Monday, 24 March 2014

Marguerite "Peggy" Guggenheim / August 26, 1898 – December 23, 1979

Marguerite "Peggy" Guggenheim (August 26, 1898 – December 23, 1979) was an American art collector, bohemian and socialite. Born to a wealthy New York City family, she was the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim, who went down with the Titanic in 1912, and the niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim, who would establish the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Peggy Guggenheim created a noted art collection in Europe and America primarily between 1938 and 1946. She exhibited this collection as she built it and, in 1949, settled in Venice, where she lived and exhibited her collection for the rest of her life.

Both of Peggy's parents were of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. Her mother, Florette Seligman (1870–1937), was a member of the Seligman family. When she turned 21 in 1919, Peggy Guggenheim inherited US$2.5 million, about US$34 million in today's currency. Guggenheim's father, Benjamin Guggenheim, died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic and he had not amassed the fortune of his siblings; therefore her inheritance was far less than the vast wealth of her cousins.
She first worked as a clerk in an avant-garde bookstore, the Sunwise Turn, where she became enamored with the members of the bohemian artistic community. In 1920 she went to live in Paris, France. Once there, she became friendly with avant-garde writers and artists, many of whom were living in poverty in the Montparnasse quarter of the city. Man Ray photographed her, and was, along with Constantin Brâncuși and Marcel Duchamp, a friend whose art she was eventually to promote.
She became close friends with writer Natalie Barney and artist Romaine Brooks, and was a regular at Barney's stylish salon. She met Djuna Barnes during this time, and in time became her friend and patron. Barnes wrote her best-known novel, Nightwood, while staying at the Devonshire country manor, 'Hayford Hall', that Guggenheim had rented for two summers.

In January 1938, Guggenheim opened a gallery for modern art in London featuring Jean Cocteau drawings in its first show, and began to collect works of art. After the outbreak of World War II, she purchased as much abstract and Surrealist art as possible.
Her first gallery was called Guggenheim Jeune, the name being ingeniously chosen to associate the epitome of a gallery, the French Bernheim Jeune, with the name of her own well known family. The gallery on 30 Cork Street, next to Roland Penrose's and E. L. T. Mesens' show-case for the Surrealist movement, the London Gallery, proved to be successful, thanks to many friends who gave advice and who helped run the gallery. Marcel Duchamp, whom she had known since the early 1920s, when she lived in Paris with her first husband Laurence Vail, had introduced Guggenheim to the art world; it was through him that she met many artists during her frequent visits to Paris. He taught her about contemporary art and styles, and he conceived several of the exhibitions held at Guggenheim Jeune.
The Cocteau exhibition was followed by exhibitions on Wassily Kandinsky (his first one-man-show in England), Yves Tanguy, Wolfgang Paalen and several other well-known and some lesser-known artists. Peggy Guggenheim also held group exhibitions of sculpture and collage, with the participation of the now classic moderns Antoine Pevsner, Henry Moore, Henri Laurens, Alexander Calder, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Constantin Brâncuși, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Kurt Schwitters. She also greatly admired the work of John Tunnard (1900–1971) and is credited with his discovery in mainstream international modernism.

When Peggy Guggenheim realized that her gallery, although well received, had made a loss of £600 in the first year, she decided to spend her money in a more practical way. A museum for contemporary arts was exactly the institution she could see herself supporting. Most certainly on her mind also were the adventures in New York City of her uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim, who, with the help and encouragement of Hilla Rebay, had created the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation two years earlier. The main aim of this foundation had been to collect and to further the production of abstract art, resulting in the opening of the Museum of Non-objective Painting (from 1952: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) earlier in 1939 on East 54th Street in Manhattan. Peggy Guggenheim closed Guggenheim Jeune with a farewell party on 22 June 1939, at which colour portrait photographs by Gisèle Freund were projected on the walls. She started making plans for a Museum of Modern Art in London together with the English art historian and art critic Herbert Read. She set aside $40,000 for the museum's running costs. However, these funds were soon overstretched with the organisers' ambitions.
In August 1939, Peggy Guggenheim left for Paris to negotiate loans for the first exhibition. In her luggage was a list drawn up by Herbert Read for this occasion. Shortly after her departure the Second World War broke out, and the events following 1 September 1939 made her abandon the scheme, willingly or not. She then "decided now to buy paintings by all the painters who were on Herbert Read's list. Having plenty of time and all the museum's funds at my disposal, I put myself on a regime to buy one picture a day." When finished, she had acquired ten Picassos, forty Ernsts, eight Mirós, four Magrittes, three Man Rays, three Dalís, one Klee, one Wolfgang Paalen and one Chagall among others. In the meantime, she had also made new plans and in April 1940 had rented a large space in the Place Vendôme as a new home for her museum.
A few days before the Germans reached Paris, Peggy Guggenheim had to abandon her plans for a Paris museum, and fled to the south of France, from where, after months of safeguarding her collection and artist friends, she left Europe for New York in the summer of 1941. There, in the following year, she opened a new gallery which actually was in part a museum. It was called The Art of This Century Gallery. Three of the four galleries were dedicated to Cubist and Abstract art, Surrealism and Kinetic art, with only the fourth, the front room, being a commercial gallery.
Her interest in new art was instrumental in advancing the careers of several important modern artists including the American painters Jackson Pollock and William Congdon, the Austrian surrealist Wolfgang Paalen, the sound poet Ada Verdun Howell and the German painter Max Ernst, whom she married in December 1941. She had assembled her collection in only seven years.

Following World War II — and her 1946 divorce from Max Ernst — she closed The Art of This Century Gallery in 1947, and returned to Europe; deciding to live in Venice, Italy. In 1948, she was invited to exhibit her collection in the disused Greek Pavilion of the Venice Biennale and in 1949 established herself in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal.
Her collection became one of the few European collections of modern art to promote a significant amount of works by Americans. In the 1950s she promoted the art of two local painters, Edmondo Bacci and Tancredi Parmeggiani. By the early 1960s, Guggenheim had almost stopped collecting art and began to concentrate on presenting what she already owned. She loaned out her collection to museums in Europe and in 1969 to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which was named after her uncle. Eventually, she decided at this time to donate her home and her collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, a gift which was concluded inter vivos in 1976, before her death in 1979.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of the most important museums in Italy for European and American art of the first half of the 20th century. Pieces in her collection embrace Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
Peggy Guggenheim lived in Venice until her death in Camposampiero near Padua, Italy after a stroke. Her ashes are interred in the garden (later: Nasher Sculpture Garden) of her home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (inside the Peggy Guggenheim Collection), next to her beloved dogs.

According to both Guggenheim and her biographer Anton Gill, she had a voracious sexual appetite and it was believed that, while living in Europe, she had "slept with 1,000 men".She claimed to have had affairs with numerous artists and writers, and in return many artists and others have claimed affairs with her. She is even mentioned as having had affairs with fictional characters, for example William Boyd's Nat Tate.
Her first marriage was to Laurence Vail, a Dada sculptor and writer with whom she had two children, Michael Cedric Sindbad and Pegeen Vail. They divorced about 1928 following his affair with writer Kay Boyle, whom he later married. Soon after her first marriage dissolved, she briefly married John Holms, a writer with writer's block who had been a war hero. Starting in late December 1939, she and Samuel Beckett had a brief but intense affair, and he encouraged her to turn exclusively to modern art. She married her third husband, Max Ernst, in 1941 and divorced him in 1946. She has eight grandchildren: Clovis, Mark, Karole and Julia Vail, from her son, and Fabrice, David and Nicolas Hélion and Sandro Rumney from her daughter.

Peggy Guggenheim is portrayed by Amy Madigan in the movie Pollock (2000), directed by and starring Ed Harris, based on the life of Jackson Pollock. A play by Lanie Robertson based on Peggy Guggenheim's life, Woman Before a Glass, opened at the Promenade Theatre on Broadway, New York on March 10, 2005. It is a one woman show, which focuses on Peggy Guggenheim's later life. Mercedes Ruehl plays Peggy Guggenheim. Ruehl received an Obie award for her performance. In May 2011, the Abingdon Theater Arts Complex in New York features a revival of this play, starring veteran stage actress Judy Rosenblatt, directed by Austin Pendleton.
In Bethan Roberts' first play for radio, "My Own Private Gondolier", Peggy Guggenheim's troubled daughter, Pegeen, leaves her three children behind when she travels to Venice to spend the summer with her mother. Pegeen is in retreat from a marriage that has failed. She is determined to be an artist, and she shuts herself up in the dank basement, trying to paint. Meanwhile, her mother, Peggy, is much more concerned with the English sculptor who has come to visit; she wants a piece of his work to add to her collection and will use everything at her disposal to achieve her aim. She'll even try to inveigle her daughter into the plan if she thinks it will get her what she wants. Peggy is well known as a collector of men, as well as art. As the summer progresses, and the strains between mother and daughter grow, it's only Gianni, Peggy's personal Gondolier, who can provide a welcome diversion. The play was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Oct. 19, 2010. Peggy Guggenheim was played by Fiona Shaw. Pegeen Vail was played by Hattie Morahan Jack.

 The priceless Peggy Guggenheim
In just eight years, Peggy Guggenheim changed the face of 20th-century art – and her life, both public and intimate, was as radical as her collection. John Walsh salutes a true original

It was said that she had a thousand lovers in her life, and that she received her most thorough grounding in modern art when she spent a night and a day in bed with Samuel Beckett, interrupted only by her demands that he go out and find some champagne. People murmured that Peggy Guggenheim went to bed with so many men (and occasionally women) because it boosted her self-esteem and made her less conscious of her huge, potato-shaped nose. She loved art and sex in about equal measure, but she was also turned on by fame. Asked why she loved Max Ernst, the great Surrealist painter whom she married in 1941, she replied: “Because he’s so beautiful and because he’s so famous.”

In the high-rolling, modern-Medici world of 20th-century art patronage and art collecting, Peggy Guggenheim was unique. She collected art like nobody else, picking up items that didn’t sell, and works for which there was, as yet, no market, just because she loved them. She bought art, not as an investment, but because she saw something that her own eyes told her was great. She discovered Jackson Pollock when he was a humble carpenter in Solomon Guggenheim’s museum, and gave him his first exhibition in 1950 at the Museo Correr in Venice. But her years spent in actual acquisition were, in fact, few: about 1938 to 1940 in England and France; and 1941-46 in America.

“Eight years collecting in a lifetime of 80 years,” wrote her biographer, Anton Gill, “is not much, especially when one looks at the career of Edward James, or Walter Arensberg or the Cone sisters or Katherine Dreier … Had her private life been less colourful, would what she did for art seem less interesting?” Seldom has a figure in the art world appeared so schizoid about her commitment to the actual work. When her autobiography Memoirs of an Art Lover was published, critics noted with disapproval that, in its 200 pages, art doesn’t get a mention until page 110.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of Solomon R Guggenheim’s fabled New York art gallery, and this autumn marks the 80th anniversary of the very first museum to bear the Guggenheim name. Solomon, Peggy’s philanthropist uncle, rented a large automobile showroom on New York’s Park Avenue and called it the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Within a few years, he was looking for a more permanent venue for his collection of modern art, and signed up Frank Lloyd Wright to design a “temple of spirit”. The result, a fantastic, spiral-curved building now called the Samuel R Guggenheim Museum, New York, opened to gawping tourists on 21 October 1959, the first permanent museum to be built (rather than converted from a private house) in the United States. Since then, sister museums have been built in Bilbao, Berlin and Las Vegas. But it’s the smallest of them, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, that continues to capture the imagination of art lovers. And 40 years after the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was opened to the public, on the death of its owner, as the Venice Guggenheim, she remains both an enigmatic and a melancholy figure.

Peggy Guggenheim was the original poor little rich girl, born in 1898 to fabulous wealth in New York City. Her father Benjamin was one of seven brothers of Swiss-German provenance who, along with their father Meyer Guggenheim, made a fortune from smelting metals, especially silver, copper and lead. Peggy’s mother Florette Seligman, came from wealthy banking stock.

Peggy’s education in modern art began in New York in 1920. She was 22, and had inherited from her dead father (who went down with the Titanic in 1912) enough money to supply her, via a trust fund, with an income of $22,500 a year. Anxious to find a job that took her outside her immediate circle of rich friends, she found a job at an avant-garde bookshop, The Sunwise Turn on 44th Street. She swung the job via a family connection, a cousin called Harold Loeb, a fair-to-good painter, writer, man of action and womaniser who was in Paris with the “lost generation” of American émigrés about whom Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises. Through Loeb, Peggy met several members of the generation, including Scott Fitzgerald – and was introduced to Alfred Steiglitz, the photographic pioneer and impresario of the avant-garde.

His gallery on Fifth Avenue was where she encountered the work of Cezanne, Picasso and Matisse: it was their first exposure to the American public. There Peggy also had her first sighting of the work of Steiglitz’s future wife, Georgia O’Keeffe – and met Laurence Vail, a writer who was part of the new boho swing of Greenwich Village.

In the 1920s, Peggy went travelling in Europe, discovered Paris and stayed there, on and off, for 22 years. From the start, her predominant interests were art and sex. “I soon knew where every painting in Europe could be found,” she wrote in her autobiography, “and I managed to get there, even if I had to spend hours going to a little country town to see only one.” She also took to acquiring lovers at a ferocious rate. In her autobiography she explains that, when she was young, her many boyfriends were too respectable to have sex with her; but she had discovered (at 23) photographs of frescoes from Pompeii: “They depicted people making love in various positions, and of course I was very curious and wanted to try them all out myself.” Laurence Vail was startled by her forwardness. He visited her at home in Paris, when her mother was out, made a sexual pass and was taken aback by how readily she said “Yes”. He backtracked, saying that, since her mother might come home at any moment, it might be better if Peggy came to his hotel sometime. She fetched her hat and said: “How about right now?” They married two years later and had two children, Sindbad and Pegeen.

In Paris they immersed themselves in arty circles, befriending Djuna Barnes, the lesbian author of Nightwood, published by TS Eliot at Faber & Faber, Constantin Brancusi, the sculptor whose work she collected, and Marcel Duchamp, the great Surrealist. But the marriage broke up in 1928 when she met an English intellectual called John Holms, a one-time war hero turned writer, who suffered from severe creative blockage and published only one story in his career. Theirs was a tempestuous and short-lived marriage: their home in Bloomsbury was often riven with furious rows, drunken harangues and accusation of infidelity, during which, Peggy writes in her autobiography, “he made me stand for ages naked in front of the open window (in December) and threw whiskey into my eyes”. (She was remarkably unlucky with her lovers. Laurence Vail was similarly theatrical. “When our fights worked up to a grand finale,” she reported, “he would rub jam into my hair.”)

Peggy Guggenheim’s annus mirabilis was 1938. Inspired by the groundbreaking, indeed earthshaking, surrealism exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1936 – derided by the British press but unexpectedly popular with the general public – and the encouragement of her friend Peggy Waldheim (“I wish you would do some serious work – the art gallery, book agency – anything that would be engrossing yet impersonal – if you were doing something for good painters or writers … I think you’d be so much better off … ”) she hit upon the idea of starting a gallery dealing in modern artists. She’d met many artists through her first husband. Her uncle Solomon had put together a priceless collection of Old Masters, but she could collect new work for a much more modest outlay. And she genuinely loved the company of artists and writers. She began to look for a suitable space, helped by Humphrey Jennings, the documentary-maker who filmed Auden’s “Night Mail” for the GPO Film Unit, and Marcel Duchamp. As they fixed on No 30 Cork Street, Duchamp gave her some basic lessons in modern art. “Peggy had to be shown the difference between what was Abstract and what was Surrealist,” writes her biographer Anton Gill, “and between the ‘dream’ Surrealism of, for example, Dali or Di Chirico and the ‘abstract’ Surrealism of, say, André Masson. She was an eager and quick learner, showing a natural affinity and sympathy for what she saw.”

Also helpful was Samuel Beckett, who was then living in Paris as secretary/amanuensis to James Joyce. He and Peggy met on Boxing Day 1939 at Bosquet’s restaurant, at a dinner thrown by Joyce. Beckett escorted Peggy home to her apartment in St Germain-des-Pres, came in, lay on the sofa and asked her to join him. It’s one of the few recorded instances of the Beckett seduction technique. They were thrown together for 12 days, in which he persuaded her to stop worrying about Old Masters and concentrate on collecting modern artists.

So the marriage of money and art came together. Duchamp’s friendship supplied a heady throng of top-class artists for Peggy to meet: he introduced her to Jean Cocteau, who wrote the introduction to his exhibition. Beckett translated it and introduced her to Geer Van Velde, the Dutch artist. Meanwhile, Beckett revealed an unexpected |love for driving fast in her whizzy sports cars. And the society heiress was gradually |transformed into the boho queen of the European art world.

The gallery, christened Guggenheim Jeune, opened on 24 January 1938, with 30 drawings by Jean Cocteau. Two large linen sheets, sent over from Paris, displayed a group of figures with their genitals and pubic hair on display: they were confiscated and detained, of all unlikely places, in Croydon airport until Peggy and Duchamp could hurry to south London to have them released.

As the year rolled by, Peggy’s gallery grew in stature. She gave Wassily Kandinsky his first-ever London show, then an exhibition of contemporary sculpture featuring works of Henry Moore, Hans Arp, Brancusi, Alexander Calder and Anton Pevsner.

Despite the speed of her gallery’s success, Peggy grew tired of temporarily showcasing the work of certain artists. Inside a year, she became excited by “the idea of opening a modern museum in London”, and organising it on historic |principles. She would decide in advance which artists and schools would feature in it, and then go out and acquire them. As her guiding influence, she turned to Herbert Read, the art critic, and asked him to draw up a wish-list of all the artists he thought should be represented. As the whole of Europe trembled on the brink of war, Peggy Guggenheim set out on her tremendous cultural crusade. She boldly resolved to “buy a picture a day”. She bought Surrealist works by Dali, Cubist works by Braque and Picasso, geometric designs by Mondrian and Fernand Léger (whose Men in the City she bought on the day Hitler invaded Norway. The painter said he was “astonished by her sang froid”.) In the winter of 1939 and spring of 1940 she bought work by Miro, Picasso and Max Ernst in dizzying succession. She patrolled the ateliers of Paris, snapping up minor masterpieces for a song. She bought Brancusi’s soaring sculpture Bird in Space in Paris, even as the German army advanced on the capital.

The invasion effectively closed down her operations. With the über-Surrealist Max Ernst (whom she later married and divorced in two years), she finally fled occupied France in July 1941 and headed for her beloved New York. She lost no time in finding a new home for her purchases.

In October 1942, her museum-gallery, Art of This Century, opened in Manhattan, exhibiting all her Cubist, Abstract and Surrealist acquisitions. For the opening night, she wore, according to Anton Gill, “one earring made for her by Calder and |another by Yves Tanguy, to express her equal commitment to the schools of art she supported”. The work of leading European artists flowed through her gallery, along with unknown young Americans: Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Janet Sobel, Clyfford Still – and the gallery’s star attraction Jackson Pollock. In Ed Harris’s 2000 film Pollock, in which Guggenheim was played by Amy Madigan, it was suggested that artist and patron had an affair; in fact he’s a rare sighting of an artist who slipped through Peggy’s fishnets; she didn’t fancy him because he drank too much. But she supported him with monthly handouts and sold his work: she commissioned his largest painting, Mural, and gave it away to the University of Iowa. Without Peggy’s generous patronage, it’s doubtful whether the American abstract Expressionist movement would have survived as it did.

Then, after the war, she discovered Venice. In 1948 her collection was exhibited at the Venice Biennale – the first time that Pollock, Rothko and Arshile Gorky had been seen in Europe. The fact that she’d brought them together with all the European masterpieces bought in the early years of the war made her complete collection a paradigm of Western modern art.

A year later, she bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, and held an exhibition of her sculptures in the gardens. The |reputation of her collection grew as it was toured across Europe, and shown in Florence, Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels and Zurich, before setting up its permanent home in the Palazzo. |From 1951, she opened her house and collection to the general public every summer, though |she kept adding to it over the next 30 years. She donated the palace and her collection to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, but the |collection remains where it is, a cynosure for |art-loving tourists.

She died on 23 December 1979. Her ashes are buried in a corner of the Palazzo garden, near where her 14 beloved Lhasa Apso dogs are buried. The dogs were a vestigial emblem of the flamboyant, rich-bitch socialite she could so easily have remained, with her family inheritance and ritzy Manhattan haut-monde. But Peggy Guggenheim was something more than that: an art collector who believed that some works are worth keeping safe in the collective cultural memory, protecting them against obscurity, as if it were a noble cause.

Art world: The Guggenheim empire

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

Best known for its building, Bilbao's Guggenheim is an astonishing architectural feat designed by Frank Gehry. Its series of curved, interconnected shapes are clad in shimmering titanium, while the interior is designed around a large, light-filled atrium with views of Bilbao's estuary and the surrounding hills of the Basque country. Opened in 1997, the museum has provided a home for large-scale, site- specific works and installations by contemporary artists, such as Richard Serra's 340ft-long "Snake. Guggenheim Bilbao makes a point of supporting the work of Basque artists, as well as housing a selection of works from the Foundation's extended collection.

Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin

Opened in 1997, the Deutsche Guggenheim is a joint venture based in the ground floor of the Deutsche Bank building in Unter der Linden, a grand boulevard in the historical centre of Berlin. The 510sq m gallery inside this Twenties sandstone building was designed by Richard Gluckman to provide a clean, clear space for artworks that belong to both the Guggenheim Foundation and the bank itself, which holds the largest corporate art collection in the world. The gallery presents major thematic exhibitions, as well as site-specific commissions by new and established contemporary artists, including John Baldessari, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, and Rachel Whiteread.

Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York

Opened on 21 October 1959, the New York Guggenheim building is an artwork in its own right: a white spiral structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Inside, the museum brings together several private collections, including the "non-objective paintings" belonging to Solomon R Guggenheim, who established the Guggenheim Foundation that still owns the museums that carry its name. Up to 1,150,000 visitors flock each year to the Fifth Avenue museum, which is also home to his niece Peggy Guggenheim's collection of Abstract and Surrealist works; art dealer Justin K Thannhauser's masterpieces; and Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo's large selection of Minimalist, Post-Minimalist and Conceptual art.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, Saadiyat Island, United Arab Emirates

Currently under construction, the latest Guggenheim will also be the biggest. Another innovative design from the California-based architect Frank Gehry, with clusters of block and cone-shaped connected galleries seemingly piled on top of each other, the 450,000sq ft museum is situated on a peninsula at the north-western tip of Saadiyat Island, adjacent to Abu Dhabi. It will house its own modern and contemporary collections, with a special focus on Middle-Eastern contemporary art, as well a presenting special exhibitions from the Guggenheim Foundation's main collection.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

Solomon R Guggenheim's niece, Peggy, bequeathed her collection, and the 18th-century palazzo house in which she had lived since the late 1940s, to the Foundation in 1976. Much smaller in scale than its New York counterpart, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni nonetheless houses an impressive selection of modern art. Its picturesque setting and well-respected collection attract some 400,000 visitors per year. The museum reflects Peggy Guggenheim's personal interest in a variety of modern styles and schools, from Cubism to Expressionism to Surrealism, and is home to major works by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, René Magritte, Piet Mondrian, and Jackson Pollock.

Biopic to tell the outrageous story of Peggy Guggenheim

A film featuring racy sex scenes, the sinking of the Titanic and portrayals of Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock and James Joyce might be dismissed as too far-fetched by Hollywood standards.

The extraordinary life of Peggy Guggenheim, the bohemian doyenne of the 20th-century art world, often defied rational explanation, however.

A big screen biopic is in the works, and Guggenheim family aficionados and wary film censors can be certain that it will contain a lot of sex and art. The art collector denied the oft-repeated rumour that she had gone to bed with almost 1,000 people – men and women alike – but admitted that her lovers could be counted in the hundreds.

She became a close friend of Marcel Duchamp and is credited with advancing the careers of Jackson Pollock and Max Ernst. In the process she helped to develop abstract expressionism, the first American art movement to achieve worldwide importance.

Eleanor Cayre, a New York-based art advisor, is to lead the film's development in partnership with Nikki Silver, the Emmy Award-winning producer.

"I have always been fascinated with Peggy's collection and life story," Ms Cayre said. "She was an eccentric figure, who not only championed, but also had intimate relationships with some of the most creative minds in modern art history."

The film, which is still untitled and has yet to reach the casting stage, is expected to begin production in 2012. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the project is that it has taken so long for somebody to commit Peggy Guggenheim's life to celluloid.

Born in New York in 1898, Peggy Guggenheim never had to worry about money. She was the niece of Solomon Guggenheim, founder of the world famous museum, and her father Benjamin was a wealthy businessmen, who like his father, earned a fortune in mining.

In 1912, when Peggy was a teenager, her father boarded the RMS Titanic for its maiden voyage, accompanied by his mistress, his valet and his chauffeur. According to witnesses, after hearing of a collision with an iceberg he ushered his mistress to a lifeboat before returning to his cabin and changing into his evening dress, remarking: "We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen."

Benjamin Guggenheim did indeed go down with the ship, and by the time his daughter was 22 she found herself with an income of $22,500 a year in the form of a trust fund. One of her first acts after gaining financial independence was to hire a surgeon to carry out work on her nose, a feature she hated and referred to as her "Guggenheim potato".

Bored and frustrated by her small clique of New York friends, she decided to leave the US to go travelling in Europe in search of sexual and artistic adventures.

In her autobiography Out of This Century, Peggy said: "All my boyfriends were disposed to marry me, but they were so respectable they would not rape me.

"I had a collection of photographs of frescos I had seen at Pompeii. They depicted people making love in various positions, and of course I was very curious and wanted to try them all out myself."

In 1922 she married a French artist called Laurence Vail, whom she later referred to as the "King of Bohemia". They had two children but divorced in 1928 after six tempestuous years during which their fights ranged from the unpleasant – he would rub jam in her hair – to the downright violent: "Once he held me down under water in the bathtub until I felt I was going to drown," she wrote.

She mingled with numerous writers and artists, including James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp and Isadora Duncan. She played tennis with Ezra Pound, describing him later as "a good player, but he crowed like a rooster whenever he made a good stroke".

Her next relationship was with John Holms, a frustrated writer who drank too much. She invited him and his partner to visit her home in Pramousquier, writing later: "They came overnight and we went in bathing at midnight, quite naked. John and I found ourselves alone on the beach and we made love."

In 1938, with the help of Marcel Duchamp, she launched Guggenheim Jeune, a modern art gallery in London. She bought many of the works herself, before travelling to Paris to purchase cut-price paintings from artists desperate to leave the city before the outbreak of war.

At a dinner thrown by James Joyce in 1939 she met Samuel Beckett, who escorted her back to her apartment. They had a brief affair, much of which was spent in the bedroom, during which the young writer persuaded her to concentrate solely on modern art.

Driven out of Europe by the Second World War, she set up a gallery in New York called Art of This Century, where she showcased artists including Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, David Hare and Mark Rothko.

Perhaps her greatest triumph, the gallery also proved to be the undoing of her marriage to the surrealist artist Max Ernst, who left her for one of 31 female artists she had featured in a show. "I realised that I should have had only 30 women in the show," she remarked drily after their divorce.

The goodtime Guggenheim
Mary V Dearborn's biography of Peggy Guggenheim, the 20th century's great collector, gives her the treatment she deserves, says Lucasta Miller
Lucasta Miller

 Peggy Guggenheim: Mistress of Modernism
by Mary V Dearborn
320pp, Virago, £20

Both sides of the art collector Peggy Guggenheim's family were preposterously, fabulously, stinkingly rich, so much so that their stories read as near-parodies of the American dream. Her maternal grandfather, James Seligman, and his brothers, had started life as penniless Jewish immigrants from Bavaria, wandering the Pennsylvanian countryside as pedlars with back-packs. James became famous for selling and, having opened a shop, impressed his elder brother with his capacity, on a blistering summer's day, to sell a woman a pair of galoshes, which they did not stock. "To sell something you have to someone who wants it - that is not business. But to sell something you don't have to someone who doesn't want it - that is business!" went the family mantra. Eventually the Seligmans went into banking and became known as "the American Rothschilds".

The Guggenheims, with a similar immigrant background, were equally blessed with commercial nous, though they made their fortune primarily in metals, controlling 75% to 80% of the world's copper, silver and lead by the time of the first world war.

Peggy was born in 1898 in one of New York's grandest hotels, where her parents were living before moving to their own enormous mansion on the Upper East Side, all marble staircases, tigerskin rugs and Louis XVI. From an early age, she was precociously sexualised, something that had a profound influence on her adult personality. At seven, she was banished from the dining table for saying, "Papa, you must have a mistress as you stay out so many nights!"

As second-generation immigrants, neither Peggy's eccentric mother Florette nor her father Benjamin shared the willpower of their antecedents. When her father died on the Titanic, his estate was found to be in disarray, and his widow and three daughters became reliant on his brothers. With pathological insensitivity, Florette blamed her youngest, Hazel, for Benjamin's demise - he had booked his passage to be home for the child's birthday. In later life, Hazel would fling her two young children to their deaths from a New York balcony. Mental stability was not, it seems, a dominant feature of the family.

In 1919, Peggy came of age and inherited, yet because of her father's comparative fecklessness, her fortune - $450,000 - was nothing like as big as her name suggested, gossips supposing that she had $70m. Such misconceptions proved a problem in later life as Peggy attracted more and more hangers-on who were dependent on her largesse; it also explains how she developed a reputation for meanness despite the fact that she was, according to this biography, capable of great generosity. As a young woman, she hated her appearance. An attempted rhinoplasty - the art was still in its infancy - failed to provide the nose "tip-tilted like a flower" which she requested and instead left her even more potatoish than before. Low self-esteem, often transmuted into exhibitionism, continued to dog her throughout her life.

Nevertheless, it must have taken some guts for her to break out of the stifling, conservative world of New York's Jewish plutocracy. Peggy's first move into artistic bohemia began when she took a job (unpaid) in an avant-garde book shop, which led to her first acquaintance with the two obsessions of her life, the modern arts and sex. It was through friends whom she met there that she ended up moving to Paris in 1920, soon marrying Lawrence Vail, a pretentious, undistinguished writer and artist, given to drunken violence which stirred Peggy's latent masochism.

Through the course of her life she would go on, notoriously, to sleep with creative men of far more talent, ranging, among others, from Samuel Beckett (she wrote embarrassing doggerel to leave beside his bed) to Yves Tanguy, from Constantin Brancusi to Marcel Duchamp to Max Ernst (who became her short-lived third husband). But from the late 30s she combined such sexual adventurism with the ambition to become a serious patron of modern art, following in the footsteps of her Guggenheim uncle, Solomon, who had already amassed a collection of Old Masters. She founded three of the most important avant-garde galleries of the 20th century: Guggenheim Jeune, in London's Cork Street, which brought surrealism to London before the second world war; Art of This Century, which opened in New York in 1942 after Peggy's return to the US; and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice - which still houses her personal collection in the palazzo where she ended her life.

Partly as a result of her own incontinent memoirs, which detail her bedroom antics in an odd, flat, scarcely literate tone, Guggenheim has received a poor press and been seen as a figure of fun. Mary V Dearborn, who is related by marriage to her subject, has made a serious attempt to rehabilitate her. Arguing forcefully that the great artists who benefited from Peggy's patronage must have been attracted by something more than her reputed wealth, she presents her as a powerful, independent woman in control of her own destiny and sexuality. Much of this convinces, but at times one feels the biographer is struggling heroically to put Peggy in a positive light.

We are told, for example, that she "cared for her daughter passionately and wanted only the best for her, but she had difficulty expressing her love". Yet reading of Peggy's appalling neglect of her - somewhat sadistically named - children, Sindbad and Jezebel (known as Pegeen), it is impossible not to suppose that her "difficulties" went beyond mere reticence. Her dehumanising determination to christen her dog "Pegeen" and refer to it as her daughter, suggests the pathological.

Despite Dearborn's best efforts, Peggy Guggenheim still emerges as a hollow and damaged individual. Yet it is surely right that a biographer should err on the side of sympathy rather than contempt.

· Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth is published by Vintage. To order Peggy Guggenheim for £18 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875.

Peggy Guggenheim: Mistress Of Modernism

Known for her riotous parties and outrageous behaviour, this wealthy libertine became one of the most celebrated champions of modern art. By Helen Gent.
As the gleaming black gondola glided through the waters of Venice's Grand Canal, people turned to stare at the elderly woman sitting regally on board. With her huge sunglasses, smeared red lipstick and bright printed dress, she was an incongruous sight against the backdrop of T-shirted tourists. As people pointed and cameras clicked, the woman chatted to the little dog lying sleepily by her side, seemingly oblivious to the excitement she was creating. Suddenly, she flicked her hand, and her trusted gondolier nodded and turned the boat. As they moved gently through the rippling waters, the city shimmering in the summer haze behind them, the woman hoped that when she arrived home, everyone would, at last, be gone.

Putting up with prying tourists was a price Peggy Guggenheim was prepared to pay in order to share her love of art. During the '50s, '60s and '70s, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (now the Peggy Guggenheim Collection) was not only Peggy's home, but also a mecca for hundreds of thousands of visitors who flocked through its doors to see the private art collection she had amassed over an enthralling lifetime.

Displayed throughout the crumbling 18th-century palazzo, tourists could view Peggy's fabulous artworks while she avoided the crowds by riding her gondola - or sunbathing naked on the roof. "Fifty per cent of the people who come here genuinely want to see my collection; the others to meet what they consider a celebrity," she said of the daily intrusion.

An heiress of the famous Guggenheim family (industrialists who later founded the eponymous museum in New York), Peggy lived a life full of contradictions. Although she financially supported friends, family and the artists she championed, she was notoriously stingy, wearing op-shop furs and scraping dinner guests' leftovers back into serving bowls. She once spent an entire day searching Venice for cheap toilet paper.

With her "potato" nose, Peggy wasn't known for her beauty, but she was an exhibitionist - once standing naked in front of her butler while giving him orders - and was renowned for her insatiable carnal appetite. Dubbed "the female Don Juan" by some, Peggy was said to have bedded hundreds of men - and occasionally women. When asked how many husbands she'd had, she reportedly replied, "Mine or other people's?" Many of her sexual conquests were the artists she invited to the raging parties she was famous for.

Her love of modern art meant she mingled with some of the 20th century's most famous artists, including Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, French surrealist Jean Cocteau and German painter Max Ernst, whom she married after rescuing him from Nazi-occupied France. But her relationships were tempestuous and tragic. Many lovers were physically violent and two of them died - one of a heart attack, the other in a car crash. Her family life was troubled, too; Peggy's alcoholic daughter died of a suspected suicide at 42. Twelve years later, at the age of 81, Peggy died of a stroke in Italy, leaving her art collection - then estimated to be worth $30 million - at her palazzo, to be enjoyed by generations of art lovers to come.

Born on August 26, 1898, Marguerite Guggenheim grew up in Manhattan, New York, with her sisters, Hazel and Benita. Her parents, Benjamin and Florette, were wealthy German-Jewish aristocrats, and Marguerite was raised in the lap of luxury. Despite her privileged lifestyle - even her doll's house had crystal chandeliers - in her autobiography, Out Of This Century, she described her childhood as "excessively unhappy". Her mother was an eccentric, prone to repeating everything three times, her father was preoccupied with his many mistresses, and being tutored at home meant Marguerite had no friends. At 13, her world fell apart after her father died aboard the Titanic in 1912. The family was then forced to rely on charity from her uncle Solomon (who opened the Guggenheim Museum in New York) after discovering Benjamin had squandered the family fortune.

In 1919, Marguerite turned 21 and came into an inheritance of $450,000 from her late grandfather. She started calling herself Peggy - her favourite nickname - and had a nose job in 1920. But the operation was so painful that, midway through, Peggy begged the surgeon to stop, and left with the same bulbous nose she'd walked in with (only now, bizarrely, it swelled up when it rained).

At 23, Peggy - a tall, willowy brunette - took a holiday in Europe with her mother, and in Paris fell madly in love with American writer and painter Laurence Vail, 30, who Peggy dubbed "the King of Bohemia". Within months they were married - although Peggy was so unsure he would turn up to the nuptials, she didn't bother to buy a wedding dress. Life in 1920s Paris was glamorous and unpredictable, and Peggy embraced the flapper look. Through Laurence, she was introduced to a new literary and artistic circle, including French surrealist painter Marcel Duchamp, whom Peggy later credited as "the great influence of my life".

But there was a dark side to married life. Soon after their wedding, Laurence, a heavy drinker, began to physically assault Peggy, sometimes even throwing her down steps or punching her in the stomach. By the end of 1928, she'd had enough, and left him and their two children, Sindbad, five, and Pegeen, two, and moved in with a new lover, English writer John Holms, who she'd met at a cafe in Saint-Tropez.

Four years later, when her divorce came through, Peggy and John moved to England, taking Pegeen with them (Peggy had custody of her daughter and Laurence took Sindbad). After a year renting Hayford Hall - dubbed "Hangover Hall" by friends - in Devon, the couple moved to London, where John exerted a svengali-like influence over Peggy. "He knew I was half trivial and half extremely passionate, and he hoped to be able to eliminate my trivial side," said Peggy. She adored John and was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1934.

Now nearing 40, Peggy's privileged life took on a new direction. In 1937, her mother died, leaving Peggy another $450,000. Bored with country life, she decided to get a job. "Someone suggested either an art gallery or a publishing house, and I thought a gallery would be less expensive," explained Peggy, who had been introduced to the bohemian art world by Vail. "Of course, I never dreamed how much I would eventually spend." 

By her own admission, Peggy knew nothing about modern art - "My knowledge of art ended at impressionism" - but she soon learnt from Duchamp, who taught her the difference between abstract and surrealism. Armed with her new knowledge - "I took advice from none but the best ... I listened, how I listened! That's how I finally became my own expert." - Peggy travelled to Paris to scout for artists to exhibit in her gallery. Between meetings with painters and sculptors, she had a passionate affair with Irish writer (and future Nobel prize winner) Samuel Beckett. "His comings and goings were completely unpredictable, and I found that exciting," wrote Peggy in her autobiography. "[He'd] show up in the middle of the night with four bottles of champagne and wouldn't let me out of bed for two days. Not that I wanted him to."

In 1938, Peggy's gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, opened in Cork Street, London, with an exhibition by Jean Cocteau. The surrealist and abstract art she showcased was new to the UK. Many people were "baffled" by it, and few bought it. So, to boost sales and "console" artists, Peggy secretly began buying works herself. "That's how the collection began," she revealed. In 1939, she closed the gallery and returned to Paris on another buying mission - this time for a modern-art museum she was planning to open.

Peggy was still in Paris in September when World War II erupted. Rather than retreat to the safety of New York, she rented a unit and launched into a buying frenzy. Her motto was to "buy a picture a day", and with the German invasion imminent, there was no shortage of sellers. "Everyone knew I was in the market for anything I could lay my hands on," said Peggy. She spent about $40,000 on paintings and sculptures, often buying direct from the artists at knockdown prices.

On June 12, 1940, two days before the Germans invaded Paris, Peggy finally fled to Grenoble in the south of France. Her collection had been transported to a friend's barn in central France for safekeeping (she was furious the Louvre had refused to store it, deeming it too modern to save). But she was soon on the move again, after a group of painters (including Max Ernst, who had escaped from a concentration camp) asked her to help them leave France. It was a dangerous time for the Jewish heiress. But after several months in Marseilles, where she enjoyed a lusty liaison with Max, Peggy and the rescued artists escaped to the US in July 1941.

Back in New York, Peggy and Max moved into a mansion on the East River, and married the following December. In October 1942, Peggy opened her longed-for modern-art museum, called Art Of This Century, in Manhattan. As well as showing work from emerging artists like Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, Peggy championed American abstract painter Jackson Pollock. Of everything she did in her life, she said discovering Pollock was "by far the most honourable achievement". But in later years, she was embittered that her association with the artist had been downplayed ("everything I had done for Pollock was being either minimised or completely forgotten"). Back then, Peggy sold Pollock's work for no more than $1000 - today, his paintings are worth more than $100 million.

With her treasured Lhasa apso dogs trailing behind her, Peggy arrived daily at the gallery in a thrown-together outfit with smudged lipstick and her hair dyed a severe black. At night, she hosted wild parties attended by avant-garde guests, like the actress and writer Gypsy Rose Lee. Peggy claimed she went to bed drunk every night for five years, but Pollock was rarely invited to her outrageous bashes "as he drank so much", she noted, "and did unpleasant things on such occasions". (He once urinated into a fireplace.)

In 1943, Max moved out. "Peace was the one thing that Max needed in order to paint, and love was the one thing I needed in order to live," observed Peggy. "As neither of us gave the other what he most desired, our union was doomed to failure." Then, in May 1947, Peggy closed Art Of This Century after five years. "I was exhausted by all my work in the gallery, where I had become a sort of slave," said Peggy, who was now approaching 50.

She decided to return to Europe, settling in Venice, one of her favourite cities, where she would remain for the rest of her life. She moved into the white stone Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in 1949, where she lived in grand style with her servants and 11 dogs, and commissioned the last privately owned gondola. In 1951, she opened the doors of her palazzo to the public. Three afternoons a week, visitors were allowed to roam through Peggy's home to see her magnificent collection (there were even paintings in the bathroom, along with her wet stockings). The public access caused more inconvenience than Peggy had anticipated. "If I want to get across the hall in my dressing-gown I find myself rather out of luck." Still, as ever, Peggy supported rising talent and opened her cellar as an artist's studio.

She continued to host regular parties and entertained famous guests like Japanese artist and future wife of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and American writer Truman Capote. Despite her wealth, Peggy's catering was lacking ("a can of sardines goes a long way", son Sindbad wryly observed). The men in her life now were mostly homosexual companions, save for a three-year relationship with Raoul Gregorich, a "madly beautiful" garage mechanic 23 years her junior, who died in a car crash in 1954. It wasn't the last tragedy for Peggy. On March 1, 1967, her daughter, Pegeen, died in mysterious circumstances at her home in Paris. An alcoholic painter who was also reputedly addicted to Valium and sleeping pills, Pegeen had previously tried to commit suicide and was found slumped on the floor of her bedroom by her husband, British artist Ralph Rumney. Peggy, who was informed of her daughter's death by telegram while on a trip to Mexico, never recovered from the loss.

In 1962, Peggy was made an honorary citizen of Venice and, almost until her death from a stroke on December 23, 1979, she could be seen cruising the canals in her gondola - on one occasion writing to a friend: "I adore floating to such an extent I can't think of anything as nice since I gave up sex, or, rather, it gave me up."

Just before she died, Peggy reflected; "I look back on my life with great joy. I think it was a very successful life. I always did what I wanted and never cared what anyone thought. Women's lib? I was a liberated woman long before there was a name for it." 

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