With “Peggy Guggenheim and the Dream of Happiness”, Sophie Villard has written a novel about one of the most dazzling and important women of the twentieth century to the art world. In an interview with Reinhard Oldeweme, the author explains why her protagonist was more than just a rebellious heir and how, in difficult times, she managed to ensure the survival of many important artists of that time, far beyond its own good.
Free Press: Was there a key moment for you when you were sure you wanted to tell the story of this amazing woman?
Sophie Villard: When I saw her incredible collection in Peggy Guggenheim’s former home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal in Venice: Miró, Kandinsky, Dalí, Giacometti, Brancusi – paintings and sculptures that everyone world knows today and are worth millions. In their day, they were considered scandalous if not insignificant. I wanted to know who this woman was, who collected this treasure with sure feeling and then so skillfully saved it from destruction by the Nazis.
As a result, the importance of Peggy Guggenheim to the history of contemporary art in the 20th century is immense.
She is a central and dazzling figure of modern art, without her our world would be poorer in terms of many important works of art.
But your life’s work went beyond that, do you see in your novel?
His greatest achievement is certainly to have allowed people to flee Europe by providing financial support to the Emergency Relief Committee (ERC) in Marseille. The ERC legally and illegally obtained visas and ship passages for the United States. Marc Chagall, Heinrich and Golo Mann, the Werfels and the Feuchtwangers fled into exile thanks to this organization. In my novel, Peggy visits the legendary Villa Air-Bel, which served as a secret waiting point for these refugees until their departure.
They are limited to the years 1937 to 1942. Why don’t you tell your whole life?
These are the first years for Peggy. She was middle-aged after her first marriage and set out to revolutionize the art world. Against the resistance of the family – especially that of Uncle Salomon, who would later found the now famous Guggenheim Museum in New York. She wasn’t irritated by scoffers, traditionalists, and people who said they were throwing their money out the window. It was also around this time that she met her most interesting men: Samuel Beckett and Max Ernst.
You talk to the family. In the presentation text of the novel, it is about a “rebellious heiress”. What role has your background played in your career?
She comes from a Jewish family on the Upper East Side in New York. Her father died in the sinking of the Titanic, a trauma that marked her all her life. Her mother had planned an existence for Peggy as a wife who had a regular hatter and attended charity dinners. But it was too boring for her, so she fled to Europe.
Was she homeless, pushed, how did she become a citizen of the world?
I think she was following her heart all the time. It wasn’t until she had to flee as a Jew during World War II that she returned to her homeland of New York for a short time. And we quickly discover remarkable young American painters such as Jackson Pollock.
Peggy Guggenheim is considered a strong and confident woman, what are her particularities?
Interestingly, she was considered naive by some of her companions because they believed that she could be exploited by artists and that she was not an intellectual. But I am of the opinion that she has come through life with clarity and wisdom. In any case, clearer and smarter than many others who talked a lot but didn’t do anything.
Everyone involved has really lived. What part of fiction is there in what they live and go through?
I stayed as close as possible to the events, but of course a novel must be told like a novel. Peggy’s autobiography “I’ve Lived It All” has helped me a lot, as it gives direct insight into her feelings about events and people.
Peggy Guggenheim dreams of her happiness, does she associate it only with art or does the novel also speak of one or even of several great loves?
The stormy affair with Samuel Beckett in Paris and the flight into exile and subsequent marriage to Max Ernst brought him happiness and pain. Art, on the other hand, was his constant, passionate love for life.
In your novel, war and persecution are omnipresent, but never really the subject. They enter it in a more marginal way, they are like a framework for the intrigue. Why did you choose this path?
I tell the novel from the point of view of the American Peggy in Paris. Even though she is Jewish, she knows her passport protects her. She visits cafes, notices more and more German refugees, is offered paintings by artist friends who need currency to leave Europe. She buys the paintings, but she doesn’t want to admit that her life, as she loves it, doesn’t work anymore either. It was not until the Germans arrived in June 1940 that she realized that she had to leave Paris.
Has Peggy Guggenheim’s life ever been filmed? Wouldn’t your novel make a wonderful basis for a screenplay?
There is still no film adaptation and I am very happy that a screenwriter has acquired the rights and is currently developing a screenplay. It will also be translated into three languages.
Are there actually any documentary film recordings and photos of Peggy Guggenheim that you may have inspired while writing the novel?
Lisa Vreeland’s documentary “Art Addict / Peggy Guggenheim – a life for art” is a montage of Peggy Guggenheim’s last interview with the most beautiful photos and clips of her life.
If readers of your novel put the book aside after the last page but want to learn more about Peggy Guggenheim, what advice can you give them?
Go to Venice at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni and explore the “Peggy Guggenheim Collection” yourself! For those who prefer to travel in a reading chair, I recommend Mary Dearborn’s biography “I have no regrets!”.
If you write under a pseudonym, you don’t have to reveal the reason or even your real name, but what are readers allowed to know about Sophie Villard?
I am Saxon by choice and live with my family near Dresden. I really appreciate that we have such a rich local cultural scene with the Chemnitz and Dresden art collections and the Leipzig school. In my novels, I talk about women whose decisions still affect us today and from whom we can learn to live our dreams.
Her next novel is already finished and is also due out on Penguin-Verlag on September 13. Is she still a strong and extraordinary woman? Can you tell us something?
It is the story of the great love of the Little Prince – the painter Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, wife of the writer and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. With these two, my novel “Madame Exupéry et les étoiles du ciel” takes me on an eventful flight through the marriage of artists from Paris to Casablanca, from coffee plantations in Central America to exile in New York – and we are close when “The Little Prince” rises. (old)