01/26/16

Do You Want Sex Or Düsseldorf?

Prostitutka, Boris Grigoriev, 1917.

Prostitutka, Boris Grigoriev, 1917.

The World Happiness Report is out! In its third survey since 2012, the United Nations reveals the happiest places on earth. Or so they say, reports John Kay in, “Why ‘happy’ is boring.”

I spotted Kay’s piece in the Financial Times Weekend last September, just as I was escaping New York City for three months in England. According to the UN, I had the wrong country. The winner was Switzerland. (We’re getting to Düsseldorf, intrepid globetrotters, restrain yourselves!)

As Kay assesses the findings, “Switzerland is rich, temperate and has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. … You feel completely safe in the streets. And yes, the trains run on time.”

“You can have that, I have plenty.” Heidi, Jessie Wilcox Smith illus.

“You can have that, I have plenty.” Heidi, Jessie Wilcox Smith illus.

Security, consistency, and the goodness of nature. That would be enough to seduce any sentient being, right? Isn’t this why so many retirees flock to golf courses? Or babysit grandchildren? But Kay has another take on the Alpine paradise: “Boring.”

Kay’s recent book, Other People’s Money was named 2015 Book of the Year by the Economist, Bloomberg and the FT. In 2014, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) “for services to economics.” But what does a numbs and figs guy know about happiness? Everybody knows money can’t buy it, even though, like sex, we’d still prefer to have as much of it as possible.

Dusseldorf-Benrath, M Stephan.

Dusseldorf-Benrath, M Stephan.

This brings us to Düsseldorf. It comes up sixth in a study compiled by benefits consultants Mercer, and here Kay shows he can look beyond a spreadsheet. “There may be a surer way to end a promising relationship than to propose a romantic weekend in Düsseldorf,” he offers, “but it is hard to imagine one.”

Now we’re getting somewhere, Mr. Kay, or may I call you Johnnie? Do we want Düsseldorf or romance? Rational or sensational? Security or ecstasy? Are we after a livable life or a lived one?

Welcome to Peggy's place.

Welcome to Peggy’s place.

Casting aside polls for people, I invite you to Peggy Guggenheim’s eighteenth century Palazzo Venier in Venice, where her louche, eccentric spirit still lurks among one of the world’s most audacious art collections.

Was she a quirky socialite who slummed with creative types? A serious art connoisseur? A bag lady with a trust fund? A flighty romantic who chased from one lover’s bed to the next?

Peggy’s indomitable originality has always intrigued me, so I recently headed for the Film Society of Lincoln Center to see Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.

I Know, Godromil, Venezia Biennale d’art 2007.

I Know, Godromil, Venezia Biennale d’art 2007.

If you are tempted to assign Peggy the role of Venetian vixen who flaunted her family fortune to play patron and pussy cat with the art crowd, prepare for disappointment.

The film, centered around a taped interview unearthed from a basement cache of books, brings the private Peggy out of her public persona with sympathetic detachment. The woman we see and hear suffered the death of her adored father when she fourteen (on the Titanic). Her certifiably narcissistic mother was no consolation. One of the “poor” Guggenheim’s, she endured the condescension of her posh and supercilious relatives, who disdained her taste in art.

Louise Nevelson and Neith.

Louise Nevelson and Neith.

She had an eye and she would follow her instincts. A young Lucien Freud made his first appearance in a children’s exhibition at her London gallery. In 1943, she organized the first show devoted exclusively to women that included Louise Nevelson and Frida Kahlo.

She was instrumental in the careers of Kandinsky and Motherwell. Not only did she take a chance on the work of undiscovered artists, she provided a stipend for the struggling Jackson Pollock so he could pursue his muse unfettered by the natty demands of survival.

During the war, she staged a brilliant scrimmage to prevent the German’s from appropriating her collection. She later helped put the Venice Biennale on the map. All of this while dealing with love, loss, and a botched nose job.

Peggy’s Palazzo, Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. Fondation Peggy Guggenheim "Torre: a Cor-Ten steel tower, with ogival windows, tracery and turrets in the International Gothic style, on the terrace of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, overlooking the Grand Canal " http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/

Peggy’s Palazzo, Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.

But then the film asks the ultimate question: Did it make her happy?

Alas, Peggy never found lasting love. (To the question, how many husbands had she had, she was said to reply, “mine or other people’s?”) It’s been suggested that she was looking for too much love on all the wrong mattresses. That her serial romps were a desperate attempt to fill the vacuum left by childhood abandonment.

When the film’s director was asked in a Vanity Fair interview whether Peggy had pursued art as a safe harbor from the personal tragedy in her life, Vreeland responded, “[Peggy] identified with the art and the artists and found solace in all of it.”

Bill at the London Parliament,1995.

Bill at the London Parliament,1995.

A man’s happiness is seldom offered as a criterion of his accomplishments. His sexuality rarely shows up on the scorecard of a fulfilled life. While some may debate the merits of the Clinton presidency, few feel it necessary to analyze whether the skirt-chasing Bill was a happy guy. It is his long-suffering wife that we tsk at for putting up with his antics. It will probably dog her reputation even if she saves the free world.

“I’m a lone wolf,” Peggy says in the film. No apologies. You could say she was lousy at love and a shameless hussy. But must a lack of romantic closure deem her life unfulfilled? Or her sexual proclivity cast a shadow on her accomplishments?

To the growing minority who believe that art is important for life’s sake, perhaps Peggy Guggenheim’s singular passion for championing genius, supporting the unanointed, and risking a fortune on a new way of looking at things, might be enough to celebrate. That’s not about getting trains to run on time but a world that too easily rationalizes the banal might be unlivable without it.

Byron in Venice, Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky.

Byron in Venice, Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky.

Which brings us back to the United Nations Happiness Report. “Why do so many young people,” writes Kay, “go to London or New York in search of the excitement and creativity rather than the livable?” To answer, he takes us to the Floating City.

“Venice is crowded, hard to navigate, inadequately served by public transport, its public administration is hopeless and its commercial activities are corrupt,” he concludes, “but however often you have visited, the magic remains.”

No coincidence that Peggy Guggenheim made this uncooperative, impious, ineluctable city home. Düsseldorf anyone?