The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1982)



 Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), whose Collection of modern paintings is on exhibition at her Uncle Solomon's Fifth Avenue Museum through March 13, began as a lover of traditional painting until encountering a Georgia O'Keeffe abstraction as a young woman. Later, dadaist Marcel Duchamp was influential in directing her toward abstraction and surrealism, which make up the bulk of her Collection.


 Ms. Guggenheim opened her first gallery in London in 1938. However, it was at her "Art of This Century" Gallery on West 57th Street in New York City in the 1940's that she made her impact on the development of modern art in America. She gave first one-man shows to Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Adolph Gottlieb and Hans Hofmann. She also showed Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes and major European artists, as she had in London, many not yet well known.


 But the artist she discovered and prized most highly was Jackson Pollock whom she supported financially for several years in return for paintings (in the process of exhibiting artists, she often received works free or at low cost). You have to hand it to Peggy Guggenheim, she had the instinct, insight (and guidance) to exhibit and collect many of the artists now considered important 20th Century figures.


 Two forces -- surrealism and Picasso -- seem to dominate the works in the Guggenheim Collection, as well as the omnipresent fundamental reshaping of art by the 20th Century dehumanization apparent in any exhibition of modern painting.


 Her surrealist bent is apparent in obviously categorizable practitioners of that movement like Ernst, Miro, Dali, Tanguy, Delvaux, Di Chirico, and abstract-expressionists like Gorky, Still and Pollock, influenced by surrealism. But even cubists like Picasso (who probably was more surrealist than cubist anyway), Ozenfant, Marcoussis, Braque, Metzinger and certainly Duchamp, whose "Sad Young Man on a Train" is both surrealist and cubist, are haunted by the mystery and morbidity of the disrupted unconscious fashioned by modern man's struggle for his soul.


 Picasso's influence hangs like a mixed blessing and curse over the other works, channeling, narrowing the focus and awareness of the artists. In a way, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, like 20th Century art as a whole, is an homage to Picasso, to the power of his world-dismantling vision which he exerted on society and its artists. Seizing on the clashing incongruities and spiritual malformations of our time, creating a vocabulary of fractured, distressed and distorted forms, he swept weaker artists before him like plankton in a great wave.


 All cubists, of course, paint in that style because of Picasso and the less forceful Braque. That includes futurists like Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini. Clyfford Still painted an extremely attenuated black figure with gnashing Picassoesque jaws. Gorky, Pollock, Appel and Alechinsky are all as in thrall to Picasso's spirit and manner as any of the early (or later) cubists and futurists.


 Since the Collection is so heavily oriented toward surrealism, it may be well to discuss two of the more striking paintings. Max Ernst's "Attirement of the Bride" is one of the most cloyingly bizarre, most graphically symbolic of the works. It was purchased by Ms. Guggenheim shortly after they met in 1940 in Europe, one year prior to their disastrous, sexless (at Ernst's instigation) marriage. One cannot help seeing this painting in the light of the artist's vanity, emotional immaturity (to put it kindly), his older man's lust for crude young women and an essential hatred of the world so basic to surrealism and its ancestor, dadaism.


 Green and red are supposed to be complimentary colors, mutually enhancing one another, but the gory green bird-creature aggressively pointing a needle-like phallic spear at delicate pubic parts of the red-feathered bird-woman is ghastly. The eye of the woman, a goiter-like monster at her neck, peers from the feathers, the real figure hidden under its archetypal bird of prey cloak. A small, androgynous figure with penis and four breasts crouches below. Some monstrous, sexually hostile, perverse unconscious force has taken dominion over humanity on the eve of World War II.


 If Miro's "Seated Woman II" had not been painted in 1939 when Peggy Guggenheim was 40, one would swear that the lined, decay-dimpled face was a humorously grotesque version of Ms. Guggenheim's gallery photographs in her 70's. With its square, flat, black body where two bottle forms serve as breasts, a vagina at the sternum and a collar like a skeletal mouth devouring or vomiting the long neck, we have a truly memorable monster reflecting the voraciousness of this century.


 What the ultimate aesthetic and spiritual worth of Peggy Guggenheim's Collection will be is interesting to consider. There is no question that it represents significant work by many of this century's most recognized artists. But what will a future age think?


 To stand amidst these paintings is to be in the presence of death. The atmosphere is heavy, dark and disturbing despite, and because of, the artistic power on display. This feeling of irredeemability could perhaps be experienced when standing before any group of our century's works. Most modern art reflects the psychological and spiritual upheaval of our time. But, we would have a different response viewing paintings by Matisse, for example, who, interestingly, is not part of the Collection, or expressionists like Kokoschka and Soutine.


 Was Matisse too cheery for Ms. Guggenheim's dark, Duchamp-influenced tastes (himself extremely nihilistic in his aesthetic and life outlook)? The darkness of her Collection may be a reflection of her personality, which was a complex combination of generosity, self-centeredness, dissoluteness and eagerness for life.


 While the expressionists explore angst -- their own and that of the era -- at least it's a living, human angst that we all feel, to some extent, not a dehumanized nihilism beyond any hope of redemption. The expressionists assert the contemporary struggle for the soul, but at least fight for its survival on the bloody battlefield of their canvases. One feels that the surrealists and abstractionists have given up the field to the enemy, indeed even welcomed the victory of horror, death and decay. Kandinsky is one of few who, in his choice of color and forms, seems at all transcendent in dealing with the tensions of the age.


 A future generation, more life-enhancing than our own, may move beyond the death in this Collection and too many contemporary echoes of its premise, to art that seeks to encompass both death and life in a synthesis that is, at the very least, supportive of humanity, perhaps even transcendent in its insight and understanding.


 The eminent mythologist Joseph Campbell has stated that misplaced priorities and the fearful realities of life often prevent us from reaching truth and ultimate fulfillment. These negative characteristics, according to Campbell, are symbolically represented by two terrifying cherubim guarding the gates of the Garden of Eden (immortal life) to prevent the return of mankind to paradise, and by threatening, contradictory opposites (fear and desire) which guard the approach to the Buddha. Most people recoil from or are immeshed in the horror, stopping before the gates, never realizing it masks that inner sanctum where the core and meaning of life resides, where all things are in harmony.


 Campbell describes the process thus: "If you're approaching a garden like that, and those two figures (the cherubim, the opposites) are real, alive figures, and they threaten you; if you have fear in your life, you are still outside the Garden. It's when you...see the ego existence as a function of a larger, eternal totality, and you favor the larger against the smaller, then you won't be afraid of those two figures (life), and you will go through...into transcendence. We're kept out of the garden by our own fear and desire in relation to what we think to be the goods of our life."


 Haven't too many artists in the Guggenheim Collection, and the 20th Century generally, been stopped at the gates of paradise by the cherubim of existential doubt and fear, and a perhaps compensatory arrogance disconnected from any larger reality beyond themselves?




Copyright by Don Gray


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