Anyone who’s ever picked up a travel guide to Venice will at least have heard of Peggy Guggenheim through the art gallery named after her on the city’s Grand Canal. The gallery, which contains works by Picasso and Magritte, amongst other giants of modern art, and is one of the most visited attractions in Venice. Yet Guggenheim is almost as famous for her love life as her cultural patronage; she allegedly slept with 1000 men. Amongst her more famous liaisons include the playwright Samuel Beckett and a marriage to the painter Max Ernst, whom she said she loved ‘because he’s so beautiful and because he’s so famous’.
Now, Guggenheim’s blistering charm is being brought to life by Broadway actress Judy Rosenblatt in the UK premiere of Lanie Robertson’s 2005 play Woman Before A Glass. Rosenblatt starred in the 2011 New York revival of Robertson’s play: ‘she got into my bones. She copes with life by making jokes – I do too. I think that characteristic is one I identify with through my Jewish heritage and my family, so I felt right at home with her’.
Despite her familiarity with Guggenheim, Rosenblatt’s relationship with the woman, and the play, has changed since that New York outing. ‘This time the arc of the play, and Peggy’s journey in it, is clearer. [In 2011] I was getting radiation for breast cancer, and I was producing the play myself. I was working not only on the part, but on finding the theatre, finding a PR person, finding a set designer, a stage manager and lighting designer. [Now] I have more time to devote to it exclusively.’ She added, ‘Each time I work on something with Austin [Pendleton, director], we’re both at a different place in our lives so the moment is different and, the result is different.’
Guggenheim died in 1979, but, as well as finding new life on stage, a documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict premiered in 2015 and she is widely considered to be one of the most influential figures on the 20th century art scene. Guggenheim herself explained her eventually expert position on art as her capacity for listening, taking advice from experts including the art historian Herbert Read and artist Marcel Duchamp. ‘She was attracted to artists and thinkers and musicians and often had a razor sharp instinct for greatness,’ Rosenblatt comments. This doesn’t mean she didn’t sometimes get it wrong; ‘Her first response to Jackson Pollock was that he lacked discipline and Duchamp, her primary adviser, agreed with her. It was Piet Mondrian who studied one of Pollock’s first canvases and saw his genius. Peggy was prepared to be convinced and it was her patronage of Pollock which helped him to devote his time to painting. She was able to contribute to his subsequent emergence as one of the greatest painters of the first half of the twentieth century.’
Rosenblatt is an experienced actress, but performing alone on stage as a real – and famous – figure comes with a certain pressure to be true to Guggenheim as a woman as much as a character. ‘I have a responsibility to Peggy, but I also have a responsibility to the playwright. My job is to let Peggy live through the play using my instrument. I can’t use hers; I can only use mine. I don’t want to copy her or imitate her. But I do wonder what she would think if she were to see the production. All I hope is that there would be times she could connect with what I’m doing and that some of the emotion would relate to her own reality and feel familiar.’
As well as her sense of humour, Rosenblatt shares Guggenheim’s appreciation of art – another thing that the actress attributes to her heritage. ‘I come from a family of painters. My grandfather was a painter and sculptor, my mother was a painter, my sister is a painter and I majored in Painting at Cornell University. My visual sense is very strong and is something for which I’m always grateful to my family – those I knew and those I didn’t. I love art. It makes me feel comfortable, and looking at great art and beauty is a real source of pleasure to me.
‘I grew up in a decade that was quite restrictive which I rebelled against as she did. I’m not proud to admit it but her self-involvement also feels familiar’, she adds. She also attributes some of this connection to the script. ‘Lanie [Robertson] has written her voice in a way that feels like my own. “Haunted by beauty” is an expression Peggy uses in the last part of the play; she was and I am.’
Woman Before A Glass is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until February 3rd. For more information and to book tickets, visit www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/show/woman-before-a-glass/