In Venice, a small exhibition for adepts celebrates the genius of Peggy

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection pays homage to its founder, rebuilding the pavilion she opened at the Biennale of 1948.

Peggy Guggenheim,  photo Archivio Cameraphoto Epoch

“1948: The Biennale of Peggy Guggenheim” occupies just two rooms but tells quite a few stories. First of all, there’s the one about how the art collector Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim (1898–1979) left her home town of New York and her husband Max Ernst to come to Venice, establishing herself in the 18th-century Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal in 1949. She ended up moving her collection here permanently. Then there’s the story of the first public exposition of modern art in Italy after two decades of dictatorship: 136 artworks belonging to Peggy were displayed at the Biennale’s Greek pavilion (Greece had been ravaged by civil war and declined to participate).

The Biennale itself was poised to conquer an international role in modern and contemporary art. The 1948 event hosted a show on the Impressionists curated by Roberto Longo; a Picasso retrospective; and an exhibition that included artists regarded as degenerate by the Nazi regime in Germany: Otto Dix and Karl Hofer. Finally, there is the story about Peggy’s 1948 encounter with Carlo Scarpa, whom she came to refer to as “the most modern architect of Venice,” and who collaborated with the Biennale from 1948 to 1972, designing the layout of her exhibition that first year.

Guggenheim’s exhibition received much publicity. It displayed the most representative collection of non-objective painting that had been seen in Europe until then, offering examples of all artistic movements: cubism, futurism, Dadaism, surrealism and abstract expressionism. As she writes in her autobiography Out of this Century (1960), “My pavilion was one of the most popular of the Biennale. I was terribly excited by all this, but what I enjoyed most was seeing the name of Guggenheim appearing on the maps in the public gardens next to the names of Great Britain, France, Holland, Austria, Switzerland and Poland. I felt as though I were a new European country.”

After two decades of dictatorship in Italy, 136 artworks belonging to Peggy were displayed at the Biennale’s Greek pavilion (Greece had been ravaged by civil war and declined to participate)

Guggenheim’s show at the Greek pavilion was announced to Biennale visitors by a triangular sign drawn by Scarpa in cursive writing, draped over the central arc of the entrance: “Collezione Peggy Guggenheim”. It was a declaration of extemporaneousness and symbolised an unorthodox event. Today, in the Project Rooms of Palazzo Venier, the banner sits above a doorway replicated perfectly. Back in 1948, she jumped at the offer made to her by the artist Giuseppe Santomaso, who convinced the Biennale’s secretary general, Rodolfo Pallucchini, to lend her the empty Greek pavilion. Seventy years later, Grazina Subelyte, the assistant curator of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (directed since 2017 by Peggy’s granddaughter Karole Vail), attempts to transmit the spirit of that exhibition right down to its minute details.

Peggy Guggenheim, Calder, 1941
Peggy Guggenheim next to Alexander Calder, Arc of Petals (1941), Greek Pavilion, 24th Venice Biennale, 1948. Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Venice, photo Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche. Gift, Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia, 2005

Ivan Simonato made a scale model of the pavilion, with the structural details of Scarpa’s exhibit design and miniaturised versions of all the artworks it hosted based on ten black-and-white pictures from the Guggenheim archive. The model allows visitors to appreciate how the sequence of pieces was studied to make legible the passage between artistic currents, showing their common traits and differences. A selection of documents, photographs and letters gives access to Peggy’s world as an idiosyncratic self-described art addict who in 1948 was at the centre of a sort of revolution in the art scene that gave birth to a lively debate involving the general public and art critics. Her pavilion received much praise, although not everyone understood it. This confusion can be seen in some press headlines. “The Exhibition of Wonders or Guggenheim’s Noah’s ark?” one reads. Another: “Apologies, We Laughed.”

In conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the exhibition of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection at the Venice Biennale, for the first time in 20 years, all 11 works by Jackson Pollock that Peggy chose to keep for her own collection are on view at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. Five of these were displayed in the 1948 Pavilion together with the other masterpieces of the historical avant-gardes. This exhibition constitutes an opportunity to break out of the total architecture immersion of the recently opened Biennale.

Opening image: Peggy Guggenheim on the steps of the Greek Pavilion with Interior (1945, unknown location) by her daughter Pegeen Vail, 24th Venice Biennale, 1948. Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Venice, photo Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche. Gift, Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia, 2005

Title:
1948: The Biennale of Peggy Guggenheim
Curator:
Gražina Subelytė
Museum:
Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Opening dates:
26 May – 25 November 2018
Location:
PGC, Project Rooms – Palazzo Venier dei Leoni
Address:
Dorsoduro 701, Venice

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