Sunday, 10 June 2018

An exhibition of an exhibition: 1948 La Biennale di Peggy Guggenheim

In 1948 Peggy Guggenheim’s collection was exhibited at the 24th Venice Biennale in the Pavilion of Greece. To mark the 70th anniversary of the exhibition, 1948 La Biennale di Peggy Guggenheim in the Project Rooms at the Guggenheim, Venice, revisits the career-defining Pavilion display; its origins, construction and curation. Billed as ‘an homage’, the exhibition does not attempt to further examine the artworks that featured in the original, but rather gives an inside look into the behind the scenes work that led to the first postwar display of a modern art collection in Italy following 20 years of dictatorial regime.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is a modern art museum located on the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro district of Venice. The 18th century former palace was Peggy Guggenheim’s home for thirty years, and now holds a rich collection of works by Italian Futurists and American Modernists, and is one of the most visited sites in Venice.


Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim, born in 1898 to the wealthy Guggenheim family and daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim who died aboard the Titanic, was a socialite and art collector with as rich an appetite for men and dogs as for building a world class collection of modern art. Her desire for collecting was not quelled during World War II, during which she aspired to collect a painting a day. Her 1948 exhibition, at the first Venice Biennale for six years, was notable both for being the first since the interruption caused by the war, and for its bold display of groundbreaking modern art. 1948 La Biennale di Peggy Guggenheim aims to cast an eye at this remarkable moment in time and to make sense of the eccentric Peggy Guggenheim’s singular vision.


Above the door entering the exhibition hangs a recreation of the triangular sign that originally hung above the porticoes of the Greek Pavilion in 1948. It reads ‘Collezione Peggy Guggenheim’ and the nostalgic echoes continue in the first of two modestly sized rooms, with a full wall covered with a blown up black and white photograph of one of the exhibition walls. In the centre of the room is a three dimensional model of the pavilion installation created by Ivan Simonato based on designs by Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa, who collaborated with the Biennale from 1948 to 1972.

The model provides instant orientation for the visitor, by making the exhibition tangible through its incredible detail, including the intricately recreated herringbone floor and inclusion of miniature sculptures, one of which (Alexander Calder’s Arc of Petals, 1941) visitors to the permanent collection will have already seen in person, and another of which hangs in the place it would have been positioned on the giant wall photograph.


In the second and final room of the exhibition, curator Gražina Subelytė makes use of archival material to give context to the 1948 display, using images from the exhibition and its installation, correspondence and newspaper cuttings. While the first room is an installation in itself, the second room visually outlines the exhibition’s creation.

An exhibition about an exhibition has potential to be indulgent, produced only with an audience of curators in mind. 1948 La Biennale di Peggy Guggenheim avoids this by the playful curation of the first room, which neatly sets the scene for an audience who is not expected to arrive with any foreknowledge. The miniature exhibition recreation serves as an anchor for the narrative flow, as all of the works in the first room are mirroring it in some way, while photographs in the second room reference it, and show the room in various states of construction, which the audience can locate on the model as they leave. 

While visually the audience is taken back to 1948, the exhibition perhaps lacks in giving sufficient wider context of the world that the Greek Pavilion exhibition took place in. Greece was in the midst of a bloody civil war, and fascist dictator and former Italian Prime Minister Mussolini had been dead for just three short years. The impact of Peggy Guggenheim’s diverse and forward-looking collection being a centrepiece of the Biennale that year is lessened when removed from its context. Further exploration of world events beyond the exhibition and its pavilion could have strengthened the narrative and provided further insight into Peggy’s character.

While this meta-exhibition sets out to pay tribute to a game-changing exhibition of modern art, like the rest of the museum 1948 La Biennale di Peggy Guggenheim feels more like an homage to Peggy Guggenheim herself.


The exhibition runs until November 25, 2018.

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