In the 1940s, the heiress fled New York and, with a makeshift gallery, became the star of Venice. But she was not the first woman to dazzle the city. As the Biennale opens, Judith Mackrell tells their story
In the summer of 1948, the Venice Art Biennale was back in business after the long and isolating years of war. It was a historic event, celebrating not only international peace but also the end of fascism in Italy, and among its showcased artists were several who had been banned as “degenerate” under Mussolini's rule. The main attraction, however, was not to be found in any of the national pavilions, but in the astonishingly wide-ranging collection of modern art exhibited by one woman, the American heiress Peggy Guggenheim.
As Peggy welcomed the Italian president to the opening of her collection, she had felt underdressed. She'd had to borrow some stockings from a friend and, unable to find a suitable hat, made do with a pair of huge, daisy-shaped Venetian earrings. But her collection had needed no formal window-dressing. Embracing European masters such as Picasso, Ernst and Dali, as well as young American contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock, it was a vivid register of the art movements of the previous three decades. The Italians, exiled from the avant garde for so long, found much of it a revelation, and some of it incomprehensible. An Alexander Calder mobile, made from broken glass and china, was almost thrown away as rubbish.