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On Stage: Peggy Guggenheim's patronizing passions



Donna Blue Lachman has made a career of playing strong women, women whose lives are held up as models, women who inspire cultlike veneration--like Frida Kahlo, who overcame a horribly disfiguring streetcar accident and an abusive marriage to Diego Rivera to become a great artist, and Rosa Luxemburg, who sacrificed everything, including her life, for the cause of socialism in pre-Weimar Germany.

Even when Lachman played herself, as she did in After Mountains, More Mountains . . . The Haiti Stories and The Uncensored Stories, she showed herself facing the demons of her own and her family's past or embarking on the sort of heroic, dangerous, life-transforming adventures--like living among voodoo priests--that most of us only dream of.

Now in a new solo show Lachman is playing a woman who was deeply flawed: vain and stingy, strong willed, and foolish in love, Peggy Guggenheim was difficult and lonely.

Best known today for her vast collection of modern art, mostly housed in her palazzo in Venice, Guggenheim had her heroic moments. She's credited with having nurtured the careers of many of this century's best artists, including Wassily Kandinsky, Jackson Pollock, and Max Ernst, to whom she was briefly married. In Paris during the early days of World War II, she saved many works of modern European art by purchasing one a day from artists like Fernand Leger and Francis Picabia, who were desperate for money to get out of France. Later, after officials at the Louvre refused to help her safeguard her collection, Guggenheim resorted to trickery. She cut the paintings from their frames, rolled up the canvases, and packed them in her car under clothing and household items. She then shipped the car to New York.

But Guggenheim's private life was considerably less heroic. The daughter of one of the less successful sons of the rich and powerful importer-turned-industrialist Meyer Guggenheim, Peggy was in all respects a poor little rich girl.

"Her father was a schmuck," Lachman says. "He cheated on Peggy's mother, slept with all the maids, and once chased her mother around the kitchen with a butcher knife." He also neglected his daughters, preferring the company of cronies and lovers.

Guggenheim was only 14 when her father, crossing the Atlantic with a mistress, went down on the Titanic. She never got over the loss, and for the rest of her days was drawn to men who couldn't return her love. Her first husband, Laurence Vail, was an alcoholic and compulsive cheat, whose claim of being a writer and artist was belied by the fact that he never created anything after his marriage. Her lovers, many of them prominent artists and writers, weren't much better. When she threw herself at Samuel Beckett, she found him cold and distant. "Sam, I could help you be more cheerful," she reportedly told the playwright, to which he replied, "No you can't, Peggy. I have no feelings that are human."

When Guggenheim and Max Ernst began their affair, she found herself engulfed in a lover's hell of dependency and resentment that satisfied neither of them. "Max and I never gave each other what we wanted," Lachman has Guggenheim say. "Max wanted peace to paint and I wanted love."

Guggenheim became known for having a good eye for art. Dozens of artists owe their careers to her. Yet she often depended on others to tell her what was of value. She famously almost took a pass on Jackson Pollock. In 1942 she was holding a juried show at her gallery for young artists, Art of This Century, when she saw Piet Mondrian, one of the jurors, looking through a batch of Pollock's paintings. "Pretty awful," she said. "That's not painting, is it?" Mondrian continued to contemplate one of the works as Guggenheim went on: "Disorganized...muddy...dreadful. This young man has serious problems, and painting is one of them." Mondrian turned to her and said, "I have a feeling this may be the most exciting painting I have seen in a long time, here or in Europe." Guggenheim immediately changed her tune, telling everyone she'd discovered an exciting new artist. In her autobiography she called Pollock "the greatest painter since Picasso."

But just because Guggenheim liked an artist didn't mean she treated him well. In many of her dealings with Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, she drove a hard bargain. She demanded Pollock pay back a $2,000 loan by giving her every painting he created over a two-year period--a deal that ended up heavily in Guggenheim's favor. And on one occasion, she forced Krasner to stuff and address 1,200 announcements for a Pollock show at her gallery, and then publicly upbraided her because she made a mistake on three of the cards. "She bawled the hell out of me for the nine cents I was wasting," Krasner recalled.

Lachman was attracted to Guggenheim's mass of contradictions. "She could be extremely petty and extremely generous, very naive and very savvy. She was stingy with people who needed her, like her children, but very generous to people who didn't need her. When I went to Venice on a research grant, it was hard to find people who liked her. The Venetians hated her, and she hated the Venetians. She loved to sunbathe nude on the roof of her palazzo, and they tried to have her arrested.

"She's not Frida. She's not Rosa. When I played Rosa, she was such a good girl I gave up smoking. With Peggy--" Lachman pauses to light up and laughs. "I love playing someone who was at times a real bitch."

The Trouble With Peggy: Pieces of Guggenheim opens Thursday, September 16, and runs through November 21 at the Blue Rider Theatre, 1822 S. Halsted. Tickets are $20 to $22.50, $100 for the opening-night gala. Call 312-666-2866. --Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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