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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern” by Francine Prose

February 5, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 12.07.53 PMPeggy Guggenheim was a niece of Solomon Guggenheim (whose art collection is housed in the eponymous museum) and a devoted and knowledgeable collector of 20th century European and American art in her own right. Over the course of her life she ran a bookstore, opened and operated art galleries in New York and London, and introduced Americans to surrealist and abstract artists. The works she acquired can still be seen at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.

Guggenheim was born in 1898, one of three daughters of Benjamin Guggenheim and his wife Florette. Benjamin Guggenheim died on the Titanic, too early to amass a sizable fortune like his siblings. Peggy and her sisters were poorly educated, largely at home, and the lives of all three were chaotic. One sister died in childbirth. The other may have killed one or both of her children. Peggy herself was married twice, first to the writer and painter Laurence Vail, with whom she had two children, and later to Max Ernst. She had many lovers, Samuel Beckett among them. Her children were not always the first thing on her mind. She was a thinly veiled character in various works of fiction, and makes appearances in the biographies and autobiographies of many 20th century artists and writers. It makes for a fascinating life story, and Francine Prose has a good time telling it in this volume, part of Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series.

Prose organizes the story less chronologically than thematically, though the themes — men, husbands, sex, art — overlap and commingle. Here’s one example: In the fall of 1939 Peggy (as Prose refers to her subject throughout) left London for France and delivered Peggy’s son Sindbad to his father and stepmother, the latter of whose “hatred for Peggy appeared to be outliving her passions for Peggy’s former husband.” Despite the looming war and Hitler’s animosity to Jews Laurence Vail persuaded Peggy to stay in France, rather than returning with their children to London. She went to Paris, and spent her time buying art, leaving just three days before the Germans arrived. Instead of going south, she drove east, to her former husband and their children on the Swiss border. She had an affair with a hairdresser — “her efforts to keep her romance a secret necessitated spending a great deal of time in the salon, where she had her hair dyed a different color every few weeks. . .” By the end of the summer of 1940 Peggy moved on to Grenoble, where she became involved with – and funded – the efforts of the journalist Varian Fry to help Jewish artists, including Andre Breton, escape from Europe. It was during this period that she became involved with Max Ernst.

Throughout, the writing is engaging, and Prose keeps her many strands clear yet woven together (my only quibble is with the enormous number of typos the text contains). Peggy’s escape from Europe was not easy, involving as it did threatening visits from the police, crossing borders (France to Spain, Spain to Portugal) and seven people (Laurence Vail, and his wife, Peggy and Max Ernst, Vail’s and Peggy’s two teenaged children, and Ernst’s former lover). The group, Prose writes, reunited in Lisbon, where Kay Boyle (Laurence’s wife)

checked into a hospital, claiming a sinus infection in order to be spared the theatrics generated by her soon-to-be ex-husband, his ex-wife, the ex-wife’s lover, and Leonora, the lover of the ex-wife’s lover, who had inconveniently–and dramatically–re-entered their lives.

Peggy shouldn’t be likable, but she is; outside of her personal life she was a generous and interested patron, spontaneous and genuine. Her larger-than-life life story was shaped by denial and by money. The latter allowed her to do what she liked; the former allowed her to forget the consequences and repeat mistakes. She left one of the best collections of mid-century art, and she left it as a gift to the city of Venice where, Prose tells us, her memory is celebrated. Prose’s life of Peggy Guggenheim is entertaining while not overlooking the tragedy and the pain, and should be required reading for anyone interested in feminism or the art of the 20th century.

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