The Den of the Lioness — Peggy Guggenheim

by Paul Anagnostopoulos

Peggy Guggenheim,

Peggy Guggenheim, on her terrace, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, in Venice, Italy

The year is 1958.  Peggy Guggenheim is hosting yet another one of her famous cocktail parties to celebrate the opening of the Venice Biennale.  The previous weeks proved daunting for the art collector.  She has begun an overdue facelift to her garden which seemed too grandiose to be completed in time for the celebration. Peggy decided to add a barchessa (The barn, BarCon or barco is a building rural service, typical of the architecture of the Venetian villa) to expand her residence.  This common Venetian structure was used to store boats.  Instead, she would use this to store her growing post-war collection.  After months plagued by pitfalls, dust, noise, and chaotic construction, the barchessa was completed on the southeast side of her palazzo.  During this time, Peggy also managed to deforest her Amazon of a garden, something she has not ‘pruned’ since she moved in -nearly a decade earlier.  Fortunately,  the construction was completed;  Peggy once again entertains the elite of the contemporary art world.

This night’s reception begins in her garden; its enormous size impresses visitors new and old.  Peggy floats from guest to guest in her gray beaded evening gown, adorned with brown fur trim and chunky gold jewelry.  She is the personification of flamboyancy. Her style ranks a close  second to her art collection in her legacy.  Peggy’s striking image along with the name of her palazzo earns her the nickname, the Lioness.  While she mingles with the most prominent artists, collectors, dealers, and critics of the 20th century art world, her litter of Lhasa Apso pups followin close pursuit.  After a saying a quick hello to her first Venetian friend, painter Emilio Vedova, she scurries across the garden to share a drink with two of her closest friends and mentors, Marcel Duchamp and Sir Herbert Read.  These men taught her everything about contemporary art while thrusting her into the life of the avant-garde.  Nellie van Doesburg, wife of late De Stijl artist Theo van Doesburg and close friend of Peggy, interrupts their conversation to inform her that her first volatile ex-husband, Dadaist Laurence Vail, has arrived.  Also in attendance are Rudolph and Hannelhore Schulhof, two of modern art’s most celebrated collectors who befriended Peggy during the 1954 Venice Biennale. 

After a lifetime of involvement with Peggy and advisory boards of  both the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim, they bequeathed a large portion of their collection to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.  Over by Peggy’s gazebo, surrealist painter Roberto Matta is conversing with Italian artists Tancredi and Edmondo Bacci; both of who worked in studios sponsored by Peggy.  It seems to be that the canon of Italian postwar artists are present, sipping champagne while the golden Venetian sun illuminates the Grand Canal.  There is also a strong presence of the literary arts; two of Peggy’s closest American friends, Truman Capote and Mary McCarthy, are there enjoying the gorgeous evening.  After a few more bottles of champagne, both the darkness and chill begin to set in, Peggy moves the party into her home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, where it inevitably transforms into one of her infamous ragers. 

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As the guests open the main doors, the breeze makes her Calder mobiles dance with more rhythm than most of her guests.  The art elite shuffle in and plop down on her geometric white vinyl couches, peppered with fur throws as well as the pampered  pups.  On the coffee table, Man Ray is doodling in Peggy’s precious guestbook.  This is a collection of drawings, collages, watercolors, letters, and signatures left behind from all of the guests she has ever entertained.  It is basically the who’s who of the 20th century art world that includes Marini, Giacometti, Severini, Chagall, Miró, Brauner, and Frankenthaler to name a few. 

Peggy leans against her white brick fireplace adorned with tribal masterpieces from Papua New Guinea and Western Africa while she converses with painter Santomaso about the work of her most recent ex-husband Max Ernst.  Scattered around her folksy wooden furniture and impeccable modern collection, her guests drink and dance the night away.

Peggy is not the first tenant of the legendary Palazzo Venier dei Leoni who knew how to party.  The palazzo’s first resident during the early 20th century, Marchesa Luisa Casati, set the standard for partying along the Grand Canal.  Writer Gabriele d’ Annunzio, one of her lovers, gave the property to Casati in 1910.  She was an eccentric Italian noblewoman, heiress, muse, and patron of the arts who was often seen parading around town with one of her many leashed leopards … wearing live snakes as jewelry.  Very often she hosted her own outrageous parties in the palazzo, which unfortunately led to her downfall.  During her final party, she decorated the garden with painted gold nude men.  The legend goes that one man was asphyxiated from the toxic paint, then Casati left Venice in a hurry, never to return.

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Before Casati trashed the palazzo, the Veniers owned it for centuries.  They were an extremely wealthy, old Venetian family that saw two of their own rule Venice as doges.  They began construction on the palazzo in 1748 and hired Lorenzo Boschetti as the chief architect.  He chose Istrian stone, a durable type of limestone that was standard in Venetian architecture.  The reason for the “dei Leoni”, “of the lions”, in the property’s name comes from the rumor that the Venier family kept lions, the symbol of Saint Mark and Venice, in the gardens.  The more likely explanation is the fact that there are several lion heads carved into the building’s façade along the Grand Canal.  Construction was halted in 1797.  Only the ground floor and basement were completed despite the fact that it was intended to be five stories tall.  This is what earned it its nickname “Palazzo Non Finito”, “unfinished palace”.  There are several rumors as to why this happened.  The most favored is that the family ran out of money and could no longer afford the project.  Others suggest that their rival family across the canal blocked the construction because they did not want their view of the Dorsoduro neighborhood obscured.  There is also a possibility that Napoleon’s invasion of Venice during the late 18th century was the reason.  Regardless of why, the palazzo was never completed by the Venier family or its later residents.

After Casati fled, Irish aristocrat Valentine Browne, also known as Viscount Castlerosse the 6th Earl of Kenmare, purchased the palazzo.  He and his first wife Jessica Doris Delevingne made the building truly habitable.  Casati merely used the property for partying and barely had a sturdy roof on the place.  When they moved in, they spent a fortune finishing the palazzo.  Upon Lady Castlerosse’s request, there were six new marble bathrooms installed around the property.  It was also her decision to lay down the building’s iconic marble mosaic floors with mother of pearl insets. 

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Palazzo Venier dei Leoni

Peggy herself said that she loved the floors, even though they were not her taste.  She purchased the palazzo for a little less than sixty thousand American dollars in 1949.  Since the property is unfinished, it is not a protected monument and therefore Peggy had the freedom to do what she wanted with it.  One of Peggy’s first alterations was to remove the overwhelming amount of ivy on the façade and she began to transform the palazzo into a pristine white cube, ushering in the beginning of her modern makeover.  The first few years that she lived there, Peggy used the basement as her servants’ living space.  As her collection grew, she drastically decreased their habitat and converted the basement into additional gallery and studio space.  Surrealist Roberto Matta advised her through this project.  The first artist she had in residence downstairs was Tancredi.  During the years he lived there, the floors were constantly covered in the layers of paint that were tracked about.  After he moved out, which greatly pleased Peggy’s servants, the much neater artist Edmondo Bacci took up residence.  The workers in Palazzo Venier dei Leoni were much more involved in Peggy’s world than cleaning up after her curious guests.  When clients came to purchase work from Peggy, her maids would be in charge of handling and displaying the art.  Many visitors referred to them as Peggy’s curators because they were also experts in hanging work and would often correct visitors when they confused the works by Braque and Picasso in the dining room.

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Peggy Guggenheim’s Dining Room

Peggy’s dining room is one of the high-points of her curatorial and decorative aplomb.  Her folksy 15th century Venetian furniture remains in the center of the room.  The table is long and narrow but only manages to seat 6 because of the wide chairs.  The chairs, despite their creation date, recount an art nouveau spirit because of the strong curves.  They are upholstered with a worn beige fabric reminiscent of aged velvet.  The wood is a rich dark shade and is relatively smooth despite the few pits from over 500 years of use.  Under the window and against the opposite wall are two large pieces, a chest and a sideboard.  They are made from the same wood as the table but stained with more of a red tint.  Both are elaborately carved with leaf motifs and even some woodland creature imagery.  The design is an aesthetic mashup resembling both Byzantium and Mucha. 

On top of these chests, Peggy proudly displayed some pieces from her collection of tribal art; her favorites being from tribes along the West coast of Africa and the shores of Papua New Guinea.  She began collecting primitive pieces after she married surrealist painter Max Ernst in December of 1941.  Ernst tapped into his animalistic alter ego Loplop, a bird king, when he painted.  He was often inspired by the dense forests of these tropical lands and saw them as a manifestation of the many layers of the human psyche.  Ernst often collected these tribal pieces as a source of inspiration; he wanted his work to reflect a similar element of votive mysticism.  He was not the only artist to show an interest in these cultural expressions.  Many of the cubists, such as Picasso, did the same in terms of incorporating tribal masks and votive figures as reference points for their masterpieces.  This visual interest in the primitive is reflected in the many planes within cubist works; the variety of perspectives and fracturing of forms recalls the blunt carving of tribal figures.  This visual similarity is the reason why Peggy chose to hang her cubist works in the dining room.  Surrounding her rustic furniture and enchanting talismans are the works of Georges Braque, Albert Gleizes, and Louis Marcoussis.  Peggy loved the way that these paintings interacted with the tribal art.  The figures from both realms had a similar dialogue focused on distinct forms and intersecting planes that result in stable, compelling images.  These figures also harmonized well with her furniture choices.  The heavy, geometric furniture seemed to echo this structural aesthetic initially established by tribal culture.  The interaction of furniture, painting, and sculpture only fortifies the dining room’s visual potency.

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Peggy Guggenheim in her Drawing Room

Peggy’s precise interior design decisions followed throughout  her home.  In the drawing room, the sofas and chairs are square in form and mimic the palazzo’s Istrian stone structure.  They were made of white vinyl, an easy to clean material, because Peggy’s Lhasa Apsos often licked, urinated, and even mated on them.  In Peggy’s study she had two of these vinyl sofas facing one another with a glass coffee table in between them.  On the table she would have a vase of flowers next to a surrealist object which she would often switch.  One day it could be one of her coveted boxes by surrealist Joseph Cornell or a decorated bottle by her first husband and Dadaist Laurence Vail.  On top of the surrounding bookcases and fireplaces she would display more of her tribal art in conjunction with her modern art.  For her, it made sense for an African votive female figure to share a self with Duchamp-Villion’s Horse.  Palazzo Venier dei Leoni’s most popular room is her bedroom, which was often described as the entrance to a surrealist realm.  The walls were a bright turquoise, which Peggy stated was her color.  The curtains and bedspread were made from Indian saris that she picked up from her travels around Southeast Asia.  The crown jewel of the room was Silver Bedhead by Calder, which she had commissioned for the space.  The shiny wiry sculpture depicts fish, bug, and plant imagery in a whimsical undersea garden atmosphere.  Covering the surrounding walls was her vast earring collection, her most famous pairs made by Calder and Tanguy.  Peggy’s jewelry along with the Calder bed head made the room sparkle like the Grand Canal right outside of her window.  She decorated the tops of her dressers and shelves as  she did her coffee tables, a revolving display of surrealist objects by Cornell and Vail.

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Not just pulling inspiration from modern and tribal art, Peggy chose to incorporate Venetian design elements into her eclectic taste.  She had several forcole, a gondolier’s oar rests, on display in her home and garden.  These smooth wooden objects reinforced the materiality of her furniture along with the abstracted forms in modern art.  Those who were not familiar with gondolier culture simply thought they were sculptures in the same vein as Arp’s Head and Shell and Brancusi’s Bird in Space.  Another significant facet of Venetian design is the Murano chandelier; a kitschy and colorful blown glass structure imitating floral shapes.  In place of this aerial centerpiece, Peggy stayed true to modern art by installing Calder mobiles. 

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Peggy Guggenheim, the Lioness

Peggy truly lived within the avant-garde, for her there was no difference between life and art.  She mentioned that living among her modern masterpieces made her feel immortal.  Even when she died in 1979 she refused to leave her beloved collection: she was cremated and buried in her garden next to the ashes of her fourteen Lhasa Apsos.  Peggy’s legacy lives on with her prestigious collection and her spirit remains to be the liveliest of all to have inhabited the distinguished residence at 701 Dorsoduro.  Guggenheim is the true and only lioness in the garden of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni.

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References:

Calas, Nicolas, and Elena Calas. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection of Modern Art. New York: Rizzoli,2001.

Dearborn, Mary V. Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim. New York: Houghton

Guggenheim Museum. Masterpieces from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. New York: The SolomonR. Guggenheim Foundation, 1993.

Guggenheim, Peggy. Confessions of an Art Addict. Hopewell: Ecco, 1960.

Vail, Karole P. B. Peggy Guggenheim: A Celebration. New York: Abrams, 1998.

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Paul

Paul Anagnostopoulos is an artist born and raised in New York.  He recently graduated with a BFA from New York University.  While studying both Studio Art and Art History he participated in several travel colloquiums in Puebla, Mexico; Florence, Italy; and Shanghai, China.  His mixed-media paintings have been shown in galleries and museums in New York, Colorado, and California. His most recent endeavor brought him to Venice, Italy where he worked at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.  You can see his work and read about his travel experiences on his website: www.panagnos.com.

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