Gates, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, by Claire Falkenstein

Gates, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, by Claire Falkenstein

Ah Venice! San Marco, the Doge’s palace, the canals, the atmospheric fog, the bridge of sighs. Sigh…

All magical, to be sure, but the most compelling attraction on a recent visit to Venice was the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in her unfinished palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal.

"Arc of Petals," 1941, by Alexander Calder

“Arc of Petals,” 1941, by Alexander Calder

Walking through the gates made by American artist, Claire Falkenstein in 1961, we felt we were entering Peggy’s realm, her sanctuary, the place where so much creative collaboration—and so many shenanigans—took place. The story of the collection is really that of Guggenheim herself. Born in 1898 in New York City, she, although heir to her family’s considerable fortune, was attracted to the world of art and ideas early on.  In 1922 she married Dada artist Lawrence Vail, who became the father of her two children, Sinbad and the naïve painter, Pegeen. The two had arrived in Paris where she was to meet and befriend Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp and other art luminaries. By 1937 she had opened a gallery in London devoted to showing contemporary art. Two years later, she tired of the gallery and determined to open a museum devoted to modern art. She went on a collecting spree, vowing to buy a picture a day, despite the encroaching war. The work she acquired in those years formed the basis of the collection we see today.

"Silhouette," 1916, by Man Ray

“Silhouette,” 1916, by Man Ray

Her personal life was tumultuous: when asked how many husbands she’d had, she famously said, “Mine or other people’s?” More about Peggy:

Once through the front doors, we were greeted by Alexander Calder’s 1941 “Arc of Petals” hovering in the entry way like an old friend. The villa (unfinished only in the sense that a second floor was never added) is filled with light and gorgeous terrazzo floors. As you walk from room to room, feasting on the art, peeking out the windows for a glimpse of the busy canal, you can’t help but yearn to conjure Peggy for an intimate conversation about each piece. Failing that, including more of her furniture would have been nice, the better to picture her life here.

"Empor (Upward," 1929, by Wassily Kandinsky

“Empor (Upward,” 1929, by Wassily Kandinsky

Arranged chronologically, the collection (which, unlike other notable collections, is intact and will never be moved from this location) reveals a collector of prescient vision and unerring taste.

Man Ray’s “Silhouette,” 1916, shows a flattened image of a vaudeville dancer in various poses with her feet on the strings of a violin, as if accompanying herself. Having begun to experiment with photography, Man Ray sought to illustrate several movements of the dancer at once, while eschewing his earlier “Romantic-Expressionist-Cubist” style in favor of one in which reality is distilled into surface pattern.

Wassily Kandinsky’s “Empor (Upward),” 1929, gives us another flattened image, with its own whimsical personality. Suggestive of tribal art, the creature looks back at us with its one eye, while appearing to smoke a red cigarette.

"Le Facteur Cheval," 1932, by Max Ernst

“Le Facteur Cheval,” 1932, by Max Ernst

Throughout Guggenheim’s collecting career, she favored both the abstractionists and surrealists and tried to balance her attention to both. A beguiling example of the surreal is Max Ernst’s “Le Facteur Cheval,”1932, paper and fabric with pencil, ink, and gouache on paper. The postman Ferdinand Chaval was a real-life hero to the surrealists, having built a “Palais Ideal” from materials scavenged along his postal route. Here Ernst, in the guise of his alter-ego, “Loplop, Superior of Birds,” celebrates the postman and his refusal to succumb to a numbingly routine job.

"Eyes in the Heat," 1946, by Jackson Pollock

“Eyes in the Heat,” 1946, by Jackson Pollock

During a gallery talk by a charming Spanish art history student, we learned that Piet Mondrian discovered Jackson Pollock working as a carpenter in New York and convinced Peggy to buy and show his work. “Eyes in the Heat,” 1946, has all the frenetic energy and movement of his later, “drip” style canvasses.

At around this time, Peggy commissioned Alexander Calder to make her a silver bedhead replete with fishes, dragon flies, and water lilies—the “pond” even radiates concentric rings made by water bugs. Imagine waking up to this every day!

"Silver Bedhead," 1945-6, by Alexander Calder

“Silver Bedhead,” 1945-6, by Alexander Calder

Once up, Peggy may well have donned earrings made by surrealist Yves Tanguy in 1938. Or perhaps ones made for her by Calder himself. It’s said that she wore one of the Tanguy earrings and one of the Calder earrings to the opening of her gallery to show her impartiality in the debate between the surrealists and the abstractionists.

Earrings by Yves Tanguy, 1938

Earrings by Yves Tanguy, 1938

I tend to come down on the side of the abstractionists and spent less time in the room devoted to the surrealists (although the floor, designed by Peggy, was a knockout). I fell in love with abstract expressionist William Baziotes’ “The Parachutists,” Duco enamel on canvas, 1944. In this sprightly well-worked-out composition, we see hints of Richard Diebenkorn’s future work in the rich colors, surface muddling, and the importance of the edges.

During the war years, Mark Rothko came to believe that painting that derived from myth or legend was a “proper response” to the horrors of the war, the holocaust, and the atom bomb. He said, “Only that subject matter is valid that is timeless and tragic.” In 1946, he created “Sacrifice,” watercolor, gouache, and India ink or paper. The central blood-like smear of reddish brown implies both mass and individual sacrifice; flames, targets and vaguely bomb-like shapes appear against gun-metal gray horizontal panels that foreshadow Rothko’s later work.

"The Parachutists," 1944, by William Baziotes

“The Parachutists,” 1944, by William Baziotes

"Sacrifice," 1946, by Mark Rothko

“Sacrifice,” 1946, by Mark Rothko

A favorite surrealist painting from this collection, is “L’Empire des Lumieres,” 1953-54, by Rene Magritte. The painter’s goal was to depict “surprise” and “enchantment” and he succeeded admirably. The picture also conveys a sinister quality not unlike some of the work of Edward Hopper. The contrast between the darkened street and the blue sky gives the viewer a sense of discombobulation—is it day? Night? How can it be both? A lovely shiver-inducing piece.

"L'Empire des Lumieres," 1953-4, by Rene Magritte

“L’Empire des Lumieres,” 1953-4, by Rene Magritte

There was more, of course, much more, including the lipstick red Calder stabile on the patio fronting the canal, tea in the café, and wandering the sculpture garden. How struck we were by the influence this one woman, the “mistress of modernism,” had on the course of art history.

Later, again sitting by the canal, we toasted Peggy Guggenheim with Campari Spritzers, and pictured her in her garden, surrounded by art, lifting her glass to us.

Peggy Guggenheim wearing earrings by Alexander Calder

Peggy Guggenheim wearing earrings by Alexander Calder


"Smoke Over Rooftops," Fernand Leger, 1911

“Smoke Over Rooftops,” Fernand Leger, 1911

Philadelphia’s Museum of Art’s massive show, “Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis,” brings to mind Banksy, the poltergeist graffiti artist who bombed New York City recently with what has been described as a brilliant self-promoting PR campaign by some and a cleverly creative outburst of ephemeral art by others. Either way, the art (or vandalism, if you prefer) could not exist without the city as canvas.

And so it is with Fernand Leger (1881 – 1955) and his 1920s Paris circle. The metropolis—its movement, mechanization, hustle, clamoring billboards, buildings reaching skyward—shaped their ideas about art, artists, and modern life. The show opens with film footage of the Eiffel Tower made in 1900 by Thomas Edison. As the viewer rises with the camera, the city’s streets, buildings and parks flicker behind the geometric girders in a surreal montage—a fitting introduction.

"The City," Fernand Leger, 1919

“The City,” Fernand Leger, 1919

Nearby hangs “Smoke over Rooftops,” 1911, Leger’s first Paris cityscape—the view from his studio. Billowing smoke rises over the hard edges of the rooftops. Only nineteen when he first came to Paris, Leger encountered there an upheaval of technology: telephones, radios, the press, electric lights, and more.

After recovering from being gassed in the Great War (Leger went to the front for four years), he returned to “gobble up Paris” and “stuff it in my pockets.” Declaring that he “got myself out of the grays as quickly as possible,” he created “The City” in 1919. Owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “The City” is the centerpiece of the show. This large piece (about the size of a cinema screen of the day) reveals none of the moody atmosphere of the earlier work. Instead, the intentionally horizontal composition hustles us along, as if down the street. Meant to be viewed like a billboard, each element appears to be equal in importance: the scaffolding, the pole, the signs’ punchy colors.

"Razor," Gerald Murphy, 1924

“Razor,” Gerald Murphy, 1924

By drawing on contemporary advertising images—here the recently invented safety razor—Gerald Murphy’s “Razor,” 1924, had enormous influence on later painters, especially pop artists in the 1960s. Murphy, a “Lost Generation” compatriot with F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, et al, hosted Leger on his first trip to the United States in 1931. The accompanying notes tell us that in this image Murphy intentionally exploited the French view of America as being “hyper-modern and mechanized.”

"Ballet Mecanique," Fernand Leger, Dudley Murphy, Man Ray, 1924

“Ballet Mecanique,” Fernand Leger, Dudley Murphy, Man Ray, 1924

For this viewer, the 1924 experimental film produced by Leger and film maker Dudley Murphy, with help from Man Ray, was a surprise that was worth the price of admission. A Dada tour de force, its riot of images is enlivened by the accompanying music, which used mechanized player pianos, airplane propellers, electric bells and sirens. While many of Leger’s paintings appear to this eye as flat, orderly, and a tad sterile, this film succeeds in bringing the spirit of mechanization and modern life together in a radical-for-the time work of art. Take a look:

Curtain from "Skating Rink" ballet, Fernand Leger, 1922

Curtain from “Skating Rink” ballet, Fernand Leger, 1922

Leger, a lover of all mass entertainments—the circus, skating rinks, theater—collaborated with the Ballets Suedois on “The Skating Rink,” 1922. Watercolor designs for the ballet’s costumes hang before a curtain which was recreated from the original 1921-22 design by Leger. In choreography also inspired by Leger, the dancers move in stilted, jerky ways that would seem at odds with the gliding, elongated movement of ice skaters.

"Model for Private House," van Doesburg and van Eesteren, designed 1923, built 1982

“Model for Private House,” van Doesburg and van Eesteren, designed 1923, built 1982

The final room—devoted to “space”—gives us the utopian vision of Leger and his followers, as embodied in De Stijl architects Theo van Doesburg and Cornelis van Eesteren’s “Model for a Private House,” 1923, reconstructed, 1982 by Tjarda Mees. The architects thought of a house not as an enclosed cube, but as a series of intersecting planes painted in bright Mondrian colors which would create spaces that opened up to the environment as well as sheltered its inhabitants.

"Composition for Hand and Hats," Fernand Leger,  1927

“Composition for Hand and Hats,” Fernand Leger, 1927

“Composition for Hand and Hats,” 1927, shows us how far Leger has come from the earlier smoke and rooftop composition. This cerebral composition carries, at least for this viewer, none of the emotional wallop found in some of Leger’s contemporaries, among them (and also on view here): Piet Mondrian, El Lissitzky, Robert Delaunay, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, Francis Picabia, and Marcel Duchamp. The gathering of so many important artists is impressive and gives the viewer a heady dose of the ideas and influences at work of the time. Whether the curators’ intention of revealing Leger’s painting, “The City,” as the impetus for this outpouring is still, in my view, an open question.

Go see for yourself! The show will be on view until January 5, 2014.

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