When Peggy Guggenheim moved to Venice, in 1948, the city wasn’t the floating playground for contemporary art that it is today. No billionaires had parked their collections there, no blue-chip sales directors were spending the Biennale preview week working up a sweat on the Bauer Hotel dance floor. In that year of ’48, with the entire European continent slowly recovering from the Second World War and Greece embroiled in a civil war, Guggenheim was invited to show her collection at the Greek Pavilion of the exhibition. She filled the walls with more than 100 works by 73 artists, including American newcomers Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Alexander Calder, a move that confused some and exhilarated others. “I think Peggy brought a new kind of energy to Venice, which was very much needed in the postwar years,” says Karole P. B. Vail, director of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection since 2017. (Before that, Vail was a curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, in New York City, for 20 years.)

Guggenheim (third from left) entertains guests in the drawing room of her Venice home.

The Greek Pavilion exhibition is one of a few critical moments under examination in “Peggy Guggenheim: The Last Dogaressa.” Curated by Vail and Gražina Subelytė, it showcases the work Guggenheim acquired from the late 1940s until her death, in 1979. “Even when she had firmly established her collection,” says Vail, “she didn’t just stop here and move her collection into her home. She went on actively acquiring works in a very dynamic way.”