Thursday, April 12, 2012
The story of Pegeen Guggenheim Vail is like something out of a movie, and her work is something else all together. I have never been one to put facts before the experience of the work. We might have a cart full of interesting life story here, but it is the horse where my real interest lies, and the horse in this instance is not the person, but the work. And this work might be as challenging to write about as any work that I have ever written about before.
I haven't seen or read anything serious written about Pegeen's paintings(I am going to refer to Pegeen Guggenheim Vail as Pegeen because it is just easier, and frankly, nicer).
There are probably some very good reasons why not much has been written about her. Lots of them. Her mother was none other than Peggy Guggenheim, one of the most powerful and influential people in the art world. And Pegeen's work was nothing like anything that that powerful art world had in it. Yes, she was a serious painter in that she took her painting seriously. I don't know how or if anyone else besides her mother could have taken the work that seriously. It must have seemed like work only a mother could love. But the work didn't seem serious by its very nature. It was fun and childlike. Defenseless, like a little bird. And it looked like street art! Not to knock street art; art is free, it goes anywhere it wants, and can be just as likely found on the street as in a museum. I’m sure Pegeen believed that too.
Pegeen was said to be self-taught, as if anyone who grew up around as much art as she had could ever be considered self-taught. How artists really learn is a subject for another day, but any artist worth their salt, with even an ounce of authenticity, is of course self-taught, in that being an artist requires having a spirit of one's own, and you can't teach that(or art for that matter). So yes, of course she was self-taught; what she had was good company, and one can learn a lot from that!
Which gets me to what is so fascinating about these paintings. They demonstrate no training! No skill! No measurable degree of "good" painting. The stuff you can teach! They look like bad painting! Like illustrations for the Little Prince! They look like something you would find for sale in Paris along the Seine!
What does that make them? Remarkably pure! Pure of spirit, and this is rare in art. It is also prized! What does this mean; what does pure mean? Well if art is the single voice, the voice of one person in this world, the voice of the individual, the individual spirit, then pure means a clean vision, an untutored, unmaligned, untrampled, unadulterated, untrained and unmessed with vision of life. Pure! Outsider art is fussed over for just this reason. No academic makeover. Not even any handholding. Not the careful development of promise and talent. Just someone alone with their passion.
This work has been called Naive Painting. As though the work of the daughter of Peggy Guggenheim could have been naive. Well maybe it was. Maybe there was all of mother Peggy's world class art by all of these powerful artists, and then there was just Pegeen. Maybe more than maybe! So then what is really going on with this work!
Describing it won't get the job done. Yes, it is bright. Colorful. Figurative in a doll-like way. Flat. Linear. Decorative. Charming. Part carnival, part circus. Personal. Narrative. Tableau. Illustrative. Autobiographical. What serious art people call sentimental. None of that really puts a finger on it.
The work stands there. It gives a brave smile. It says here I am. This is my life. This is me, dancing as fast as I can. This is me making the best of things. This is me giving it everything I've got! This is me in a pretty dress! With a pretty parasol. With a pretty husband. With a pretty family. With a pretty life. This is what matters to me. This is what I love. This is the way I think of myself. This is the way I want you to think of me. This is the way I want to be remembered. This is my brave face! This is me dressed up and stripped naked at the same time! It says I am happy, and that being happy is what matters. It says that I am going to do everything I can to be happy, and to make everyone around me happy. Desperately happy. This is my life. This is my life on parade! This is what matters! Love. Loving the people you love. Love with flowers and music and candles and art and funny hats and shoes and parasols! This is it! This is my gift to you! Now live!
But there is more! The work might actually be deceptively complicated. Surprise! It has roots going back to cave painting. Back to the Egyptians. Back to the Etruscans. Back to the Middle Ages. Look at these paintings! They are modern day documents of where life has been. Mid-Twentieth Century Paris! Venice! The South of France! How easy it is to overlook this! In the drama of Modernism we can't see or hear Pegeen's drama. It gets drowned out by all of the grandiosity of raging, overcompensating male Modernist need, by a lot of self-important men with self-important ideas and self-important agendas.
Peggy Guggenheim showed her daughter's work. She must have recognized something significant about it. Something you couldn't put a finger on. The work is haunting in the way that aboriginal art, medieval art, children's art, haunts us. Something about sincerity, about devotion to what matters. Or an utter lack of artifice! Or contrivance! Or calculation. Or pretense! Or filter! Or filtering! That is why the work is so difficult to write about: sincerity. Sincerity is too damn difficult in this world! What do you do with it? Sincerity. Vulnerability. Innocence. We destroy these things! In so many ways this work is that simple, it is what you see is what you get. And it turns out, sadly, that in the end it is not Pegeen Guggenheim Vail's work that is so complicated or difficult after all, but us.
Addison Parks, Spring Hill
Pegeen Guggeheim Vail was born in 1925 in Ouchy, Switzerland, the daughter of Peggy Guggenheim and Laurence Vail. She was married twice and had four sons. She died in Paris in 1967 after an overdose of pills.
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