Venice is one of the world’s great art cities. It’s best known for its glorious Renaissance treasures rather than its modern art galleries.
The city’s museums and churches are stuffed with grand masters like Tintoretto, Titian and Bellini… whilst the Grand Canal conjures up images by Canaletto.
But look closer and you’ll discover a city bursting with contemporary art… and what better place to start your journey than the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Art on the Grand Canal
The Guggenheim Collection in Venice is one of the world’s best modern art collections with blockbuster works by the likes of Picasso, Magritte, Jackson Pollock, Kandinsky and Modigliani.
It started life as Peggy Guggenheim’s private residence in a quiet quarter of the Dorsoduro, overlooking the Grand Canal. The views over the canal are to die for.
Outside the front door, a statue of a horseman by Marino Marini looks out over the canal… but get closer to the equestrian statue and you’ll notice something surprising. It has an erect penis.
Apparently Peggy had a detachable penis added to the statue which could be removed to avoid shocking the nuns going past on their way to religious festivals! Whether this is an urban myth is open to question… but I took a sneaky look and can confirm that it’s firmly stuck on today.
So how did a private home get transformed into one of Europe’s biggest and best art galleries?
Peggy Guggenheim was an American collector and socialite who amassed a fine collection of modern art works, many by her circle of artistic friends. She was also married to the artist Max Ernst and her social circle was made up of avant-garde painters.
The Guggenheim family were hugely wealthy and, like her uncle Solomon (who started the Guggenheim Gallery in New York), Peggy wanted the public to see her art collection.
In 1938, she’d opened a gallery in London and started to collect works of modern art, buying up the Surrealists and abstract paintings. The rest is history… by the end of the Second World War, Peggy had put together a collection that reads like an A-Z of modern art.
After the war, Peggy decided to return from the USA to Europe and live in Venice where she was invited to exhibit her collection at the Venice Biennale in 1948. It was a groundbreaking moment because it was also one of the first times that American ‘Abstract Expressionism’ had been seen in Europe.
Peggy’s villa was called the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, known as the ‘unfinished palazzo of the lions’. It was to become not just her home but the base of her new museum collection.
A Room with a ‘Gallery’ View
My first sighting of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection was from my holiday apartment. I’m not joking. The rented flat was literally on Peggy Guggenheim’s doorstep… I was thrilled by this revelation!
The kitchen balcony overlooked the museum gardens and I had great views of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture and a neon art installation.
On the bedside table there was a book about Peggy Guggenheim which I read cover to cover in two days. Peggy’s story is so remarkable that I couldn’t put it down or wait to go inside the museum.
House of Art
Today’s Guggenheim house is kept much the same as in Peggy’s day, but with a few sympathetic additions. It’s stuffed with fantastic art – just like the Solomon Guggenheim Gallery in New York.
The Guggenheim has the atmosphere of a sophisticated house with a priceless art collection. Many of the rooms have been kept as they were whilst others have been adapted into gallery spaces.
We’re treated to an artistic journey which takes us through every major modern art movement from Cubism and Surrealism to Futurism and Abstract Expressionism. Contemporary artists including Anish Kapoor and Andy Goldsworthy also feature in the gallery’s changing collection.
The Guggenheim collection has major works by some of the greatest artists of the 20th Century. It’s hard to know where to begin but highlights include Picasso’s ‘On the Beach’, Braque’s ‘The Clarinet’, Mondrian’s ‘Composition No. 1 with Grey and Red’, and Kandinsky’s ‘Landscape with Red Spots’.
Rene Magritte’s lovely moonlit house ‘Empire of Light’ shines like a beacon on the dining room wall. Salvador Dalí’s ‘Birth of Liquid Desires’ is another star attraction.
Around every corner there’s a surprise, from Miró and Dali to Klee to Jackson Pollock… they are all here in Peggy’s fabulous collection. Some have survived being moved around Nazi Europe, others have weathered trips to the USA during the Second World War.
Abstract art lovers are in for a treat. There’s a clutch of Picassos including his famous beach series which forms the heart of the current special exhibition called ‘Picasso on the Beach’.
Why not visit a few of my favourite art works from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in this photo gallery…
Peggy Guggenheim’s Outrageous Life
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was discovering the real woman behind the public image of Peggy Guggenheim… and how shocking her story turns out to be.
Reading a copy of Peggy’s biography was a real eye-opener. It’s a racy read… with stories about Peggy’s outrageous behaviour which will make your hairs stand on end.
Peggy Guggenheim had a voracious sexual appetite… and she didn’t mind who she told about it, sometimes in graphic detail. She claims that she “slept with 1,000 men” when living in Europe… and that doesn’t include her forays back home to the United States!
By my reckoning that’s about one lover every week. She had affairs with dozens of artists and writers including Samuel Beckett, Yves Tanguy and Roland Penrose.
Her first husband was Laurence Vail, a Dadaist sculptor, with whom she had two children. But the relationship was fraught, ill-tempered and littered with affairs on both sides. They divorced in 1928 following his affair with the writer Kay Boyle whom he later married.
She married for the second time in 1941 to the Surrealist painter Max Ernst but it was a marriage of convenience for him – and they divorced in 1946.
Despite her fame and fortune, I couldn’t help thinking that Peggy led a sad personal life. Men seemed to love her purely for her money and status. Her relationships were tempestuous, intense and doomed.
Money can buy you art but it couldn’t buy Peggy the love she craved. She also disliked her appearance and even an operation to reshape her big nose was botched by her plastic surgeon.
Look out for the fascinating photographs of Peggy in the gallery including a great image of her playing with a sculpture by Alexander Calder.
She was also renowned for keeping Lhasa Apsos dogs which feature in many of the old black and white photos. They had evocative names like Madam Butterfly, White Angel, Toro and Gypsy.
Peggy’s personal life was disastrous… a roller coaster ride of emotions and drama. It’s sad to discover the story of her daughter, Pegeen Guggenheim, who also led a troubled life.
Many of Pegeen’s paintings are on display in a special gallery at the Guggenheim Collection. It’s painful to look at them when you know the story of her life.
Pegeen died young of a prescription drug overdose, having suffered from depression for much of her adult life.
The Exotic and Erotic
Peggy was one hell of a woman in many ways, even if her private life was a complete mess. Her autobiography is a great read – but it’s interesting to discover that her family tried to burn the remaining copies after her death because of its scurrilous nature.
Her achievements as an art collector are without question. She brought the best of modern art to the masses, carving out a career for many budding artists.
Most notably, Peggy helped Jackson Pollock with his early career and laid the foundations of his international success.
I love Peggy’s sense of humour too. In one hilarious story, she made her ‘out of favour’ lover polish her famous Brancusi sculpture in her study every day for 30 minutes to keep it looking shiny.
She hoped that he would get bored and bugger off!
Peggy also had a great sense of style, from the brightly coloured dresses, which she bought in Mexico and India, to her iconic butterfly sunglasses. You can buy a replica copy of her famous shades in the museum shop.
Modern Art Masterpieces
The great thing about the Guggenheim Collection is that it never stands still. It continues to exhibit works of art given to the Guggenheim Foundation since Peggy’s death, as well as long-term loans from private collections.
It also has a selection of 26 masterpieces from the world-renowned Mattioli Collection of early 20th Century Italian art including fantastic works by Balla, Boccioni, Modigliani and Severini.
This Futurist painting of a cyclist at the velodrome is one of my favourites with its great dynamism and movement.
And whilst you’re wandering around the house, keep an eye open for Peggy’s collection of oriental and ethnic art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas, with everything from masks and human figures to birds and exotic objects.
Outdoor Art – Guggenheim Garden
Outside the museum, you can relax in the sunshine at the Guggenheim sculpture garden and wander around works by the likes of Arp, Giacometti, Marini, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.
Every visit is different with sculptures on temporary loan from private collections. On my trip these included contemporary works by Jenny Holzer, Alexander Calder and Anish Kapoor.
Take a virtual tour of the Guggenheim sculpture garden in this photo gallery slide show…
What’s not to love about the Peggy Guggenheim Collection?
It has something for everyone, from outrageously good art to the story of an outrageous modern woman… in beautiful and intimate surroundings.
I told you that it had an A-Z of modern art within its walls… and if you pick just one letter randomly, you’ll see why. The letter M was my selection – and is represented by Mondrian, Magritte, Moore, Malevich, Man Ray and Masson, to name just a few.
G is for Guggenheim… don’t miss a trip!
Tammy’s Travel Guide – Peggy Guggenheim Collection – Venice
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is located on Venier alley near a quiet canal in the picturesque Dordoduro district of Venice.
It is housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni which was begun in the 1750s but remained unfinished. The white facade of the unfinished palace is particularly striking from the Grand Canal.
The gallery is open daily 10 am-6 pm but closed on Tuesdays. There is an admission price. The nearest vaporetto stops are Salute or Accademia.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a great place to relax, whether it’s in the sculpture garden or in the lovely outdoor cafe in the courtyard.