Thursday, May 30, 2024

Sex & Surrealism: Peggy Guggenheim, Artists’ Muse

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SEX & SURRALISM: PEGGY GUGGENHEIM, ARTISTS’ MUSE

PEGGY GUGGENHEIM FAMOUSLY HAD AN EYE FOR ICONOCLASTS, AND HER PERSONAL STYLE WAS SIMILARLY RENEGADE. WHEN IT CAME TO HOW SHE DRESSED—AND HOW SHE LOVED—SHE WAS AN ICON BEYOND HER TIME.
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BY FIORELLA VALDESOLO SEPTEMBER 28, 2023


In 1924, the artist André Breton wrote his first Manifesto of Surrealism. In the booklet’s dense text he defined the burgeoning twentieth century movement happening in literature and art thusly: “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally by means of the written words, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought… in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” Surrealism was guided by this notion of looking beyond the world we currently inhabit and instead releasing what lies in the unconscious mind. It was also defined, as Breton writes, by its allegiance to complete non-conformism.

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SHIRT DIOR, HEADPIECE CUSTOM

ALICE CHASTEL MAZIN

WITH DIOR MAISON CUTLERY

Brigitte Niedermair

For Peggy Guggenheim, it would be a movement that not only dominated the artwork she collected and showed over the years, but one whose credo spoke directly to who she was and how she presented herself to the world. Guggenheim, whose father died on the Titanic and whose mother was an heiress of the wealthy Seligman banking family, had no formal background in art. Her interest in collecting stemmed not from a place of financial gain: the pull she felt was toward creativity more broadly and towards those, particularly fellow outsiders, who were similarly guided purely by a creative impulse. Her circle of friends when she was living in Paris in the 1920s reflected just that: there was Marcel Duchamp (whom she considered her greatest art teacher and advisor), Djuna Barnes, Brancusi, Jean Arp, Romaine Brooks and Berenice Abbott. And, much like her fellow 1920s pillars of outré cool Alice Prin (a.k.a. Kiki de Mont- parnasse) and Nancy Cunard, she was immortalized by Man Ray. In the 1926 portraits of Guggenheim, she is pictured wearing a headdress by Vera Stravinsky and satin and gold lamé gown by Poiret (a designer whose styles would continue to show up in her wardrobe over the years), standing with one hand confidently perched on her hip and the other clasping a long cigarette holder, looking dramatically over an exposed shoulder, or slouched and extending a steely stare directly to the camera.

SHIRT, TOP, UNDERWEAR, GLOVES, SOCKS, SUNGLASSES CUSTOMIZED WITH EARRING, BAG AND HEELS DIOR

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SWEATER, SKIRT, SOCKS AND HEELS DIOR,

SUNGLASSES STYLIST’S OWN

Brigitte Niedermair

Brigitte Niedermair

SHIRT DIOR,

HEADPIECE CUSTOM BY ALICE CHASTEL MAZIN WITH DIOR MAISON CUTLERY

Brigitte Niedermair

Guggenheim flouted the rules governing women’s sexual inclinations, which was atypical for any woman—and particularly someone considered an older woman—at the time. She was unabashed about her love of sex (“I think I was sort of a nymphomaniac,” she told her biographer, Jacqueline Bograd Weld) and was unafraid to name names: her lovers, male and female, included Duchamp, Barnes, the writers Emily Coleman, Antonia White, the playwright Samuel Beckett, French painter Yves Tanguy, and, briefly, the musician John Cage. More importantly, she was open about her desires. This freewheeling approach to sex was, it could be said, as radical as her approach to collecting art: she refused to follow rules about either.

“She was alive. Look at these lovers that she had. I would love to have had those lovers,” said Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who directed the 2015 documentary Art Addict about Guggenheim. “I think there were many other women who were doing this, but it wasn’t talked about in that way. Men were doing it. In the Sixties, there was rampant sex, free love. The Twenties were also like that.”

Much has been written about both her promiscuity and her appearance, that she wasn’t beautiful in a conventional way—two things, it should be said, that would never enter into a conversation about a man in the art world—and Guggenheim was refreshingly unapologetic about both. She hated rules about style and beauty (she shaved her eyebrows off in high school in an attempt, a successful one, to shock her peers) but would grow more insecure about her appearance as an adult following a botched nose job.

SHIRT, SKIRT, GLOVES, BAG AND HEELS DIOR

Brigitte Niedermair

TOP CUSTOM BY ALICE CHASTEL MAZIN,

PANTS, EARRINGS AND GLOVES DIOR

Brigitte Niedermair

Brigitte Niedermair

By the 1930s, Guggenheim would start collecting in earnest, reportedly adding one piece (all of them purchased at modest prices; never more than $10,000 and sometimes less than $1,000) a day including those from artists such as Dalí, Ernst, Kandinsky, and Picasso. Beckett (who, legend has it, she once spent four days in a hotel room with, only rising from bed to receive room service) had told Guggenheim that it was the art of one’s time that she should be interested in, and that advice would not only stick with her, but become her governing principle. 

Guggenheim, who had fled to London to escape the Nazi occupation, opened her first gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, there in the 1930s, and her second, Art of this Century, in New York in 1942. Her now considerable collection of cubist and surrealist pieces (many produced by artists condemned by the Third Reich) had to be shipped furtively across the Atlantic, marked as household goods without any evidence of her Jewish surname, to escape scrutiny during the war. She would give first exhibitions to a slew of artists, among them Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock, the latter being the artist whose work she was distinctly proud of championing. She also curated the first-ever show dedicated solely to the work of women, highlighting the art of Louise Nevelson, Meret Oppenheim, and Leonora Carrington. Though her taste ran counter to that of her cousin Solomon Guggenheim and his museum director Hilla Rebay in New York who disparaged her curatorial choices, it didn’t matter to her. Guggenheim once quipped, “I’m not an art collector; I am a museum,” and she would lean into that sentiment at the end of the 1940s, closing her galleries and decamping to a sprawling, abandoned palazzo in Venice (formerly occupied by the Marchesa Luisa Casati, another prominent woman with similarly idiosyncratic style) that would become just that: a museum-cum-residence. She became famous for hosting over-the-top soirees for luminaries like Cocteau and Capote at her Venetian palazzo; she opened the doors of her personal home to tourists so they could roam around scoping out the art; and she was often seen floating down the canals of Venice in a gondola with her beloved Lhasa Apsos on her lap (there’s a memorial to all fourteen of them at her home).

DRESS AND HEELS DIOR,

KIMONO STYLIST’S OWN

Brigitte Niedermair

BAG AND HEELS DIOR

Brigitte Niedermair

COAT, DRESS, GLOVES, VINTAGE SUITCASE AND BAG DIOR

Brigitte Niedermair

She had an early intuition for artistic talent, and perhaps also for fashion: looking back now, her style felt distinctly ahead of the curve. If she bought art because she loved it, because her own eyes told her it was great, the same could be said of how Guggenheim approached dressing. It was her own singular vision that governed her convention-bending sartorial choices. At the opening of her New York gallery, Guggenheim showed up wearing two different earrings: one designed by Yves Tanguy, one by Alexander Calder to, in her words, “show her impartiality between surrealist and abstract art.” The accessory she was rarely seen without in her Venice years was a pair of custom commissioned eyeglasses—gilded batwing and butterfly styles conjured for her by the painter Edward Melcarth. Though she was photographed in designs by Poiret, Fortuny, and Elsa Schiaparelli (most notably her hyper-modern cellophane-wrapped gown), Guggenheim didn’t have a fortune to spend on fashion; she was notoriously frugal and the bulk of her money went to art. She appreciated loud costume jewelry and the furs she was frequently photographed in were often purchased secondhand.

When Guggenheim felt most confident though was when she was connected to her art, which was also really a vehicle for her personality and style. In Art Addict, Vreeland conjectures that Guggenheim’s attraction to surrealism and abstract art was because it served as a mirror for her own strangeness. Perhaps, it also reinforced it. When surrealism first emerged, it was during a time of war and upheaval. That an art form rooted in fantasy and illusion flourished, somehow made sense. And, as we find ourselves currently mired in environmental disaster, the continued fallout of a global pandemic, an ongoing migrant crisis and economic hardships, it’s easy to see how an interest in surrealism—and, by extension, Guggenheim herself—might resurface. For her, art, style and sex were often an escape from reality. Something that, right now, we could all use more of.

CR Fashion Book Issue 23 and CR Men Issue 17 will be available on newsstands October 3. To order a copy, click here. 

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