable of silence, a rare gift. She listens, an even rarer gift. She is a master of the one-liner that deflates some notion or trait of character or person. As I write this, I am trying to think of a brilliant example; and fail. So perhaps it is simply the dry toneâthe brevity with which she delivers her epitaphsâthat one remembers with pleasure.
Peggy never liked AnaÃ¯s. For some reason, to this day, I have never asked her why. Last year, shortly before Peggy's eightieth birthday, we were sitting in the
on Venice's Grand Canal (writing that sentence I begin to see Peggy Guggenheim as the last of Henry James's transatlantic heroines, Daisy Miller with rather more balls), and Peggy suddenly said, “AnaÃ¯s was very stupid, wasn't she?” It is the artful making of statements in the form of a question that sets apart Peggy's generation from the present age where there are no questions, only thundering self-serving assertions.
“No,” I said. “She was shrewd. And she got exactly what she wanted. She set out to be a legendary figure.” Legend was a word that AnaÃ¯s always used with reverence. “And she lived long enough to see herself a sort of heroine to the women's liberation movement.”
“That may be shrewd,” said Peggyâin the late afternoon light the sleepy narrow eyes suddenly shone like cats' eyesâ“but it seems a stupid thing to want to be.”
Now Peggy has been transformed by time (with a bit of help from her own shrewd nature) into a legend of the very same variety that AnaÃ¯s had in mind, a high romantic Murgeresque mind. Yet, at eighty, the legendary Peggy keeps a sharp eye on a world that is declining rather more rapidly than she is. After all, Venice is sinking, literally, beneath her unfinished white
If the ultimate dream of the solipsist is to take the world with him when he dies, Peggy may very well end by taking Venice out of this world and into her own world where that party still goes on and everyone is making something new and art smells not of the museum but of the maker's studio.
Last summer I asked, “How are you?” Polite but real question: she'd been in considerable pain with some disturbance of the arteries. “Oh,” she said, “for someone dying, not bad.”
It seems to me that this memoirâartful rather than artless, though the unknowing will not get the point to the artâreflects a world as lost now as the Watkins number that did not ring for lack of a digit. But since the prose in this
volume is all Peggy's own, something has been salvaged. One hears in these lines the brisk yet drawling voice; sees the sudden swift side-long glance that often accompanies her swift judgments; takes pleasure if not in her actual self, in its shadow upon the page.
I last saw Peggy looking very shadowy on Italian television. Venice was celebrating her eightieth birthday; or at least that part of Venice which has not sunk into sloth as opposed to the Adriatic.
The camera came in for a very close shot of Peggy's handsome head. An off-camera voice asked her what she thought of today's Italian painters. The eyes shifted toward the unseen questioner; the half smile increased by a fraction. “Oh,” she said, “they're very bad.” Then always the Jamesian heroine, she added, “Aren't they?”
Consternation throughout Italy. The heroine of
The Golden Bowl
had shattered the bowlâand prevailed once again.
Courage and vision, generosity and humility, money and time, a strong sense of historical significance, as well as of aesthetic qualityâthese are factors of circumstance and character which have made Peggy Guggenheim an extraordinary patron of twentieth century art. On ground rocked by factionalism, she has stood firm, taking no sides, partisan only of the valuable revolution. Consequently we find in her collection works which are diametrically opposed in spirit and form, even though they may seem to be alike in their radical strangeness.
The collection is Peggy Guggenheim's most durable achievement as an art patron, but it is quite possibly not her most important. I have used the threadbare and somewhat pompous word âpatron' with some misgivings. Yet it is precise. For a patron is not simply a collector who gathers works of art for his own pleasure or a philanthropist who helps artists or founds a public museum, but a person who feels responsibility towards both art and the artist together and has the means and will to act upon this feeling.