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34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 26, 2004
I had eagerly awaited this book because I had been disappointed in Guggenheim's own CONFESSIONS OF AN ART ADDICT. I wanted a book that didn't skip over some obvious issues, like the reasons for the multiple marriages and a daughter's suicide. I was not disappointed in Mary V. Dearborn's MISTRESS OF MODERNISM. Dearborn delivers a warts-and-all biography that is nonetheless sympathetic, and extremely readable. I read this book quickly even though I put it down often to think about the implications of what I had just read.

Can one have too much money? As I read this book I wondered if Peggy might have been happier if she had had to work for a living. As Dearborn points out, Peggy was a "poor" Guggenheim whose fortune was only a fraction of her Uncle Sol's. The bohemian crowd that Peggy wanted to be a part of assumed that Peggy's fortune was far larger than it actually was. As a result, she had the reputation of being a cheapskate even though she supported a handful of people she was not even related to until they died. (This list would include Djuna Barnes, ex-husbands and ex-husbands' previous wives and widows, etc.) She also subsidized a lot of other people at various times on a temporary basis. The people in this milieu seem to have had extremely poor parenting skills. Peggy and her sisters spent their childhood virtually segregated from adults. Could that be why she and her surviving sister were such poor mothers? Peggy's son grew up to be an ambitionless playboy and her daughter Pegeen committed suicide. Peggy's sister murdered her own two small sons by pitching them off a balcony. She got away with it. Peggy, her sister and her daughter were promiscuous and seemingly had voracious sexual appetites. What set them apart from their peers was that Peggy and Pegeen were open about their affairs. Peggy practically advertised hers with the publication of her autobiography OUT OF THIS CENTURY and scandalized New York society. (This book explains that CONFESSIONS OF AN ART ADDICT is an extremely expurgated and revised version of OUT OF THIS CENTURY that Peggy put together years later. It deals only with Guggenheim's career as a collector. I would now love to get my hands on the original OUT OF THIS CENTURY!) Yet, through it all Peggy seems to have had very little self esteem. The men she was involved with were often physically abusive. There was a streak of masochism in her. (Was this a generational attitude? Peggy's friend Emily (whom she supported) admitted in her diary that she herself enjoyed being beaten.) I came away with the impression that Peggy was basically a bland person who just wanted to be loved. She never knew whether she was really loved or whether people just loved her money.

This book is very well written and presents brief, vivid minibiographies of virtually the entire dramatis personae. It has made me curious to see the work of the artists that Peggy promoted. This book tells an important part of the story of American art in the 20th Century. Those with an interest in this subject will want to read this book as soon as possible. I would especially recommend MISTRESS OF MODERNISM to anyone who has visited Peggy's museum in Venice or who is planning to visit there.
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21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on October 14, 2004
This is an excellent book for anyone with even a passing interest in modern art and 20th century cultural history. The title is most appropriate because Peggy Guggenheim seems to have been bound up with every aspect of modernism practically by the time anyone knew to call it that. When she was a child, her father went down on the Titanic - kind of a modernist cultural event in its own way, along with being a great tragedy - and her first real job was in a bookstore in Manhattan that sold the work of modernist writers like Joyce and Lawrence. In Paris in the 20s she knew all the usual suspects - Hemingway, Joyce himself, who was a good friend, Picasso - and in the 30s she gravitated toward the British surrealist group that gathered around Herbert Read. I was surprised to learn that one of her great friends in these years was none other than Emma Goldman, the writing of whose autobiography Peggy bankrolled.

The author does a wonderful job of showing you how a pampered rich girl came to live such a life. In short, she didn't want to live the same stifling confined life that other women from her upper class background were condemned to in those days. She liked to live among artists because they weren't like that.

So what about the art? Guggenheim's career as an art patron, collector, and dealer is such a good yarn that it's tempting not to say too much about it here. She literally brought modern art to America during the WW II years - brought her collection, brought many of the artists themselves, and hooked them up with the younger generation of Americans who would follow in their footsteps - Jackson Pollock (her greatest discovery), Baziotes, Clyfford Still, Rothko, Motherwell, etc etc. Thanks to her, New York replaced Paris as the center of the world art scene, a position it holds to this day. This book is full of great anecdotes and revealing facts, but you'll have to read them for yourself.

Peggy comes across as a lot more than just a rich collector. She was a strong personality herself who had definite ideas of what modern art was and where it was headed. Her gallery in New York was a major artistic statement in and of itself, that created a much more democratic environment for art to be enjoyed and for artists and the public to mingle, and Peggy's personality obviously had a lot to do with this. My only complaint is that the book doesn't contain more photos of this fascinating place (perhaps there aren't that many around any more?).

I highly recommend this book. It's clearly written, presents its subject vividly and sympathetically, and moves right along. A fine education in the making of the contemporary art world and its place in American culture.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2004
I didn't realize when I picked this up that I'd be reading about Nazi interrogations, the anarchist Emma Goldman, rescuing Jewish artists from Vichy France, and cultural politics during the Cold War. Quite a life.

There are two really illuminating things about this book: First, it provides a great travelogue of the avant-garde cultural scene in the 1920s and 1930s, which Peggy seemed to be acquainted with every crack and corner of; second, it gives a first-hand view of how that scene was distilled into the post-war art world of New York. Peggy had a crucial role in creating the love-it-or-hate-it art business we know today - in fact, by the mid-50s it had got a bit too rich even for her!

I have to say I didn't know much about Peggy Guggenheim before I read this book. I learned a lot about her and about the constellation of artists she patronized, encouraged, and helped raise to prominence. There's plenty of good gossip here, about Max Ernst (her second husband), Samuel Beckett (who she had a torrid affair with), Yves Tanguey, etc., but also some splendid cultural history. The appendix is almost worth the price of admission: Even by the standards of the time, I think, Peggy was paying pocket money for some of the 20th century's greatest works of art! Dearborn reprints some of the records from Peggy's gallery, and it's enough to make you drool!

It's possible to argue that Peggy was just in the right place at the right time, but Dearborn makes a good argument that she was a lot more than that. Very interesting and liberated woman who was misunderstood a lot in her time and even after her death, but who changed art history.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2004
I have read Mary Dearborn's books on Henry Miller and Norman Mailer. I was impressed with the scope of her research, her analysis of her subjects' psyches, and her ability to place her subjects in the popular and high culture of their times. Mistress of Modernism is this kind of work. Jackson Pollack's critics, Emma Goldman's friendship, Laurence Vail's superficially affable responses to life, Djuna Barnes' literary contacts, Peggy in Paris, and Peggy in Venice are all treated in this way. In choosing Peggy Guggenheim as a subject, Dearborn knew that a story with many dramatic moments was possible. She tells it in a way that is not only entertaining and surprizing, but in a way that truly memorializes her subject.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2009
The author recreates the ambiance of pre-WW 1 Europe, specially the Paris frequented by expatriate American writers, painters and poets. Always in a good-humoured way, but revealing extreme attention to details and preocupation with accuracy in every aspect, she gains the reader's respect and interest. A very good book by all standards. Lucien Castier
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2006
Peggy Guggenheim brought abstract expression to the forefront of the art world. Behind the scenes, Guggenheim led a torrid, Bohemian existence, unrestrained by middle class conventions. Mary V. Dearborn captures the essense of of Peggy against the back drop of the art she helped to promote.

Well written, easily readable, and thoroughly researched. Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim is a must read for anyone who loves art, or just loves to read a good biography.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2011
I didn't know very much about Peggy Guggenheim before picking this book up at the library, but I seen her character in a couple of biographical movies like "Pollock" and "Factory Girl". I wouldn't normally have respect for a "poor" rich heiress but the woman made something out of the life that she was given. She REALLY made an impact on the art world whether some want to admit it or not. Her collection was guided at first but Peggy became into her own and helped advance many important artist's careers. Very well written book!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 5, 2014
Not sure I am going to finish it. I wanted more information about the modernist and surrealistic art movements, less about the idiosyncrasies of the Peggy's friendships. The author has an unending regimen of name dropping. The book has a somewhat interesting historical perspective, but I wish it had less "he said-she said".
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 13, 2013
Sometimes in reading this book I try to imagine how on earth the author organized all this minutiae about a woman's life from so many sources of personal recounts of events and jaded observations to assemble this book. Yet this minutiae is what makes it fascinating. I feel like a sleazy voyeur into her crazy life.
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on July 4, 2015
I found this to be very interesting. I hadn't heard of her before. I always like books that I learn something new.
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