What’s Going On December 23rd?

On this very day exactly thirty-four years ago, one of the 20th Century’s foremost art collectors, Peggy Guggenheim, died of a stroke after years of bad health. A true eccentric with an obsessive passion for art, Guggenheim led an extraordinary life; and, as is often the case, her bohemian ways went hand-in-hand with her sometimes controversial choices.

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She was married twice, but was said to be extremely promiscuous; friend and artist Yves Tanguy playfully referred to her second husband, Max Ernst, as “Consort No. 3,812.” Her own quick reply to the question of how many husbands she’d had was “d’you mean my own or other people’s?” Many of her relationships were very abusive, however, and often ended in tragedy or heartbreak. The only thing to which she was truly loyal was art; and what an incredible love-affair that turned out to be.

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I have actually been to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, which is situated in the beautiful house where Guggenheim used to live; the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal in Venice. Like almost everything else in Venice, the touristy façade doesn’t hide the wonderful elegance and that almost exotic haze which hangs around every building and every canal in Venice.

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The collection itself is vast, considering that Guggenheim collected the majority of it over a fairly short period between 1938 and 1946, protecting a great deal of works from being destroyed by the Nazis and financially supporting many artist who would not otherwise have been able to continue working throughout the war. Her main interest lay in art that was considered avant-garde at the time, including many important works from Cubist, Surrealist and abstract Expressionist artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Piet Mondrian, and many more of the last century’s most influential creative minds.

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She and her love of the avant garde was also the catalyst which launched the careers of many other emerging artists, including the famous Jackson Pollock and Max Ernst (Consort No. 3,812).

Ms Guggenheim’s fashion choices were often as recognisable as the iconic artworks she created, and as outrageous as her lifestyle. The parting words of her exceedingly wealthy father, who died on the Titanic when Peggy herself was fourteen, were “we’ve dressed in our best, and are prepared to go down like gentleman.” It’s a pretty admirable way of looking at things, really, and for better or worse, his daughter always looked her best. Even as a teenager working in a bookshop, she would sweep the floor in pearls and a fur coat.

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Despite her exhibitionism and flair for the decadent, Guggenheim was actually a woman riddled with insecurities, and as a result she wielded her wealth and her often eccentric wardrobe like a shield. In the 1920s she was a flapper, of course, with a love of ethnic jewellery and elegant, fashionable dresses. This famous photograph of her, shot by Surrealist Man Ray, shows her wearing an oriental Poiret dress and a headband which had been a gift from the girlfriend of composer Igor Stravinsky. Guggenheim was allegedly not a fan of the way that Poiret’s gowns suited her, saying “my hips grew in those wonderful clothes. I didn’t look very elegant.” This is surely one of her insecurities emerging, because I think she is the epitome of elegance in this shot.

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By all accounts, however, not even Guggenheim’s friends really saw her as a style icon; and reading some of the things that were said about her, I can certainly see why she felt insecure enough to over-compensate with such flamboyant outfits! She was remarkably ugly,” painter Jean Helion said of her, “in such a pleasant way.”

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Guggenheim did have a rather unfortunate nose, which had been the result of a botched plastic surgery procedure when she was just twenty-one; she had hidden for months after the procedure, which had left her nose larger than it had been originally. I see why she felt the need to hide from her so-called friends, who referred to her nose as the “Guggenheim potato.” Literary man John Holms would say of her “I should like to beat your face so that no man will ever look at it again”; and he was her lover, so I dread to think what other people were saying about her!

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Her sartorial choices often reflected how she felt or what she was thinking, something which I can definitely relate too. On one occasion, she purposely wore two mismatched earrings, explaining “I wore one of my (Yves) Tanguy earrings and one made by [Alexander] Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art.”

One of her very favourite gowns was this, by designer Fortuny Delphos, which she wears here on her Venice terrace.

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Her eye make-up too was always illustrative and exciting, and in her later years she would become known for her butterfly sunglasses, which had been designed for her by Edward Malcarth.

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Ever over-the-top, Guggenheim is pictured here sitting in the Byzantine-style throne in the garden of her home, wearing a black and gold gown designed by Ken Scott. The fabric used to make this gown was actually donated by a Turkish sultan, which I think adds some opulence and intrigue to the piece. As you can see, her love of extravagant clothes had not changed with age; the only thing which has seemed to change is that she developed a huge love for dogs (as you may notice).

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The trade mark glasses appear again here, this time paired with a coat trimmed in fur; typical Guggenheim attire for a gondola ride. As always, she is accompanied by a couple of her dogs (I may as well mention here that she was buried with these dogs, all fourteen of them; you can see their and her graves in the garden of her museum. I suppose she decided that dogs were better than men).

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From looking at Guggenheim’s style and reading about her surprisingly low self-esteem, it soon becomes clear just why she chose to settle in Venice. “The carnival reigns supreme,” she said of a city in which she could wander to her heart’s content without being bothered by nuisances such as traffic or awkward stares. “You are obligated to wear fantastic clothes in this great city,” she said, and I can’t help but think she is right.

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Guggenheim was a fashion icon who didn’t set out to be a fashion icon; she wore what she loved, and that was enough. Her art collection is undoubtedly one of the most important of the last century, indeed perhaps the most important, and her influence will surely reach down throughout the centuries as her avant-garde favourites become Old Masters. Although she suffered a great deal abuse from those around her throughout her life, she pressed on until she found the place in which she was happiest; personally, I would have been more than happy to have a drink with Peggy on her terrace overlooking the Grand Canal. No matter how many times her ship hit an iceberg, she always came back up in her best dress like a lady.

Happy December 23rd!

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