Gondoliers on the Grand Canal in Venice

Peggy Guggenheim Visits Oculus Gallery

Dream of Venice Architecture by Bella Figura Publications
The cover of JoAnn Locktov’s new book Dream of Venice Architecture.

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.

View from Punta della Dogana in Venice
The view from lawn of the Punta della Dogana. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

JoAnn Locktov in Venice, Italy
JoAnn Locktov, founder of Bella Figura Publications, during our excursions in Venice. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

Peggy Guggenheim with Lhasa Apsos
Peggy Guggenheim with two of her Lhasa Apsos in Venice in the now infamous sunglasses. Image courtesy WikiMedia.

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.”

Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Dream of Venice Architecture
Peggy Guggenheim’s Palazzo featured in “Dream of Venice Architecture,” image courtesy Bella Figura Publications and Riccardo De Cal.

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.

Gondoliers on the Grand Canal in Venice
Gondoliers navigate the Grand Canal in Venice. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

The gate to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice
The gate to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. Image © Saxon Henry.

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.

La Gondola sofa by Edward Wormley
“La Gondola” sofa, model no. 5719, c. 1957, by mid-century modern maestro Edward Wormley for Dunbar. Image courtesy Oculus Gallery.

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.”

Noguchi Akari floor lamp at Oculus Gallery
Rare “Akari” floor lamp with hand-painted shade by Isamu Noguchi, c 1951. Image courtesy Oculus Gallery.

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.

Enamel bowl by Paolo de Poli at Oculus Gallery
Enamel bowl, 1960s, by Paolo de Poli, Image courtesy Oculus Gallery.

“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.

Drexel Heritage table at Oculus Gallery
Octagonal coffee table with granite insert by Drexel Heritage, c 1968. Image courtesy Oculus Gallery.

“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.

Max Ingrand Mirror at Oculus Gallery
“Mirror, model no. 1699,” 1960s by Max Ingrand for Fontana Arte. Image courtesy Oculus Gallery.

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.

Edward Wormley Tete a Tete by Currey and Company
Edward Wormley’s Tête à Tête sofa, released last year by Currey & Company, is a standout in the Dunbar Collection, especially in this manly fabric.

The Modern Salonnière and this Literary Design Adventure © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and SEO strategist. Her books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.

8 Replies to “Peggy Guggenheim Visits Oculus Gallery”

  1. Grazie for this marvelous post. How beautifully you wove together your experience of Venice through the eyes of Peggy Guggenheim. And thank you for your wonderful support of my publishing journey. You’ve been an angel on my shoulder throughout the process. I think we deserve another romp through Venice together!

  2. Amen, sister; I am so there! I’ve been itching to get back there and every fall when you depart it’s tough to know I won’t make it. I’m going to try my best to make this the year. So glad you enjoyed my post. It’s so much fun to construct these crazy imaginings and knowing others enjoy them is so rewarding. And thanks for stopping by to comment. Can’t wait to see what you do next!

  3. Thanks, BA! It was a fun one to write. I loved seeing an original Wormley in such great shape surfacing after writing about the new Currey & Company Dunbar line. Hope you’re having a blast in NOLA!

  4. What an enjoyable romp through Venice and Peggy’s viewpoint. I would fathom a guess that the light has changed since her days.

  5. I really did wonder about that, Heather. It could be global pollution or any manner of things. I am longing to go back. Hopefully at the end of this year! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Sending you an email about the project soon.

  6. As I woke up from a daydream, in which I was in my suite at the Danieli, I
    realized I was actually in my bedroom on the coast of Maine……what a
    great provocative piece from you this week. Peggy Guggenheim, what a trip!
    Loved it.

  7. Then my work here is done, Zina! So glad you enjoyed the trip, and you are so right about her; she was the “Mistress of Modernism,” after all!

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