Guggenheim on a gondola on the Grand Canal in Venice in 1962. Photograph: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
“Sex and art by the Grand Canal: how Peggy Guggenheim took Venice”
‘In the 1940s, the heiress fled New York and, with a makeshift gallery, became the star of Venice. But she was not the first woman to dazzle the city. As the Biennale opens, Judith Mackrell tells their story’
By JUDITH MACKRELL
In the summer of 1948, the Venice Art Biennale was back in business after the long and isolating years of war. It was a historic event, celebrating not only international peace but also the end of fascism in Italy, and among its showcased artists were several who had been banned as “degenerate” under Mussolini’s rule. The main attraction, however, was not to be found in any of the national pavilions, but in the astonishingly wide-ranging collection of modern art exhibited by one woman, the American heiress Peggy Guggenheim.
As Peggy welcomed the Italian president to the opening of her collection, she had felt underdressed. She’d had to borrow some stockings from a friend and, unable to find a suitable hat, made do with a pair of huge, daisy-shaped Venetian earrings. But her collection had needed no formal window-dressing. Embracing European masters such as Picasso, Ernst and Dali, as well as young American contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock, it was a vivid register of the art movements of the previous three decades. The Italians, exiled from the avant garde for so long, found much of it a revelation, and some of it incomprehensible. An Alexander Calder mobile, made from broken glass and china, was almost thrown away as rubbish.
Peggy adored being the star of the Biennale. She went every day to watch the crowds who thronged her collection, and her two dogs grew fat on the ice creams fed them by admiring tourists. She’d already been planning to make Venice her permanent home, and her triumph that summer confirmed her decision.
She had arrived in Venice on a wave of disenchantment with her previous life in New York. Despite the success of her pioneering gallery, Art of This Century, and her bold support for emerging talents, she had routinely been patronised by the city’s very male, misogynist art scene. Too often, her gallery had been belittled as a rich woman’s vanity project, and too often she had found herself the butt of blatantly sexist and antisemitic attitudes.
Peggy was a striking woman, but for many her looks were defined by the large, fleshy nose she had inherited from her grandfather Meyer. She was also condemned for remaining uninhibitedly sexual in middle age. For much of her adult life, Peggy had been acquisitively promiscuous: her lovers included Samuel Beckett, Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp and, briefly, John Cage. And when her short marriage to Max Ernst unravelled, she compensated by taking many more. Behaviour that might be considered rakish in a man, however, was unacceptable in a woman of 50. Even Pollock, who had benefited so much from her largesse, joked that he would make love to her only if she were covered up with towels.
Venice promised Peggy a more civilised welcome and, after much house-hunting, she found a vacant palazzo on the eastern stretch of the Grand Canal. It was a curiously proportioned building, very wide but only one storey high. The Venier family, who had commissioned it in the mid-18th century, had imagined it rising to a monumental five storeys, but ran out of money (and male heirs). Locals derisively nicknamed it the Unfinished Palazzo, but for Peggy, who was living alone with her dogs and her art, it was the perfect size.
She remained there for the remaining 30 years of her life and, during the summer, opened it up to the public. It was an eccentrically informal arrangement, with Peggy’s collection mixed into the muddle of her domestic life. Guests staying at the palazzo would find eager art tourists wandering into their bedrooms and (given the lack of toilet facilities) catch them peeing discreetly in the garden. But over time, the Venier palazzo became one of Venice’s major attractions, and a spur to the city’s development as an international showcase for contemporary art.
Peggy also presided over an intellectually colourful salon. Her years in left-bank Paris, London and New York had brought her a collection of friends as stellar as her art. Stravinsky, Cocteau, Chagall, Capote and Gore Vidal all came to visit and Peggy, as a hostess, matured into her own raffish style of grande dame eminence. In Venice, she became known as l’ultima dogaressa, or the last female doge, floating around in her private gondola, in her trademark jazzy sunglasses, her dogs snuggled into her lap.
Peggy was not the first remarkable woman to have occupied the Venier palazzo. In the previous four decades, it had been lived in by the Marchesa Luisa Casati and, more briefly, by the English socialite Doris, Lady Castlerosse. Like Peggy, both had moved to Venice to relaunch their lives – and made a striking impact on the city.
In 1910, when Luisa had first viewed the palazzo, its crumbling walls had been overrun with ivy and its roof was gaping with holes. Neighbours had long petitioned to have it torn down, yet to her the building had an aura of gothic romance, and it seemed the ideal stage on which to present herself in Venice. Luisa, at 29, ranked high in Italian society. She was heiress to an industrial fortune and married to a distinguished aristocrat. But she had fallen under the spell of the writer and aesthete Gabriele D’Annunzio and, in thrall to his creed that “one must make one’s own life as one makes a work of art”, she was ready to walk out on her marriage and dedicate herself to art.
Tall and thin, her hair reddened with henna, her eyes made enormous with kohl, Luisa set out to make every detail of her Venetian life into a creative spectacle. An army of builders went to work on the palazzo, artfully retaining its air of dereliction while creating a burnished interior of glass, marble and gold. A menagerie of parrots, monkeys and peacocks were imported, along with an elegant cheetah that accompanied Luisa everywhere, restrained on a leash by her 6ft black manservant, Garbi.
Her wardrobe was no less theatrical, as she paraded the city in harem trousers and medieval brocade cloaks. But her most elaborate costumes were reserved for her summer parties. At one particularly fantastical event in 1913, Luisa welcomed guests to her palazzo dressed as a harlequin, with a monkey and a macaw perched on her shoulder. At around 2am, her entire party was ferried down to the Piazza San Marco, which she had commandeered for the night.
Two hundred servants in 18th-century livery formed a human cordon to keep back the watching crowds. When Luisa made her entrance, wearing an enormous crinolined dress, she was accompanied by a retinue of flag-bearers, trumpeters and falconers, while a floating band of musicians serenaded her from the lagoon.
She became one of the tourist sights of Venice. When she and her cheetah floated around the canals, people gathered on the bridges to applaud. But Luisa wasn’t just interested in making herself a living work of art – she wanted artists to create a record of her. She began commissioning a lavish gallery of portraits. No fewer than five were exhibited at the 1914 Biennale and, over the following years, she would sit for Jacob Epstein, Augustus John, Man Ray, Kees van Dongen and Giacomo Balla – accumulating a collection as extensive but infinitely more narcissistic than Peggy’s.
After the war, Luisa also acquired a villa in Paris, where her experiments became more strenuously avant-garde. She went to the opera wearing a dress of white swan down, which moulted as she moved. She went to parties as Lady Macbeth, with a waxen hand attached to her throat. Her costume at one fancy dress ball was a Picasso-inspired “cubist dress” constructed from wire and electric lights. Mortifyingly, the dress was crushed as she entered the ballroom, and she suffered an electric shock.
There was an intensity to Luisa’s obsession with image that transcended vanity. She had a very erratic personality, both theatrical and intensely shy, and might have suffered a mild form of Asperger’s. Certainly, she found refuge in reinventing herself as an art work. Discomfort and ridicule meant nothing to her, nor did money, and by 1924 she had spent so recklessly that she was forced to give up the tenancy of her palazzo. In 1931, she was declared bankrupt.
After Luisa left the palazzo, it passed through a succession of owners, until Doris Castlerosse came to view it in 1936. Born Doris Delevingne (she was the great aunt of Cara), she had always been determined to fly the coop of her comfortable but conventional upbringing in Beckenham, south London. She had married a lord, accumulated trunkfuls of clothes and an address book of glamorous friends. But she was incurably restless and flagrantly unfaithful to her husband, Valentine.
Her long list of lovers – including such unlikely conquests as Cecil Beaton and Winston Churchill – had prompted certain English drawing rooms to close their doors to her. In Venice, she planned to make a fresh start as a European salonnière, and with money from her then current lover, Margot Hoffman, she had the palazzo refurbished to an expensive modern gloss.
During her first Venetian season, Doris was able to boast Beaton, Douglas Fairbanks and the young Prince Philip of Greece among her guests, and she seemed destined to become a social force. But the outbreak of war put an end to her ambitions and, tragically, to her life. By the time Peggy came to view the palazzo, there was little trace of Doris’s occupation. The troops billeted there during the war had graffitied her pretty stuccoed walls.
Peggy was unsentimental in eradicating the rest of Doris’s presence, stripping out the luxurious decorations and converting her black marble bathrooms into galleries. The result was light and functional. If Doris would have been offended by the palazzo’s new aesthetic, Luisa would been heartbroken. Almost nothing was left of the fantasy she had orchestrated back in 1910, and in the years after Peggy’s death, as the Guggenheim Foundation smartened up the palazzo into an air-conditioned museum, it was entirely denuded of what Luisa would have recognised as poetry.
And yet, while she may have railed against the destruction of her vision, Luisa might still have been able to salute Peggy and Doris as kindred spirits. All had lived their lives at odds with conventional morality, and all had occupied the palazzo as defiantly single women. There was an elegant irony in the fact that a building that had been planned as a monument to male Venier pride had been rescued from oblivion by this maverick trio of women.
Judith Mackrell’s The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice is published by Thames and Hudson on 1 June.
By Judith Mackrell, Reprint from The Guardian, 10 May 2017, © 2017 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies.