Saturday 30 November 2013

The big G

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation has been courting Helsinki for some time now. She turned down the first proposal last year and hasn’t shown any signals of warming up after the recent second one either. Nevertheless, the suitor hasn’t been completely discouraged but has suggested an architectural competition for the Helsinki museum building.

Therefore last month when we were in Venice we thought we should devote a couple of hours to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. You see, we hadn’t visited any of the units under the big G yet. We wanted to form an educated opinion on the matter our politicians have so far taken with little more than hostility.

Although on the Canal Grande, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni with the lion heads at the waterfront – the Guggenheim site – is by Venetian standards rather modest (in the photos the white stub of a building on the right). The 18th century palace was never built beyond the first floor, which turned out to be a blessing for Peggy Guggenheim when she was searching for a home in Venice for her and her expanding art collection. Because the building was not listed as a historical palazzo she could carry out changes to make it more suitable for her purposes.

Peggy’s former home and summer exhibition venue is now turned into a renowned museum of modern art with her personal collection as its core. Since her time, the original collection of more than 300 items has doubled in size thanks to bequests and acquisitions. The site has also been extended with an annex to the palazzo and the purchase of a neighbouring building to house temporary exhibitions (currently The Avant-gardes of Fin-de-Siècle Paris), two museum shops and a café.

There is a lovely sculpture garden in the courtyard of the museum through which you will enter the collection. Works by Moore, Giacometti, Richier, and many others are exhibited there. As I am not (yet) comfortable photographing indoors most of my photos are from the garden. 

We arrived shortly before noon and were soon drawn, together with some thirty fellow visitors, under the trees by the ancient stone pergola where an intern, this time an arts graduate from California, gave a lively presentation to the life of Peggy Guggenheim and the making of her collection.

Items of glass by Egidio Costantini after sketches by Picasso.

Peggy was a character you cannot summarize in two words. She was a member of the privileged well-to-do class, not much of a mother and an unconventional woman who changed lovers far too often not to be sneered at. She was also very determined when she found her passion, collecting, advancing and exhibiting modern art.

'Large Seated Woman' or 'Sibilla' by Pericle Fazzini.

Peggy was an heiress from New York, although to her much wealthier relatives she always remained one of the ‘poor cousins’. In the mid-19th century, her great-grandfather Simon Guggenheim immigrated with his family to the USA fleeing from Switzerland where Jews had practically no civil rights. In the new homeland, her grandfather Meyer made a fortune in mining. Peggy’s uncle Solomon became an important patron of the arts. Peggy’s father Benjamin, however, left the family business and didn’t make the same amount of wealth as his brothers. Peggy was only 13 years old when her father sank with the Titanic in 1912.

'Forest Man, Large Version' by Germaine Richier.

In her early 20s, Peggy worked in a bookstore in New Work and started to make friends with artists and intellectuals. In the early 1920s when she had come of age and got control of her inheritance, she travelled to Europe and was introduced to avant-garde artists and other bohemian circles in Paris. She soon married the American writer Laurence (born Sindbad Eugene) Vail and had two children with him.

'Two Figures' by Luciano Minguzzi.

After a few years, Peggy left Mr Vail for a British intellectual John (Ferrar) Holms who was married but was living with his mistress. They spent a few apparently happy years together travelling and entertaining guests at their London apartment and Dartmoor mansion. But even that love didn’t last long. Mr Holms died suddenly after a minor surgical operation in 1934 when he was less than 40 years old.

Hanging mobile of glass, china, iron wire and thread by Alexander Calder.

The mobile from 1934 was my favourite item in Peggy's collection. Will try to make a Calder of my own one day.

In 1937, Peggy opened an art gallery Guggenheim Jeune in London. Encouraged by her friends – especially the Irish avant-garde novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett, one of her many lovers – she soon started to pursue the idea of collecting modern art. She began to acquire works at a furious pace, ‘a picture a day’ according to legend. In July 1941, more than a year after Paris was occupied, she returned to New York from the south of France with her collection and the German artist Max Ernst. They were later married for a short period.

'Arch of Petals' by Alexander Calder with 'On the Beach' by Pablo Picasso in the background.

In 1942, Peggy opened her gallery Art of this Century in New York. During the next five years, she arranged dozens of important exhibitions there, ‘discovering’ and promoting artists that were to become great names, such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

'Tauromachy' by Germaine Richier.
Incidentally, the same year Peggy opened her London gallery her uncle Solomon formed The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation “for the promotion and encouragement and education in art and the enlightenment of the public”. The foundation’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting opened in rented premises in New York in 1939. Four years later, that is a year later than Peggy had opened her own NY gallery, the foundation commissioned a museum building from Frank Lloyd Wright.

'The Cloven Viscount' by Mimmo Paladino.

The project was greatly delayed for various reasons. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was finally completed more than 15 years later in 1959, ten years after the death of Solomon himself and six months after that of the architect. Nevertheless, I am seeing distinctive signs of rivalry in the activities of the two Guggenheim patrons that clearly weren’t on good terms.

There is one more coincidence: Peggy bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni and established the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation in 1949, which is the year when her uncle Solomon died. Then again, the timing may have been accidental. Peggy had returned to Europe in 1947 and was invited to show her collection at the 1948 Venice Biennale. As Venice was probably her one and only true love, she wanted to find a place there to settle down and put her collection on permanent display.

'The Angel of the City' by Marino Marini, one of the most photographed works of the collection.
'Pomona' by Marino Marini, much more to my liking, not because of the topic but the execution.

Peggy lived in her palazzo for 30 years continuing to support artists and collect modern art. In 1969, ten years prior to her death when she was in her 70s, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum invited Peggy to show her collection in New York. The two establishments were finally reconciled. She later decided to leave her collection and palazzo to the foundation carrying her uncle’s name on the condition that the collection will stay in Venice.

'Working Model for Oval with Points' unmistakably by Henry Moore.

'Three Standing Figure' also by Henry Moore.

I am sorry my short introduction ballooned like this. I am not even sure how much of the above is accurate. Peggy Guggenheim was such a fascinating character, an inviting object for rumours and tales, I would be most surprised if all the fancy stories about her life were true. But I trust this account is close enough. At least it is enough to conclude once again that it is not that unfortunate to be a person of modest means, which often goes with a relatively sound and stable mind, and compared with the ones chained in money more freedom than we generally realize. The only aspect of affluence I would readily welcome is the ability to promote causes dear to you.

'Estela a Millares' by Eduardo Chillida.

You must have thought I forgot the point of this post along the way. No, I didn’t and the answer is yes, I am in favour of founding a Guggenheim affiliate in Helsinki, provided that the license fees to the foundation will be reasonable.

A silver bed head Peggy commissioned from Alexander Calder.

This is no thanks to Peggy and no thanks to the fact that her ancestors left Europe with nothing creating an empire from scratch – on the contrary, enormous wealth is such an unhealthy and dubious concept it would normally turn me against any idea. It is because the big G has grown into such a huge brand it will engage attention wherever it is found, especially if it is connected with a building of some serious wow factor, such as the New York, Bilbao and Abu Dhabi affiliates.

Peggy commissioned these entrance gates to the palazzo from Claire Falkenstein.
Note the pieces of Venetian glass inside the iron web.

With an overall collection of more than 7000 works and an extensive network of connections the foundation certainly wouldn’t have any difficulties in filling another site with first-class shows. They may be fishing for the Russian and other Eastern European audiences, I agree. But they may also be right in regarding Helsinki as the best/most attractive of the underrated cities (for them?) (in Europe?). I couldn’t find the exact quote but that is how I understood the message of the Guggenheim Director Richard Armstrong in a recent news insert on TV.

Someone is watching over the place. Might be Saint Luke, the patron saint of artists.

So let them have their architectural competition. Frank Gehry, the architect behind the Bilbao and Abu Dhabi museum buildings, has already expressed his interest. (My post on what he created for a Riojan winery here.) He might be too old for the project – 85 in a few months – but there are plenty of other fabulous proposals to be had. I strongly believe we should not only concentrate on today’s problems but should take care to invest in the future, too. 

One of the things I hate in present-day societies is the mantra of constant growth and consumption. This planet can’t stand that. Instead we can stand and will see an increase in the supply and demand of services. There are legions of culture-hungry people out there waiting to be given enlightenment and experiences, not only entertainment – not to mention the ever-increasing legions of healthy seniors. Those are the ones having the time, money and yearning to live the life of the Homo culturalis to the full. I should know. I have recently joined the tribe.

Neon tube sculpture by Maurizio Nannuzzi.
As to Peggy’s offspring, she had eight grandchildren all of whom are now in their 50s and 60s.

Peggy’s daughter Pageen Vail was a painter who died from medical overdose in 1967 at the age of 41. She was married twice, both times to a painter, and had four children. A few of her works are on display at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.

Peggy’s son (Michael C) Sindbad Vail died in 1986 at the age of 68. He was also married twice and had four children.

PS. My post on another passionate collector whose creation turned into a museum, Bèatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, here.

Peggy Guggenheim was an honorary citizen of Venice. Special permission was granted to bury her in her garden by the place where she used to bury her beloved dogs. 

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Frost called

And it wasn’t the inspector… Last night, the temperature dropped to -8°C (16°F). Everything turned silvery for a day.

Well, almost everything. The spruce trees, high as they are, had enough sunshine to wear off the frost.

A recent storm had tumbled down one of the spruces bordering the garden on two sides. Small damages like this provide us with plenty of firewood for the wood-burning ovens. So today he pulled on his chainsaw and cut the trunk into pieces on the uncultivated piece of land between our garden and the neighbours’ place.

While I cleared out the branches and other mess to be burned in an open fire one fine winter day he took the logs to the woodshed. There they will be introduced to the wood splitter but only after proper winter is here. When the logs are frozen the splitting job will be much easier for all parties concerned.

I am writing this very late in the evening and it is raining again. No more frost at least for a day or two but hopefully many more glorious sunsets shining behind the barn. We might even have some snow towards the end of the week should we be in luck. Maybe the meteorologists have got it right for once.

Saturday 23 November 2013

Passing a fortress

While waiting for the winter to arrive – not that we would like the colder weather but the days might be a bit brighter and lighter with some snow – we have been trying to keep ourselves active in our attempt to postpone the inevitable hibernation phase as much as possible. The other day we took a trip to Tallinn.

I made sure to book tickets on the Viking Line ferry using the Katajanokka port in downtown Helsinki. It was raining of course but I could just about stand the cold wind on the side deck and take a few photos of the small islands off Helsinki and of the nearby Suomenlinna fortress islands.

The Naval Academy.
The Fortress of Suomenlinna is a unique monument of military architecture and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. The bastion fortress was built in the late 18th century and served as a garrison until the early 1970s. Since then six kilometres of walls and some 200 buildings have been restored.

Suomenlinna is one of Finland’s most popular sights with more than 700,000 annual visits. It is also a district of Helsinki and home to some 850 people. However, there are only 13 private buildings on the islands. Instead, there are 330 state-owned apartments, about 100 of which are reserved for the defense administration. The remaining 200 are leased through a special application procedure based on neither social grounds nor a waiting list.

Needless to say, there will be an apartment available only extremely rarely. And even when there is one you must be fabulously lucky to possess the kind of a profile the community is looking for at that particular moment. I can’t imagine anyone having been chosen as a tenant would want to leave this picturesque village only a 15-minute ferry ride away from downtown Helsinki. I certainly wouldn’t.

PS Last autumn we travelled to Tallinn two months earlier returning at sunset. See my post on that here.

A few of the private ones, I assume. More than a dream come true, a jackpot I'd say.