Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern by Francine Prose


Francine Prose did an impressive job of writing about such a complicated character, a woman who was beset by insecurities and at the same time inclined to reveal herself fully. She was an avant-garde art collector and was instrumental in the launch of Jackson Pollack and others. She amassed an impressive collection now housed in Venice, including works by Picasso, Duchamp, Miro, de Chirico, Max Ernst, Calder. She used her money to save artists and their art from the Nazis and left Europe at the last moment. 

On the other hand she wrote an autobiography that was dismissed by critics as tabloid material. She apparently loved to be shocking and wrote lurid passages about her 400 lovers and wrote breezily about the risks she took for herself and others in escaping the Nazis. Her book was called Out of This Century but the Chicago Tribune thought a more accurate title would be "Out of My Head." Francine Prose makes the case that her writing was strong and as forceful as the art she championed. Her relationships, especially the early ones, sound horrifying with lots of drinking and violence. One of her least successful marriages was to Max Ernst who was equally interested in her money and other women. 

She was the niece of Solomon Guggenheim, and while she was plenty rich, she did not have the resources of the other Guggenheims. Her first gallery was Guggenheim Jeune in London and had shows of Jean Cocteau and Wassily Kandinski. She had a gallery in New York, but in 1949 she moved herself and her collection to Venice where she remained for the rest of her life. I visited that gallery with the 11-year-old Abby and I recall her being quite taken with the art she saw there.

This was an ideal audiobook as I never lost interest. I find the title surprisingly similar to the documentary series and book by Robert Hughes called "The Shock of the New" about modern art after the Impressionists.

Francine Prose, Peggy Guggenheim:  The Shock of the Modern, Yale University Press, 2015, 240 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available at the UVa library and from Amazon.

1 comment


  • Beset by insecurities and at the same time inclined to reveal herself fully? Who does that?


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