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The Life and Art of Pegeen Guggenheim: Background information when reading Costalegre

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Costalegre

by Courtney Maum

Costalegre by Courtney Maum X
Costalegre by Courtney Maum
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2019, 240 pages

    Paperback:
    Jul 2020, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Dean Muscat
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About this Book

The Life and Art of Pegeen Guggenheim

This article relates to Costalegre

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Black and white pictures of Pegeen Guggenheim painting and posing at an art exhibitionCostalegre's main protagonist Lara Calaway is based on real-life artist Pegeen Vail Guggenheim (1925-1967), daughter of wealthy New York art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979). In her afterword, author Courtney Maum leaves a dedication to the not widely known artist: "Pegeen: Your story wasn't told much. I hope you forgive me for giving it a try." Given the notoriety of her mother, her illustrious peers as well as her notable body of work, it's strange that Pegeen is little more than a footnote in the world of modern art.

Born in 1925 in Switzerland, Pegeen was Peggy's second child with her first husband Laurence Vail. She spent much of her childhood living between France and England, and her mother was rarely around. However in 1941, as World War II raged on, Peggy and her new husband, the famous surrealist painter Max Ernst, left Europe to set up home in the United States.

By many accounts Peggy loved her daughter, but she was often absent and the two shared a tempestuous relationship, arguing often. Pegeen began suffering from bouts of severe depression during her adolescent years, which may have been caused by her unstable childhood and the lack of parental attention.

Having been surrounded by Surrealist painters from a young age, Pegeen began dabbling in art in her teens. She quickly developed a unique style of her own, combining elements of surrealism and naïve art. The latter is usually defined as visual art created by artists who lack formal training.

InIn her paintings, Pegeen typically depicts doll-like figures, representing couples and families in affectionate moments (click the image to the right to see a larger version of her painting "In the Park"). Perhaps the recurring theme was Pegeen's way of making up for her own tumultuous youth. But there is also a sense of isolation and sadness juxtaposed against the bright, almost carnivalesque colors and settings. The characters themselves are often identifiable as Pegeen herself, her mother, her two husbands (French painter Jean Hélion and the English painter Ralph Rumney) and her children.

Unlike fictional mother Leonora in Costalegre, Peggy was proud and supportive of her daughter's work. She often displayed Pegeen's art in her very own Art of This Century gallery in Manhattan. Pegeen's work was also exhibited across Europe and the U.S., where it was shown alongside pieces by Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo, among others.

Tragically, Pegeen continued to suffer from depression her entire life. She died on March 1st 1967, aged 41, having overdosed on medication in her Paris apartment. While the circumstances remain unclear, her mother never accepted her death as a suicide.

Pegeen Guggenheim and "In the Park" (1953) by Pegeen Guggenheim, courtesy of An Exploration of Ideas

Filed under Music and the Arts

Article by Dean Muscat

This "beyond the book article" relates to Costalegre. It originally ran in July 2019 and has been updated for the July 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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