Think of a modern art museum, almost any modern art museum. What words come to mind? Is it thrilling, daunting, provocative? Does it hum with the shock of the new?
Two of the words you would probably be least likely to use for the majority of modern art collections are “charming” and “intimate”. Yet those are the words I was cooing when I recently revisited the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
It’s a shame some of her heirs don’t agree. In a frankly mystifying legal action, one of Peggy Guggenheim’s grandsons is trying to get a court to order the Guggenheim Foundation to restore the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, where she lived and where her art collection is on permanent display, to its intended appearance and purpose. He and other heirs claim their grandmother’s wishes have been betrayed, her collection diluted and that even her grave in the garden is being “desecrated”.
What a load of nonsense. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a pearl, a joy, a magic place. It brings modernist art from the 1900s to 1950s, from Cubism to Jackson Pollock, to life in a unique way. It is, in fact, the best place in Europe to fall in love with that golden age of modern art. To feel it like this, you usually have to go to New York. The presence of Guggenheim herself pervades the house. One moment you are looking at Max Ernst’s formidable erotic painting The Antipope, with its nightmarish fantasy scene that alludes to a love triangle involving her, Ernst and Leonora Carrington. The next you are contemplating Peggy’s dreamy silver bedhead, created by the American surrealist Alexander Calder.
Guggenheim was a truly great art collector and promoter. Her gallery, Art of This Century, which she opened in 1940s New York, helped kickstart America’s leap into abstract painting. Her patronage of Jackson Pollock sent that revolution into overdrive. But her (brief) marriage to Ernst and a splurge of collecting in Nazi-occupied Europe also filled her collection with European masterpieces, especially Surrealist ones. All this is very visible at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection – whatever may be added from time to time, there’s no doubt her spirit and tastes fill it.
Nowhere else can you be enraptured by Joseph Cornell’s dream objects, Marcel Duchamp’s Sad Young Man on a Train, Picabia’s Very Rare Picture on the Earth and Pollock’s Alchemy, then sip an ombra and visit the nearby Salute church. The Guggenheim has become part of Venice, a fairytale marriage of new and old.
All museums change over time, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is part of what has become a global brand, with sister museums across the continents. But it has not betrayed the woman whose warm vision of art makes it so beguiling and joyous. This is a miraculous place. Leave it alone to go on being wonderful.
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