Peggy Guggenheim and the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni

Entrance ticket sales

After the traditional Venetian art at the Accademia, we will now look at modern art. A giant leap in time, but by now ‘our’ modern art is already more than a century old. You will find that the ideas about what standards art should meet have changed radically. Vasari, who wrote during the 16th century, spoke of good modern art as depicting ‘accurate depictions of existing persons’. The world of the painting had to correspond to our reality, with a primary demand being that it was the painter’s duty to perfect nature in his painting (also read Vasari quote).

The modern art that sprung up at the end of the 19th century did not use reality as its starting point, but emphasised the characteristic properties of the medium that the painter used, a flat surface and paint, where the suggestion of a peep-show by means of perspective was no longer required. Dali, Klee, Mondriaan and many others painted man’s inner world; his dreams and fears, a metaphysical ‘reality’ or colour as a ‘language’ onto itself that speaks for itself just like music, which is equally abstract. After 1945 the painter no longer needed a subject and, as it were, only painted paint. Nevertheless, you will see at the Peggy Guggenheim that painters like Picasso, but also the man that Peggy Guggenheim was briefly married to, Max Ernst, could not resist making the ‘reality’ of their works recognisable to some degree. To Picasso, one of the great among modern artists, the total abstraction of the Mondriaan on display in this museum is taboo.

Between the Galleria dell’Accademia and the Santa Maria della Salute lies the 18th century Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. This city palace was supposed to have four floors according to the original design, but was never completed beyond the ground floor and makes a strange impression, and is therefore popularly known as the ‘Palazzo Nonfinito’.

Palazzo Venier dei Leoni en het Peggy Guggenheim museum

In 1949 the palazzo was bought by the fabulously rich Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979). Her new residence had to be big enough to house her collection of art works, to the extent that they were located in Europe. Part of her collection had already been brought to Venice on the occasion of the first biennale after World War II, and put on display in the Greek pavilion. The works she collected cover nearly every artistic movement of the 20th century. Peggy lived in the palazzo on the Canal Grande until her death and had her ashes placed in the garden near the graves of her dogs. The collection comprises about 200 works, which she made accessible to the general public in 1951.

Graves of Peggy Guggenheim and her dogs
 Graves of Peggy Guggenheim and her dogs Peggy Guggenheimt Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni Venice

photo: parkviewbob

We start in the garden. It features many sculptures by modern sculptors such as Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, Raymond Duchamp-Villon and Max Ernst. It provides a beautiful illustration of how varied modern art really is.

  Sculptures and the garden    Peggy in the garden
Peggy Guggenheim sculptures and the garden Venice

photos: James & Vilija and bwucinich

The dining room [room 1]is home to works by, among others, Picasso and Braque. They developed Cubism in close collaboration. This is an important movement that sprung up in the first decade of the 20th century. Cubism exerted a strong influence on many artists including Léger whose work is also present in this room. I will explain why Picasso and Braque were so innovative.

Picasso once described Cubism as follows:

[…] in Cubism you don’t paint what you see, but what you know to be there.’ The artist, who, as mentioned before, was a painter as well as a sculptor, argued that an early Cubist painting could quite simply be cut into pieces on the basis of its coloured areas, and that those pieces could then be joined together to form a sculpture. […] ‘On one occasion he explained Cubism by pointing at the result of a steam roller driving over a chair.’

From: A. Erftemeijer, ‘Rembrandt’s monkey, Artists’ anecdotes from Classical Antiquity to the Present Day’, Becht, Haarlem, 2000 page 427

Even though Braque and Picasso with their Cubism radically broke with the past and the art you saw earlier at the Accademia, they held on to elements from reality. The Cubist works ‘The Clarinet’ by Braque from 1912 and ‘The Poet’ by Picasso from 1911 are next to each other so it’s easy to compare the two.

  Picasso ‘The poet’    Braque ‘The clarinet’
 PicassoThe poet Peggy Guggenheim Venice   Braque The clarinet Peggy Guggenheim Venice

If you look closely, you can recognise more than you would expect. This room also shows quite clearly how Léger was inspired by Cubism. The difference between Léger and Braque and Picasso is notable: whereas Picasso and Braque were primarily interested in shapes rather than colour, colour clearly plays an important role in Léger’s work.

Fernand Léger ‘Man in the city’  large size
Fernand Léger Man in the city Peggy Guggenheim Venice

Marcel Duchamp was also profoundly influenced by Cubism, but in a different way than Léger. His painting ‘Nude, Sad Young Man on a Train’ shows that Duchamp was primarily interested in movement. This would seem like an almost impossible task in a static medium like painting, but you will see that Duchamp succeeded.

Marcel Duchamp
‘Nude, Sad Young Man on a Train’ big size
Marcel Duchamp Nude, Sad Young Man on a Train Peggy Guggenheim Venice

In the Kitchen (room 2) hangs a work by the futurist Balla and the title of his work from 1913-1914, ‘Abstract speed and sound’, speaks volumes. Futurism is an art movement that in 1909 published a manifesto in the French newspaper Le Figaro in which it stated the following:

Youtube futurism Khan Academy (11.25 minutes)

‘“We intend to sing the love of danger,
the habit of energy and fearlessness.
Courage, audacity, and revolt will be
essential elements of our poetry.
We affirm that the world’s magnificence
has been enriched by a new beauty:
the beauty of speed. A racing car
whose hood is adorned with great pipes,
like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring
car that seems to ride on grapeshot
is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

 Giacomo Balla ‘Abstract speed and sound’
 Giacomo Balla Abstract speed and sound Guggenheim Venice

We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene.
We will sing of great crowds excited by work,
by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multi-coloured,
polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals …”

From: Le Figaro, 20 February 1909

Movement, dynamic, sound, the modern day, cars, planes and yes, even war was glorified. It is no surprise that many Italian futurists sympathised with the fascist Mussolini. We will meet a fair number of painters from this movement in this museum, such as Severini, Boccioni and Carrà.

Severini  ‘Blue Dancer’
Severini Blue Dancer Peggy Guggenheim Venice

The drawing room (room 3) has works by Kandinsky. This artist was one of the first to paint completely abstract works. The painting, ‘Landscape with Red Stains, No.2’, comes very close to complete abstraction.

Kandinsky Landschap met rode vlekken Peggy Guggenheim Venetië

There are still some recognisable elements from reality, but the first impression is one of strong abstraction. In his article from 1912, ‘The abstract in Art’ he talks about his accidental discovery of the power of abstract painting in 1908:

‘I came home immersed in thought – I had been drawing outside – when I, as I opened the door of my studio, came eye to eye with a painting of incredible loveliness. I was rooted to the spot. The painting had no subject whatsoever, referred to no existing object and consisted only of clear colour stains. When I finally approached, I saw what it really was – my own painting, standing on the easel on its side. I then understood one thing: my paintings could manage perfectly without that objectivity, these images of objects, which in fact only diminished them.’

Quoted from: R. Hughes, ‘The Shock of the New’, Veen, Utrecht, 1981 page. 301.

While in Cubism reality is still always recognisable in some shape or form, it has completely vanished from Kandinsky’s work. In this drawing room we will encounter other painters that painted abstract works quite early on, such as the Dutchmen Mondriaan and Theo van Doesburg. It may surprise you to know how Mondriaan felt about his abstract works, such as for instance ‘No Title’ (oval composition) from 1914 or ‘Composition’ from 1938. Just like Kandinsky, to Mondriaan abstraction did not imply a work without content consisting only of beautiful colours or lines.

Mondriaan ‘Oval composition’
Mondriaan oval composition Peggy Guggenheim Venice

In the library (room 4) you will encounter another important movement: Surrealism. One of the most important trailblazers of Surrealism was the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. His style is often labelled magical realism. We will discuss his painting from 1913, ‘The Red tower’, and explain the link between this work and Surrealism. This room is home to surrealist paintings by, among others, Max Ernst, Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy. Surrealism assumes a deeper reality hidden behind the visible world. The dream plays an important role. In dreams, the uncensored truth reveals itself. There is a reason why Sigmund Freud and his theories had great influence on Surrealist art. It is this dream world that Chirico created in his painting that you can see at the Guggenheim.

Giorgio de Chirico ‘Red  Tower’

In room seven we will look at a painting by Salvador Dali. He was the Surrealist who was most directly influenced by Freud. Dali, together with Stefan Zweig and Edward James, paid a visit to Freud, who was in London at the time. Dali wanted to present the famous doctor from Vienna with a magazine. Dali wrote the following about the visit:

‘Freud kept staring at me, without paying any attention to what I was showing him. While he kept observing me, as if he wanted to enter my psychological reality with his entire being, he shouted at Stefan Zweig: I have never seen such a perfect prototype of the Spaniard, what a fanatic! Dali’s visit allegedly prompted Freud to make the following statement about the surrealists: ‘One hundred percent fools (or rather 95 percent, just like with alcohol)’.

From: A. Erftemeijer, ‘Rembrandt’s monkey, Artists’ anecdotes from Classical Antiquity to the Present Day’, Becht, Haarlem, 2000 page 453

Salvador Dali ‘The Birth of Liquid Desires’ 
Salvador Dali The Birth of Liquid Desires Peggy Guggenheim Venice

The western corridor (floor plan 5) features works by the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Dadaism preached anti or nonsensical art. This art form could be very provocative. For his Merz series Schwitters used all kinds of objects that he retrieved from the garbage and used them to make a collage in his paintings. Schwitters called all his paintings Merz. A fragment from a sentence he glued onto a painting (collage) included part of the name Kommerz-und Privatbank. We will see that the way Schwitters constructed his Merz paintings is closely related to Cubism.

In the big room (room 7) we will encounter works from Surrealism and Magical Realism. We will take a closer look at works by Max Ernst and the Belgian Magritte. Ernst married Peggy in 1942, but the marriage did not last very long. The painting ‘Attirement of the bride (la toilette de la mariée)’, which was painted two years prior to the marriage, was typical of Freud’s influence on Surrealism.

Max Ernst ‘Attirement of the bride’
(la toilette de la mariée)
   Magritte ‘Empire of Light’
(L’Empire des lumières)

The guest room and Peggy’s private room (rooms 9 and 10) are home to works from an art movement that sprung up in the US after World War II: so-called abstract expressionism, also known as the New York School. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky but also the originally Dutch artists Willem de Kooning painted in an abstract expressionist style. They wanted their paintings to tell a story. In this respect they were by no means abstract and there is no break with the past. Jackson Pollock used an unusual painting technique. He laid his canvases, some of them quite big, out on the floor and dripped or threw paint onto the canvas with wild movements of his brush. He often used a type of colander that he let the paint drip out of. He was nicknamed Jack the Dripper for a reason. We will take a closer look at his paintings with titles such as ‘Enchanted Forest’, ‘Alcherny’ and ‘Circumcision’. Pollock explained his technique as follows:

‘On the floor, he said, I feel more at ease, more involved, more part of my work, because now I can walk around my painting, approach it from four directions and even quite literally be inside the painting.

Youtube (3.45 minutes)

It is the method of the Native American sand painters out West – who create ritual figures by letting coloured sand run out from between their fingers, only to destroy them soon after.’

From Robert Hughes, ‘The Shock of the New’, Veen, Utrecht, 1981 page 313.

Pollock ‘Enchanted Forest’

The abstract expressionists were anything but a cheerful crowd. The movement sprung up in the aftermath of the horrors of World War II, many artists of this movement had a Jewish background. Furthermore, they were strongly influenced by existentialism. Pollock committed suicide and Rothko also came to a sad end.

We will next visit the room that houses the famous Mattioli collection. This room has only paintings by Italian artists, primarily futurists, but also famous artists like Modigliani and Morandi.

Finally, we will visit the terrace facing the Canal Grande, which offers a beautiful view. Just in front of the terrace is a bronze statue by Marini. This Italian sculptor was born in Pistoia, where more of his works are on display. He studied at the Florence art academy and subsequently taught in Monza and at the famous Brera art academy in Milan. Marini is famous for his robust and primitive bronze sculptures, often variations on the horse-and-rider theme, which express various moods or experiences: melancholy, subdued or exuberant. The rider on this horse is clearly in an erotic mood.

Marino Marini ‘The Angel of the City’ large size
Peggy Guggenheimt Palazzo Vernier dei Leoni Venice Marino Marini

Standing on the terrace, you can see the famous Palazzo by Jacopo Sansovino – the Ca’Corner della Grande as it is often called – across the canal. This palazzo had a profound influence on other palazzi, as you have already learned in class. I will briefly explain the importance of this palazzo using an A3-sized sheet of paper. (Click here for the text comparing the Ca’Corner with the Ca’Rezzonico)

We walk from the Guggenheim to the Campo S. Margherita. This is a large square by Venetian standards, with many outdoor cafes, shops and restaurants. This is a nice place to while away some time.

Campo S. Margherita
Campo S. Margherita Venice


Rio dei Frari and the Frari church

We continue north in the direction of the Campo dei Frari, home to a Gothic Franciscan church famous for its many art treasures. There is a good website available about this famous church.

Click here for the continuation of day 2