The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice: A space where history and art collide

By Filippo Dall’Armellina | Contributing Writer

© Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. Photo Matteo De Fina

Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim was a patron of modern art, an influential figure who travelled across the Atlantic to discover some of the greatest artists of all time. She played a key role in supporting various art movements in the 20th century. Many of her family members were artists, benefactors, and curators, including Solomon R. Guggenheim who was Peggy’s uncle and the founder of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.  

In 1949, Peggy moved to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice, turning it into her home for thirty years. This is where the Peggy Guggenheim Collection historically began, and where many expressionist, surrealist, and abstract art masterpieces are still kept today.

Peggy Guggenheim on the steps of the Grand Canal terrace, on the occasion of the first show she organised at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Mostra di Scultura Contemporanea, Venice, September 1949. Photo Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Venice, Gift, Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia, 2005.

The collection is right next to the Grand Canal and is therefore complemented by the characteristic Venetian landscape. What stands out here is the sensation of utter disbelief you feel, knowing you are just a few inches away from some of the world’s most influential artworks of the past century. Add this to the fact that parts of the collection are in the bewitching garden of the palace and near the Istrian stone lion heads decorating the façade at water level, you can begin to understand why I decided to visit the museum.

Hours, if not days, can easily fly when you are staring at paintings by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, and Jackson Pollock, to name a few. Looking at their work, I was reminded of the compelling effect that abstract expressionism and surrealism can bring with them. I find that these arts challenge the viewer’s perspective and interpretation of what stands in front of their eyes.

I was particularly captured by the bold combinations of colour chroma I witnessed and that sparked in me an interest to evaluate the emotional states these artists dared us to experience. Personally, the wide range of emotions I felt spanned from confusion and awe at the sight of grandiose paintings by Kandinsky to a combination of anxiety and sadness in front of Dalí’s original work.

A piece I always wanted to see in person, and finally have, is Picasso’s The Poet (Le poète, 1911). Here, the visual planes through which the figure is looked at are fragmented and pieced together in an elusive two-dimensional representation of the poet. I remember thinking at the time that analytic cubism is likely one of the few art movements capable of reproducing the fragmentary inner state of a poet.

Jackson Pollock, Alchemy (1947)
Oil, aluminium, alkyd enamel paint with sand, pebbles, fibres, and broken wooden sticks on canvas
© Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, by SIAE 2022

Another great piece I saw was Jackson Pollock’s Alchemy (1947), an oil painting with a surface covered by fibres, aluminium, and other materials. Its realisation technique has been studied over the years, however, Pollock’s unconventionality in his action painting style leaves this piece without a universally accepted interpretation. Nevertheless, I can say I felt disoriented, perhaps even nostalgic, standing across the room and attempting to recognise a familiar landscape. The artwork I witnessed is further proof of the ability of these pioneers of modern art to refine the boundaries of the abstract world and the human psyche in their totality.

The collection is historically unique and represents the expression of Peggy’s love for the arts. A visit to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni focuses on the experience and emotions of the perceiver, embodying the ideals of abstract expressionism and surrealism. I recommend that you do visit and see for yourselves these bold masterpieces from the 20th century that projected art into the future.

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