Design & Decoration S03 ep4 : Philip Rylands, Guggenheim Museum, [Venice]

Interview with Philip Rylands

Located on Venice’s Grand Canal, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of Europe’s premier museums devoted to modern art. With masterpieces ranging in style from Cubism and Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism, the collection has become one of the most respected and visited cultural attractions in Venice.


I think the Guggenheim collection is the museum of modern art, the Solomon Guggenheim
Foundation found itself in 1980 soon after Peggy Guggenheim’s death in 1979 responsible for two
museums both the great Frank Lloyd Wright Museum on Fifth Avenue, New York and Peggy
Guggenheim’s Grand Canal Palace here in Venice.

The backdrop for an incredible spread a density in concentration of contemporary art through
Venice with Tishen and Paladio and Sensibino and Tintoretta is a very powerful combination and
gondolas and canals and whatever.

When Ruskin and Bryon, both of them English, discover Venice in the 19th Century they helped to
create in the foreign imagination the idea of a romantic Venice also with this idea of a great
republic powerful bellicose rich that have gone into steep decline so there’s this kind of romantic
thing about Venice.

Her first husband Lawrence Vale knew Venice really well. His father, an ex-patriot painter from
America, Eugene Vale, used to spend the summers here painting, Peggy acquired from him her
love of the city and after the Second World War when she decided to return to Europe it was not a
difficult choice I don’t think, you might even say why would she not choose Venice.

Peggy Guggenheim was very much European. She was born in New York, she left the United
States in the early 1920’s and spent 20 years here until the Second World War obliged her to return
to the United States. That initiated for her a historic period which she operated something call the
Art of the Century Gallery in New York she was the centre of what was going on in the New York
avant garde at a time when the New York School in American abstract expressionism were nascent
movements later to be so important even dominant in the 1950’s so Peggy has a historic moment in
the 40’s but nonetheless in 1947, ’48 she resolves to return to Europe and that’s when she chooses
Venice and she spends the last 30 years of her life here.

Henry Dunay Jewellery

The Guggenheim family are actually one of the great epic stories of American corporate
capitalism. The Guggenheims travelled from German speaking Switzerland actually L__ in 1847,
very poor but over the course of the 19th Century they brought together a huge fortune from the
mining and smelting of metals, silver, copper and lead and became incredibly rich and by the time
of the First World War they owned supposedly 75% of the world’s known resources in those
metals so Peggy was born into a very rich family with what she would have considered a
suffocating high society upbringing in New York and it was from that at some time she rebelled
and escaped when she comes to Europe in the early 1920’s.

Peggy entered the milieu of the avant-garde in the 1920’s thanks to Lawrence Vale, thanks to her
first husband, so for 20 years or so she was in the middle of things, she knew all those people like
Bran___ and Tristan Zara and James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp and many others.

In her late 30’s, 1937-38, Peggy decides to do something with her life, first a contemporary art
gallery in London and then after a year of that in 1939 she resolves to open a museum again in
London, not in Venice, she felt that London was missing a proper museum of contemporary art. It
was Samuel Beckett that told Peggy that her duty as a collector, as an art dealer, was to protect the
art of her own time, so Peggy took this on.

Peggy had no academic pretensions let alone artistic ones but one of her great talents was to be
surrounded by great intelligences and she listened to them. We mentioned Samuel Beckett as an
advisor, secondly she had a longstanding friendship with Marcel Duchamp who almost as a kind of
avocation helped her to form her collection. Then in 1938 she meets Herbert Reid, critic and an art
historian and he advises her actually with a preliminary exhibition list for the formation of her
museum and then there were others, there was little known American man from California by the
name of Howard Putzel, Howas Putzel had, was an extraordinary talent scout, he dies young and
has been somewhat lost in the history books but we try and keep his name alive through Peggy
because he was one of those who also helped first of all to form her collection of historic avant-
gardes and then was a mediator between her and the young Americans in the 1940’s when she
comes to sponsoring people like Robert Motherwell, William Bassiotis and Jackson Pollock. You
could add another, Nellie Vandusberg was the widow of Tao Vandusberg a close friend of Peggy’s
and she was another person who helped her find the right things she sold her paintings by the
futurists, she introduced Peggy to Jeanne Eliont and so on so all the time she had these advisors
and she had the wit to listen to them and then to act.

Henry Dunay Jewellery

By the 1930’s the cannon of artistic modernism, cubism, abstraction, surrealism, metaphysical
painting, contemporary sculpture, dada they had more or less been sorted out and understood by
the critics and so when Peggy is dealing with people who are the centre of all that, her second
husband Max Ernst, the great surrealist, Marcel Duchamp her close friend who had an Olympian
view of the different movements, friends like Henry Moore who understood in England perfectly
well the difference between abstraction and surrealism so I think to understand those avant-gardes
in 1939, ’40 and ’41 when Peggy was collecting was not a huge challenge it had … and it used up
a great deal of her money of which she didn’t have quite as much as you might expect being
related to all those Guggenheims when her father drowned on the Titanic in 1912 he leaves Peggy
in difficulty and she then inherited a certain amount from her mother who was rich in her own
right but on the side just remember that Peggy was not endlessly rich. However when you come to
the 40’s with Peggy in New York, then it was tough and I can tell you when she takes up Jackson
Pollock, no one else did, she was giving him money monthly, he had the only arrangement in New
York of any artist of that kind that would enable them not to work and make them free to, to only
to paint.

Peggy had to act on her own initiative. She did not have her family behind her. She did have not
the instincts of a rebel really but the instincts of somebody who was determined. Nevertheless, it’s
also true that she got on very badly with her uncle’s museum in the late 1930’s because they
considered her a rival art collector and somebody who since surrealism was an anthema to those
who were in the abstraction camp, were Solomon Guggenheim but above all his director H__ was
then Peggy marrying a surrealist, Max Ernst, exhibiting the surrealists, collecting for a collection
as well was clearly the enemy at that point. So Peggy fell out early on with Solomon
Guggenheim’s first director H___ but she was very happy to patch it together and very smart to do
so in the late 1960’s.

Somebody once attributed to her a whim of iron, that when she wanted to do something then she
had no difficulties in doing it and that included if you like taking men as lovers and one of the
remarkable things about her lovers was that they were highly intelligent men, take Lawrence Vale
and Max Ernst, her two husbands and then you add in you know people like Samuel Beckett.

My own story is that in 1973 when I came to Venice my wife and I met Peggy Guggenheim and we
became friends and we got to know her family, above all her son as well and in late in 1979 when
Peggy was in hospital and it became clear that her days were numbered my wife and I were
helping arranging the funeral, his affairs here in Venice for this very sympathetic son of Peggy’s
Sinbad Vale and so I was kind of found on the spot I’d been doing a PhD in teaching and doing
various things including helping the English Venice Saving Committee through the 70’s and then I
had the great good fortune to be offered the responsibility of operating this museum after Peggy’s
death and I’d done modern art at Cambridge and so on and so I was prepared for it. I had some
experience in the rare restorations, the building clearly needed work on doing … I had the
qualifications but I also had the great good luck to be here when the Guggenheim Foundation
needed somebody to look after the house and the collection in the dark days of 1980.

Henry Dunay Jewellery


When I first met Peggy she had, she carried with her a terrific charisma, a kind of aura. The first
party that I met her at a whisper went round the guests and said Peggy Guggenheim’s here and I
was taken to sort of meet her and as well kneel at her feet, nonetheless Peggy was not a grand
dame and she was very modest, she was always startled by how famous and important she was, by
how her collection had become so incredibly valuable. She was a very direct person. She didn’t
have any guiles. She would have said what she felt, what she thought. She was always interested by
ulterior motives in others but she herself never had ulterior motives.

The Biennale played an important part in Peggy’s history because it was at the 1948 Venice
Biennale that Peggy showed her collection for the first time in Europe and it was probably on that
that her intention to move to Venice was really sealed, she only bought her house a year later the
Palaza Ven…. In 1986 the Guggenheim Foundation actually purchased the American Pavilion of
the Venice Biennale and it’s still today the only privately owned pavilion of the Biennale. At the
same time the Department of State in the United States contracted that Peggy … collection to
operate the pavilion during the Venice Biennales so we do have a close relationship to the

Venice is also the oldest Biennale, 1895 it was founded and it’s also the only Biennale which has
this peculiar formula of pavilions because most Biennales are in big hangar like spaces or
whatever whereas since 1907 when the Belgiums built a little pavilion next to the main exhibition
of it all the format of pavilions in those Biennale gardens has become established and a unique
aspect of this particular Biennale so it’s a combination of Venice high society everybody loves to
be at a party and what I’ve noticed in recent years is the important thing is not that hundreds of
thousands of people go and see your art at the Biennale, the important thing is to be, to have been
at the Biennale whether anybody sees it or not I mean it’s now become so huge and sprawling an

Henry Dunay Jewellery

An interesting thing about Peggy’s collecting is that she sort of stops in the 60’s because she felt
that the art market had gone made. The prices were insane and when young living artists could
demand five figure amounts for their works of art, $20,000, $80,000 she felt that the art market had
simply gone completely out of control. Nor did she have the kinds of money, kind of money that
would have been able to buy that sort of thing. It’s worth remembering that in 1945 she responds to
the interest of the San Francisco Museum of Art who wanted to buy a major Pollock but now we
would consider a major Jackson Pollock for $850 but the director of the museum couldn’t
convince her trustees of this and she said could you sell it to us for $500 and Peggy did, so the sort
of range in which Peggy was buying this art, $500, $2,000 at most $10,000 was Peggy’s perception
of what you spent and what this kind of art was of value, it could be valued at monetarily. Now
there’s another aspect to that of course which is that nowadays for something like the Peggy
Guggenheim collection to acquire art, of her period, is virtually impossible.

Clearly Peggy Guggenheim, whether she knew it or not, maybe it was because it was one of her
intuitions, guaranteed her immortality by making this collection and then securing its’ future as a
museum in an extraordinary place like Venice so you might say that Peggy Guggenheim’s more
famous now than when she was in her own lifetime, and would be even more famous in 20 years
than she is now so this is a sort of little access to immortality that other collectors feel the same
way but I think more and more convincingly collectors make a collection and they love what
they’ve bought and they’re thrilled by the achievement and they remember all the adventures of
getting hold of this or that masterpiece and they’re very sorry to see it broken up, they want to
endure posthumously and that’s certainly what motivated Peggy, she simply wanted her main life
achievement to stay together.

OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Philip Rylands Peggy, Guggenheim Museum, Vienna