Peggy and Pevsner: sex and sensibility

Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern


Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern
By Francine Prose
Yale University Press, £16.99

Pevsner: The BBC Years
By Stephen Games
Ashgate, £85

One of the less familiar delights of a trip to Venice is a visit to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, home to Peggy Guggenheim's magnificent collection of early 20th-century art. However, her significance as a pioneering supporter of many of the major names of modern art (Yves Tanguy and Jackson Pollock, to name but two) tends to be overshadowed by her colourful personality and often scandalous love life, thanks in large part to her own - disconcertingly frank - autobiography, first published in 1946, as well as to subsequent accounts of her life.

Although this new biography purports to present a more rounded overview of her achievements (with a brief but valuable assessment of the importance of both her gender and her Jewishness), it, too, ultimately falls into the same trap.

Wouldn't, for example, space devoted to embarrassingly intimate details of her sex life be better devoted to an exploration of the wider cultural context in which she operated as a collector and gallerist, both in Europe and New York? In this respect, the volume stands in stark contrast to another recent addition to the Yale Jewish Lives series, the biography of Mark Rothko by Annie Cohen-Solal, in which the personality of the artist remains tantalisingly in the background, and context is all.

A model biography, surely, should attempt a better balance between the personal and the contextual. More-over, the slightly odd structure of the book - some of the chapters are thematic ("Her Money", "Her Nose"!), others chronological - means that some material is repeated unnecessarily.

It is a shame, too, that a volume so closely concerned with the visual arts contains just 12 black-and-white images, and no analysis whatsoever of the nature of the art Guggenheim exhibited and collected so passionately. Nevertheless, it remains a lively, entertaining and easy read.

Seemingly at the other end of the spectrum, in terms of weightiness and accessibility, is a dense and detailed new volume by Stephen Games devoted to a generally neglected aspect of émigré art-and-architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner's prodigious output: namely, the thought-provoking, if often contentious radio broadcasts he gave for the BBC from 1945 until the late 1970s. (The best known of these are the 1955 Reith Lectures on "The Englishness of English Art"). Most people, however, will associate him with his magisterial 46-volume The Buildings of England, often referred to simply as "Pevsner").

Conceived as a companion to Pevsner: The Complete Broadcast Talks, edited by Games and published last year, this book is clearly not intended for the casual, non-specialist reader. Yet Games's writing style is eminently readable and he wears his erudition lightly.

An interested reader, therefore, could do a great deal worse than begin with the first 30 or so pages, which provide an engaging and informative introduction both to the complex and sometimes puzzling figure of Pevsner himself (his early admiration for Nazism, notwithstanding his Jewish origins, remains deeply problematic) and to the nature of radio broadcasting during the Second World War.

The reader may well be tempted to continue: even if the book doesn't get read from cover to cover, dipping into its later sections will prove unexpectedly rewarding. Those keen to find out more about Pevsner's early years in Germany - he arrived in this country in 1934, already 31-years old - would be advised to turn to Games's 2011 book Pevsner: The Early Life: Germany and Art; while Susie Harries's monumental Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life (2011) serves as a more comprehensive and exhaustive biography of an important cultural figure rightly described by Games as "an original: irreverent, informal, idiosyncratic..."

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