Famous Artworks in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
VENICE • STORIES BEHIND THE TOP ARTWORKS IN THE COLLECTION
A self-taught modern art lover became a modern art mentor and gallerist, recognising modern art's greatest talents.
Peggy Guggenheim collected art like no else. This was prior to and during the Second World War, at a time when people took absolutely no interest in modern art, but she is now known for discovering some of the major talents of modern art such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
In 1948, Peggy Guggenheim presented the first exhibition of American modern art at the Venice Biennale 1948. The following year, she bought Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, known as the “unfinished palace”, on the Grand Canal of Venice, and fulfilled her dream of opening a museum in her name to exhibit her collection. The museum is now home to over 200 contemporary artists representing important avant-garde movements such as Cubism, Surrealism and Futurism. Artstein has put together a list of must-sees from the collection.
The Silver Bedhead by Alexander Calder
Alexander Calder’s first show of his wire animals and caricature portraits was held at the Wye Gallery, New York, in 1928. He is best-known for experimenting with abstract sculpture.
In 1945-46, Peggy Guggenheim commissioned the artist to make a silver bedhead for herself. This piece is considered to be very unique and Alexander Calder, a lifelong friend of Joan Miró, seemed to be influenced by the figures from Miró’s surrealist paintings through the way he experimented with shapes for his abstract ‘mobile’ sculptures.
The term ‘mobile’ comes from Marcel Duchamp; as Calder recalled, “I asked him what sort of name I could give these things and he at once produced ‘mobile’. In addition to something that moves, in French it also means motive.”
Dutch Interior II by Joan Miró
In 1928, Miró returned to Paris from a trip to the Netherlands with several postcard reproductions of works by seventeenth-century Dutch artists, and Jan Steen’s The Dancing Lesson was among them. Dutch Interior II is a transformation of this Dutch Baroque painting, created sometime between 1660 and 1679.
Miró’s enlargement of and focus on human and animal figures is a conspicuous modification of the Dutch original. While Steen’s real subject was is not the cat, but the sound, movement and hilarity the dancing lesson provokes, in Miró’s version, the cat serves as the hub of his centrifugal composition. The window at the upper centre of Steen’s work has been greatly reduced in size.
This painting is also said to have possibly been influenced by his friend Calder, whose “Circus” performances Miró had recently seen in Paris prior to creating this painting.
The Red Tower by Giorgio de Chirico
Giorgio de Chirico is an important figure because he provided a key source of inspiration for the surrealist painters.
The dreamlike feel to his compositions comes from their irrational perspective, the absence of any unified light source, the elongation of shadows and hallucinatory focus on objects. Italian piazzas surrounded by arcades or classical façades become ominously silent and vacant settings for invisible dramas that unfold. The absence of any event creates a feeling of nostalgia or melancholy if one senses the coming of a momentous incident; if one feels that an act is imminent, this creates a feeling of anxiety.
De Chirico stated that “every object has two appearances: one, the current one, which we nearly always see and which is seen by people in general; the other, a spectral or metaphysical appearance beheld only by some individuals in moments of clairvoyance and metaphysical abstraction, as in the case of certain bodies concealed by substances impenetrable by sunlight yet discernible, for instance, by x-ray or other powerful artificial means.”
Witty artist René Magritte’s Voice of Space was also influenced by Giorgio de Chirico. In the image above, bells float in the air. Objects are shown without their usual functions and meanings, thus creating a bizarrely compelling picture.
Attirement of the Bride by Max Ernst
Attirement of the Bride is an example of Max Ernst’s illusionistic Surrealism, and the title of the work had clearly occurred to Ernst at least as early as 1936, when he italicised it in a text in his book Beyond Painting.
The architectural backdrop, with its strong contrast of light and shadow and inconsistent perspective also shows the influence of Giorgio de Chirico, whose work overwhelmed Ernst when he first encountered it in 1919.
Ernst had long identified with the bird and invented an alter ego, Loplop, Superior of the Birds, in 1929. Thus, one may interpret the bird-man on the left as a depiction of the artist; the bride may in some sense represent the young english surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. Max Ernst seemed to fall in love with her at first sight, as he promptly separated from his first wife (he would later marry Peggy). The couple collaborated and supported each other’s artistic development. However, with the outbreak of WWII, Ernst was arrested by the Gestapo (the official secret police of Nazi Germany) because the Nazis considered his art to be ‘degenerate’. He managed to escape and, leaving Carrington behind, fled to America with the help of Peggy Guggenheim, who was a sponsor of the art. After Ernst’s arrest, Carrington was devastated and ended up in a mental institution. Meanwhile, Ernst got married to Peggy Guggenheim in New York, but their marriage lasted only a couple of years. Ernst and Carrington never resumed their relationship.
The Surrealist by Victor Brauner
In The Surrealist, Victor Brauner draws on well-known motifs from tarot to create a portrait of himself as a young man. Tarot was a subject which interested Brauner and many other surrealist artists greatly.
One tarot card, ‘the Juggler’ (the first card in the Marseille tarot deck), provided Brauner with a key prototype for his self-portrait: the surrealist’s large hat, medieval costume and arm position all come from this figure who, like Brauner’s subject, stands behind a table on which a knife, a goblet and coins can be seen.
Fittingly, the juggler symbolises the creativity of the surrealist poet, as it represents the ability of each individual to create their own personality through intelligence, wit and initiative. This enables them to play with their own future, in the same way as the juggler manipulates his baton.
The sign of infinity (the symbol of life) that appears above the Magician’s head can also be seen on Brauner’s surrealist’s hat. Drawing on the prototype of the juggler-magician, Brauner illustrates the traditional signs of the four suits in the tarot deck.
White Cross by Wasily Kandinsky
Wasily Kandisky is generally credited as being the pioneer of abstract art.
He referred to the early 1920s as his “cool period”. This was when he was back in Germany and teaching at the Bauhaus. He taught the design class for beginners and the advanced theory course. He was particularly interested in form psychology, especially on points and line forms. This keen interest provoked him to examine the contrasting tones of curved and angled lines of which he became a master during this period, and from this point onwards, geometric shapes became increasingly prevalent in his work.
Here, the title “White Cross” isolates a detail of the composition, that is the white cross in the top right, a formal consequence of the checkerboard pattern (a recurrent motif in works of this period). The cross motif is used as an abstract element here, and it is an evocative, symbolic form.
Three Standing Figures by Henry Moore
Best known for his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures, Henry Moore erected the monumental Three Standing Figures in 1947-49 in Battersea Park in London.
In its abstraction of the human figure and exaggeration of isolated anatomical features, this work draws its inspiration from African sculpture and the Surrealist sculpture of Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti.
As well as sculpture, Moore produced many drawings, including a series depicting Londoners sheltering from the Blitz during the Second World War, along with other graphic works on paper. Three Standing Figures can be seen to be connected with the “shelter” drawings of the early 1940s, in which the artist explored the psychological interaction of groups.
Alchemy by Jackson Pollock
Pollock’s first works showed the influence of Surrealism and Pablo Picasso, but by the mid-1940s, he was painting in an entirely abstract manner.
His first solo show was held at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century exhibition in 1943 in New York. Peggy gave him a contract that lasted through 1947, permitting him to devote all his time to painting.
His ‘drip style’ emerged in 1947, and he is now widely acknowledged for this technique, in which he poured and splashed liquid household paint onto a horizontal surface. This approach enabled him to view and paint his canvases from all angles, and he likened it to the technique used by the Navajo Indian sand-painters, explaining that “on the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting”. This technique was also called ‘action painting’ as he used the force of his whole body to paint, often in a frenetic dance style.
Alchemy is one of Jackson Pollock’s earliest poured paintings, executed in 1947, and constitutes his most significant contribution to twentieth-century art.
When viewed from afar, the huge scale and even emphasis of Alchemy encourage the viewer to experience the painting more as an environment. The textured surface resembles a wall on which primitive signs are inscribed in white pigment which has been squeezed directly from the tube. Any interpretations of these white markings have often been influenced by the title of the painting, Alchemy; interestingly, however, this was assigned not by Pollock, but rather by Ralph Manheim and his wife, who were neighbours of the Pollocks in East Hampton.