Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim didn’t paint. Nor did she demonstrate much ability in terms of drawing, sculpting, metalworking or glassblowing.
Where the eccentric American heiress truly excelled was collecting — amassing art, friends and lovers with equal alacrity.
“She had a lot of needs and desires that she was filling along the way, and art did that for her,” said Jaide Whitman, who stars as Guggenheim in the new play “The Collection.” “She didn’t have much talent of her own, but surrounded herself with people with ideas and people with creativity.”
Written and directed by Cal Poly theater professor Alvin “Al” Schnupp, “The Collection” explores Guggenheim’s remarkable life and legacy through a series of fictionalized vignettes based on real events paired with selections from her vast and varied art collection. The play premieres this week with performances at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo and Studios on the Park in Paso Robles before going on tour in Carmel, Fresno, Ojai, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.
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The daughter of businessman Benjamin Guggenheim and the niece of mining magnate, art collector and philanthropist Solomon Guggenheim, whose name graces museums in New York City and Bilbao, Spain, Peggy Guggenheim built her own treasure trove using the fortune she inherited from her father, who died on the RMS Titanic in 1912.
“Collecting art for her was (about) supporting the painters … It was not about an investment,” Schnupp explained, noting that Guggenheim befriended some of the biggest names in modern art and tirelessly championed their careers.
Her eponymous collection, acquired between 1938 and 1965, features works by Alexander Calder, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, among others; it’s housed in her former home in Venice, Italy.
According to Schnupp, Guggenheim’s private life was just as fascinating as her professional exploits.
In addition to marriages to Dada sculptor Lawrence Vail and painter Max Ernst, she had affairs with a long string of lovers, including playwright Samuel Beckett and writer and war hero John Ferrar Holms.
“She had such a rich, interesting, contradictory life,” Schnupp said of Guggenheim, describing the socialite as “generous and tight-fisted, opinionated and open to suggestions, forgiving and a bearer of grudges.” “That’s the spectrum she vibrated on.”
“The Collection” spans more than six decades, following Guggenheim from age 14 to age 76. While Whitman portrays Guggenheim for the entire play, three other actors — Cal Poly student Daniel Cook and Cal Poly graduates Ryan Austin and Ellen Eves — play an assortment of real-life figures.
Cal Poly associate professor Thomas John Bernard designed the costumes. Cal Poly student Antonio Mata is stage manager and technical assistant.
According to Whitman, “The Collection” takes audiences on a journey through Guggenheim’s life, delving into “all her eccentricities and her loves and joys and hates.”
“It’s such a beautiful script he (Schnupp) put together,” Whitman said, describing it as “really tender” and “really authentic.” “You can tell he worked really hard on it and cared a lot about it.”
An award-winning playwright and visual artist whose plays include “CrossRoads,” “Antigone and Letters to Soldiers Lost” and “Zero to Infinity,” Schnupp previously tackled the art world in “Censored: The Story of Käthe Kollwitz” about the German artist and activist whose work was deemed “degenerate” by the Nazis. When Schnupp decided to write another play about a female artist, he asked his friends for suggestions.
“I only needed to read a little bit about Peggy Guggenheim (before) I thought, ‘Here’s the one,’” he said.
There was so much about Guggenheim that piqued Schnupp’s interest, in fact, that he was unsure at first as to how to tell her story.
“I said, ‘I can’t write a cause-and-effect … play about her life,’” he recalled.
Instead, inspired by a video montage in the movie “Chef,” he decided to focus on the formative moments in Guggenheim’s journey — creating subtle bridges from one moment to the next.
To demonstrate the psychological bonds between Guggenheim and her beloved art, Schnupp paired the 34 scenes with 40 pieces from her collection. Rather than use photos of the artworks, he painstakingly recreated the paintings and sculptures himself over the course of two years.
“That’s the way to really get inside of a painting,” explained Schnupp, who also designed “The Collection’s” innovative set, a free-standing triptych with pivoting panels. “In some ways, they’re more interpretations than exact copies. There’s a lot more life, a lot more depth of movement when there’s acrylic on canvas.”
Although the events of “The Collection” are presented in sequential order, the artworks do not follow the same chronological pattern.
A few have literal connections to the scenes they’re paired with, while others serve to highlight Guggenheim’s emotional and mental state. For instance, the stormy “Image of Time (Barricade)” by Emilio Vedora reflects her grief and rage when she learns of the death of a loved one.
Some of the artworks are even interactive.
At one point, Guggenheim opens up a hidden door in Theo van Doesburg’s geometric “Composition,” which features rigid blocks of brown and cream, to reveal a mirror and makeup bag — and proceeds to touch up her lipstick.
In another scene, the socialite uses a miniature version of Max Ernst’s dark, demonic “Zoomorphic Couple” to wrap the manuscript of her husband’s autobiographical novel “Murder! Murder!”
“At different points, the artwork plays its own character in the show,” Whitman said. “It just creates all these layers to the story.”
Guggenheim’s complex relationship with art and those who create it — as patron, protector, muse — is at the core of every scene of “The Collection.”
“It’s quite embarrassing, at the age of 40, not to have a sense of purpose, not to have discovered my gift,” the heiress laments to famed French artist Marcel Duchamp in one scene. Having access to her father’s fortune, she feels, is “quite a shallow attribute compared to artistic talent.”
“Your gift is not having the money,” Duchamp replies soothingly. “Your gift … is knowing how to use it.”