An insider's look at Peggy Guggenheim: A Collection in Venice

Archive for December 23, 2010

Tony Fowler, your friendly tour guide

How did you reach the position of tour guide for this exhibition?

With great difficulty, as I was away overseas when the exhibition opened, thereby missing out on putting my name down for the ‘Ask me’ sessions. The gallery initially decided not to have guided public tours of the exhibition, given the anticipated problems of navigating large groups around a confined space. Having ‘Ask Me’ guides avoided this. Fortunately, these later ‘AM’s were converted to tours, so I was able to indulge.  Having been a guide for 15 years, it’s nice to be able to say it still gives the old bloke a buzz when we get these exhibitions and one has a ‘captive audience’ to attempt to enthuse and entertain for an hour. It’s a great life, the rewards are huge but the pay is lousy!

How has the experience been so far?

The experience of guiding the exhibition has been great. AGWA guides attempt to involve their tour members – inviting comment and asking questions. This can produce interesting comments and fresh information. Many visitors have seen the collection in Venice. One couple commented that ‘our’ works contained several they did not see in Venice. In front of the Jackson Pollock work ‘Direction’ an American visitor said she immediately recognised the white stick figure (described in the catalogue as ‘…resembling one of a pair of firedogs’) as a mythical figure in American Indian art, the flute player or the piper.

Any blunders?

There will be times when one refers to the artist by his or her incorrect name, the face temporarily flushes and the correction is hurriedly made!  There have been a few less-than-approving looks from elderly ladies, on my explaining Duchamp’s love of word play and citing the L.H.O.O.Q. on his Mona Lisa with a moustache. It was the translation from the phonetic French that caused the raised eyebrows and haughty sniff.

What do the artworks mean to you? Any favourites?

Difficult question. Like most of the guides, I suppose, it is the chance to see the ACTUAL works, rather than reproductions, that is important. Until one stands in front of a painting and lets it speak (or scream or remain silent) one has not done justice either to the work or to oneself. I often paraphrase Bernard Berenson’s comment that, although it may be interesting to know the who, when, why and how of a painting, these things are insignificant in comparison to the spirit of the actual work. Favourites? ‘Maiastra’ by Brancusi and ‘Composition’ by Tancredi – this one really draws me into the picture plane (and many of the tours too).

Why should the people of Perth come to see the exhibition?

Because it is a chance to have a stimulating visual experience. We are the only city in the country to have these works on show. For those interested in the history of art, it is a personal catalogue of what was going on in the art world in the first half of the 20th century, a tribute to the enthusiasm and foresight of a remarkable lady and a great example of how artistic trends/styles/fashions may be disseminated through the actions of one individual. For those not particularly interested in the art history of who invented what technique, who influenced who etc, just go and experience the works – works you may never get to see in their palazzo in Venice.