In 2009, I trekked to Venice with my dear friend JoAnn Locktov, the founder of Bella Figura Publications whose newest book Dream of Venice Architecture has just debuted to acclaim. We spent several contented days wandering through the city’s museums—first the Punta della Dogana where Tadao Ando, who has written an essay for JoAnn’s latest book, created a serene backdrop for edgy modern art.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection
After a respite in the Dogana’s café, we headed to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a museum the American heiress created in her Venetian home Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. The intimate scale of the building was restful after the enormity of the Dogana’s mammoth spaces. Because the palazzo, which dates back to the 18th century, houses her avant-garde collection, it felt strikingly younger than its age.
As I wandered through the bookshop, I spotted Mary Dearborn’s biography Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim, which I wasted no time in buying, knowing it would be the perfect narrative to read while I explored the city. The book did provide me with a deeper journey than I had expected when I planned my trip because reading about her life while in her chosen hometown made her story all the more powerful as I walked beside the city’s canals and dined in its waterfront cafés.
By lunch the following day, I had reached the halfway point in Guggenheim’s story. I was nestled under a portico at a café on the Rio di San Giovanni Cristostomo when I learned that the art dealer’s dream of buying a place of her own in Venice had been simmering for quite a while: “She set her sights on nothing less than a palazzo in Venice, where she could look at all her lovely art and gossip about old friends and the art world. She envisioned little herds of Lhasa Apsos sweeping across the marble floors. ‘Don’t you think they would be divine trooping about in large quantities?’ she wrote Becky Reis. She longed to buy a gondola and float through the canals of the magical city.”
Guggenheim achieved all of these aspirations, living life on her own terms as the art and literary worlds of America ebbed and flowed into and out of her new life. By my last day in Venice, just as evening had begun to soften the light reflecting from the city’s liquid surfaces, I finished the socialite’s story—reading about her salon while sipping a glass of wine at a café in a crook of the Grand Canal just before it rushes under the Rialto Bridge. It was 6 pm and the moody ambiance was simply incredible—the sky giving off a powdery quality that ushered in the waning of the day.
Guggenheim called it the “irresistible hour” and described the light shining on the lagoon waters, which she experienced from her private gondola, as golden. In my mind, the atmosphere seemed as if it were filtered through chalkiness—so luxuriant and satisfying to experience. Has the atmosphere changed since she wafted along this great watery spine or is this discrepancy merely a differing point of view? I wondered as I climbed the steps of the Rialto to meet friends for dinner—the once sharp edges reduced to rounded concavities by an untold number of footfalls before mine.
As soon as I returned stateside, I ordered Guggenheim’s memoir, Confessions of an Art Addict, to see if her telling of her story differed from Dearborn’s. The muscular tone of Guggenheim’s writing echoes the biographer’s declarations and confirms her reputation for brazenness, evidenced by the fact that she had no qualms in cutting a swath through the world on par with the men of her era. She was judged harshly for it by those who held power in the art and literary worlds, a point that is made in this trailer for a 2015 documentary about the collector’s voracious desire to amass works she believed would become modern masterpieces:
If you would like a more creatively visual version of her, Amy Madigan portrays her quite genuinely in Pollock, as you can see in this trailer:
Peggy Guggenheim Visits Oculus Gallery
With her swagger solid in your mind now, I would now like to give you a taste of her no-nonsense tone, which I have drawn straight from her memoir, by having you accompany us on a fictive shopping spree in Los Angeles. She is searching for furnishings for her palazzo and her eye was drawn to the furniture being exhibited in the Oculus Gallery in the Hyde Park neighborhood of LA, the pièce de résistance Edward Wormley’s La Gondola sofa. This is but one of the vintage pieces sourced by the gallery’s owners Dario Diovisalvi and Tara DeWit that inspired this piece.
I have turned her written words into a conversation that unfolds after we say hello to Dario and Tara, and are left to our own devices to peruse their offerings:
We pass a rare Akari floor lamp by Isamu Noguchi and Guggenheim’s eyes linger longingly as she tells me, “I’ve finally found a palace of white stone with one of the largest gardens in Venice. In 1910, Louisa, Marchesa Casati, a poetess, had lived in one of the wings, giving fantastic Diaghileff [sic] parties and keeping leopards instead of lions in the garden.”
We stroll a bit further and she suddenly pauses to pick up an enamel dish by Paolo de Poli. “In 1938, the Viscountess Castlerosse bought the house and spent a fortune doing over what was then practically a ruin,” she continues, turning the dish several times to see how it would catch the light. “Lady Castlerosse installed six marble bathrooms and beautiful mosaic floors. Her taste was not the same as mine, and I had to scrape off all the stucchi from the walls.” Her pointed glance in my direction was meant to emphasize what a bother she considered this to be.
“After the first year,” she continues, “Lady Castlerosse lent the palace to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and then three armies of occupation, German, British and American, lived in it in turn.”
“You are such an admired collector, I am certain you are creating phenomenal surroundings for your modern art,” I say to her.
“When I decided to open a modern art gallery, I was practically ignorant of all art after the Impressionists,” she remarks.
“Really?” I exclaim with genuine surprise as she eyes the Drexel Heritage coffee table, which will look smashing with Wormley’s sofa.
“I needed much help and advice, which I got from an old friend, Marcel Duchamp, whom I had known for fifteen years,” she responds. “He had to educate me completely. I could not distinguish one modern work of art from another, but he taught me the difference between Surrealism, Cubism and abstract art.”
“That is truly fascinating,” I say as she turns her attention to a Max Ingrand mirror hanging nearby.
The room was silent as Guggenheim turned her coifed head from side to side as if considering whether she could live with such a mirror in her home. Her mood lightened as she pivoted and remarked, “Then he introduced me to all the artists. They all adored him and I was well received wherever I went.”
“Such a great friend in this very great man,” I say.
Her expression turns resolute as she abruptly ends the conversation, reaching into her purse for her wallet. I move to the opposite side of the room as she recites the list of the treasures she wishes to take home.
What Vintage Pieces Do You Think Peggy Guggenheim Would Buy?
Which of these pieces do you think Guggenheim would have snapped up? I am betting the sofa would be first on the list, both for its aesthetic resonance within the palazzo’s rooms and the nod to the Venetian mode of transportation she adored. One of her most romantic gondola rides was with a certain Beat Poet with whom she was enamored. I’ll be publishing a diary entry about the relationship soon so check back in the coming weeks.
In closing today, I’d like to extend serious congratulations to JoAnn on her latest book, which I can say, having received my copy, is as beautiful as the spirit in which all of her publications are conceived. And if you are on the hunt for fabulous midcentury modern pieces by Wormley but cannot manage the vintage prices, Currey & Company is producing some of his upholstery like the Tête à Tête sofa below, the lines as beautifully chic now as they were when the midcentury maestro first designed them.
The Diary of an Improvateur and this Literary Design Adventure © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and journalist, as well as a contributor to Architizer. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by