Peggy and Pevs­ner: sex and sen­si­bil­ity

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

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 imag- es, 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…” Mon­ica Bohm Duchen’s books in­clude Art and the Sec­ond World War

An ir­rev­er­ent orig­i­nal: Pevs­ner at the mi­cro­phone

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