‘Woman’ paints portrait of Peggy Guggenheim

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

“Guggenheim” and “modern art” are synonymous in some minds. Woman Before A Glass is a play about modern art and a Guggenheim, but it is not the man for whom the Guggenheim Museum in New York is named. This play is about Guggenheim’s niece, modern art collector Peggy Guggenheim.

The one-woman play Woman Before A Glass is the current production in the smaller studio space by the Repertory Theater of St. Louis in Webster Groves. It runs through April 1.

ADVERTISEMENT
Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

Chutzpah is the word for Peggy Guggenheim, a collector of modern art and of modern artists. She was known for her bold and brassy personality as well as her appetites for art and the men that created the paintings she bought.

The play is highly entertaining and engrossing, by turns funny and tragic, even if you do not know who Peggy Guggenheim was. Peggy Guggenheim came from a wealthy Jewish American family but some people may be more familiar with her father, Benjamin Guggenheim, who gave up his seat on a life boat to go down with the Titanic or her grandfather, mining tycoon Meyer Guggenheim, than Peggy. Those with an interest in art are more likely to be familiar with her uncle, art patron Solomon Guggenheim for whom the New York Guggenheim Museum is named, although people with an interest in modern art should recognize her name.

The play is a tour de force by actress Glynis Bell, who charmed and moved the audience with her distinctive character.

The play runs 90 minutes, without an intermission, covering Peggy Guggenheim’s life from 1963 to 1968, in her Venice home on the Grand Canal, as she tries to decide what will become of her fabulous art collection, and faces personal heartbreaks. Bell creates a memorable stage character, flawed but fascinating and ultimately winning the audience’s sympathy. Decked out in couture and with ever-present cocktail and cigarette, Guggenheim reminisces about her life and talks about her art collection. She tells funny, sometimes bawdy stories, in surprisingly salty language, but there is sadness here too.

Peggy whines about her servant taking vacation and drops designer dresses on the floor but talks with self deprecating humor about her plain looks and with great affection about her family and, especially, her art and artists.

Among the memories she recounts is her beloved father Benjamin Guggenheim, whom, she tells us, someone one described as “the handsomest Jewish man in the world.”

Peggy recounts the devastating effect of his death on her and the close bond it forged between her and her older sister Bonita, in one of the most touching scenes of the play.

The play has four parts, and the Rep handles the changes of time and place with its usual creative style.

The sets are both simple and wonderfully imaginative, creating four perfect locations with the rearranging of curtains and backdrops, and the addition of a few perfect props. The right table, chair or phone creates the time — the sixties — and place — Venice in unerring fashion.

The costumes are perfect as well, elegant, colorful, and brash as the character herself.

Actress Glynis Bell crafts an intriguing “Mrs. Guggenheim,” as she liked to be called, and conveys her love of modern art with vibrancy.

Guggenheim collected her pieces based on her personal tastes, and she affectionately refers to her art collection as her children. She appears to have had good taste, for her collection is regarded as one of the world’s best, with works by the giants of Twentieth Century art, artists such as Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Man Ray, and Max Ernst, to whom she was briefly married.

Guggenheim married at least twice and had two children with her first husband, writer Laurence Vail.

While she is far fonder of her artist daughter than her son, and really has nothing good to say about her ex-husbands or her son-in-law, it is her other passions that dominate.

In her quest for a place for her art collection, the main focus of the play, she rejects her uncle’s Guggenheim Museum, due to a grudge with her Uncle Solomon’s secretary-mistress. During the late thirties, Peggy Guggenheim helped people, fellow Jews and artists, to escape the Nazis but when she tried to enlist her uncle’s aid, his secretary mistress, who was German, rejected her requests for money and sponsorships.

Peggy never forgot.

The play includes a chilling description of Peggy Guggenheim’s encounter with a Nazi officer in Paris, as the city fell and she prepared to flee with artist Max Ernst.

Some critics have noted that this play leaves out the most unflattering parts of Guggenheim’s life, like her disregard for others in satisfying her own sexual appetites.

Like a memoir, a biographic play is allowed to paint a sympathetic portrait, although sticking to the facts, not inventing them, is preferred.

In the end, the play must be evaluated as a theater piece, not as historical record, and as a piece of theater, Woman Before A Glass is enlightening and satisfying.

The Rep’s production and Glynis Bell’s tour-de-force performance make Peggy Guggenheim into an unforgettable character.

People may have found Peggy distasteful in real life, with her unrelenting sexual appetite and her opinionated nature, but it makes her a wonderful character for the stage.

Sign up for Your Morning Light