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Heiress art collector Peggy Guggenheim, whose artistic and sexual tastes helped shape the modern art world as she built a world-famous collection in less than a decade, 1938 to 1946, died at 81 on this date in 1979. In the 1920s, she lived a bohemian life in Paris; in 1938 she opened a gallery in London. During World War II, she acquired a tremendous amount of abstract and surrealist art, purchasing, as she said, “a picture a day,” including Fernand Léger’s Men in the City on the day that Hitler invaded Norway. “She acquired Brancusi’s Bird in Space as the Germans approached Paris, and only then decided to return to her native New York,” according to the website of the Guggenheim Museum. “In July 1941, Peggy fled Nazi-occupied France together with Max Ernst, who was to become her second husband a few months later (they divorced in 1943).” She settled in Venice, Italy in 1949 and built a museum to house her collection on the Grand Canal. Guggenheim championed the work of Marcel Duchamp, who served as her Beatrice in the world of modern art, as well as Jean Cocteau, Man Ray (who took the photograph of Guggenheim above in 1924), Wassily Kandinsky, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Henry Moore, Mark Rothko, Alexander Calder, Constantin Brâncuși, Max Ernst, and Georges Braque, among many others. Also a memoirist, “Mrs. Guggenheim,” wrote Israel Shenker in the New York Times obituary, “met scores of famous people: James Joyce en famille, Marcel Duchamp and André Masson at leisure, Ezra Pound on the tennis court (‘Ezra was a good player, but he crowed like a rooster whenever he made a good stroke,’ she wrote), and Isadora Duncan in flower (Isadora called her Guggie Peggleheim). Emma Goldman, the anarchist, lived in a house Peggy gave her, then quarreled and left Peggy out of her memoirs.” She also had a series of husbands and claimed to have had more than 1,000 lovers, including several of the painters and sculptors she championed.
“I look back on my life with great joy. I think it was a very successful life. I always did what I wanted and never cared what anyone thought. Women’s lib? I was a liberated woman long before there was a name for it.” —Peggy Guggenheim