Byline: Melissa A. Weisman
NEW YORK — “My parents weren’t really involved in the arts, and they didn’t particularly encourage it,” admits Karole Vail, the granddaughter of legendary art collector Peggy Guggenheim. “But I love art, and this exhibition is important to me.”
The exhibition, organized by Vail, is entitled “Peggy Guggenheim: A Centennial Celebration” and it opens Friday at the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue. The show, which highlights roughly 250 personal items and works of art collected during Guggenheim’s lifetime, aims, according to Vail, “to convey the life of a woman dedicated to art.”
Vail is the daughter of Peggy Angela and Sinbad Vail, one of two children born of Peggy Guggenheim’s turbulent first marriage, to Laurence Vail. In her autobiography, “Confessions of an Art Addict,” Guggenheim recalls the fragility of their relationship.
“One day Laurence took me to the top of the Eiffel Tower,” she wrote, “and when we were gazing at Paris he asked me if I would like to marry him. I said ‘Yes’ at once. I thought it was a fine idea. As soon as he had asked me, he regretted it.”
The marriage lasted just seven years, ending in 1930, but during that time, it was Laurence who introduced Peggy to many artists.
By 1940, Guggenheim was collecting art on her own. Referring to a series of black and white photographs by Rogi Andre hanging in the first room of the show, Vail describes the setting of her grandmother’s life after the divorce.
“Peggy is still in Paris, but now she is living on the Ile Saint-Louis — you can see Notre Dame in the background,” says Vail, pointing to one of the portraits. “She is surrounded by works of art because she is in her ‘buy-a-work-of-art-a-day’ shopping spree.”
Indeed, Guggenheim is pictured surrounded by paintings and sculptures: Brancusi, de Chirico, Pevsner, Tanguy, Miro. Her space and identity are so closely defined by the works around her, that one wonders where lies the true subject of the image.
But judging from the number of photographs in the exhibition, Guggenheim was often the focus of the camera. There are pictures of her throughout her life with the artists she supported, art critics, writers and her dogs — now buried alongside her ashes in the garden of her Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice. But rare was the occasion when she posed for a painted portrait.
“There are so few portraits of Peggy, that I am delighted to have this one,” says Vail of a full-length 1926 oil painting by Alfred Cournes of Guggenheim in the Cote d’Azur with a red Dietrich-Lorraine car in the background.
There are also two portraits of her as a child (c. 1903) by Franz von Lenbach.
In one, she’s all dolled up with bows in her hair and a smock dress, where she looks like a Velasquez infanta rather than a young girl at the dawn of the 20th century.
Many of the items on display in this exhibition are from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, but a great number — including pages from Guggenheim’s guest books — are from Vail’s own collection.
“My mother originally wanted to publish a selection of the best pages from Peggy’s guest books,” says Vail. “At first she encountered resistance from my father, but then he changed his mind.”
But the untimely death of Karole Vail’s mother brought the project to a halt.
The guest book pages, which are currently unbound and framed, reveal Guggenheim’s role as friend and hostess to the artists of her time. Colorful and humorous pages signed by Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Max Ernst (to whom she was married), Victor Brauner, Miro, Cecil Beaton and Truman Capote highlight the cast of characters that filed through Guggenheim’s life and homes.
“I didn’t know Peggy that well because she died when I was 21,” says Vail. “In fact, this exhibition is really in memory of my mother and her wishes. It means a lot to me.”