[image-4] In 1936 the Gibbes Museum of Art presented Solomon R. Guggenheim’s first collection of modern art. Yes, Charleston’s Gibbes Museum, an institution that features mainly American and regional works, hosted one of the first modern art shows in the South. Now, 80 years after the fact, the Gibbes gears up for a revival of Guggenheim’s two Charleston shows, one held in 1936, the other in 1938. The Realm of the Spirit opens on Oct. 22 and will show 35 of Guggenheim’s collected pieces, including works by Marc Chagall, Vasily Kandinsky, and Pablo Picasso.
“It’s a part of our history that’s been buried,” says Sara Arnold, the exhibition’s curator. Guggenheim, a businessman, art collector, and philanthropist, bought a house on the Battery in 1929. Arnold says that Guggenheim’s tenure in Charleston started right around the time he began building his art collection. The Gibbes’ director at the time was Robert Whitelaw, a friend of Guggenheim. The two began talking about a show and a few years later, the first exhibition came to fruition.
“It’s interesting to look at press clippings from that time,” says the Gibbes’ executive director Angela Mack. “There were both very positive and very negative reviews, and it confused some people.” One thing that most everyone could agree on, though, was that the controversial exhibition needed to be seen. “America as a whole was becoming more open than ever before,” says Mack.
[image-2] While Guggenheim continued to visit Charleston throughout the 1930s and early ’40s, his attention refocused on his own museum, New York City’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1943, and opened in 1959.
Mack and Arnold say that they’ve been considering this revival show for a long time, sharing information and archives with the Guggenheim Museum. “They [the Guggenheim] had been researching their own history, and the Gibbes is featured prominently,” says Arnold.
Recently, the Gibbes curator visited the Guggenheim archives and helping the curators there understand what some unknown images were, created by Guggenheim (who dabbled in art) during his time in Charleston. Arnold immediately recognized the landmarks and landscapes of Charleston. “They were not familiar to people in New York,” says Arnold.
The Gibbes’ plans on hosting a number of special events to supplement the exhibition, including a screening of a film about Peggy Guggenheim, Solomon’s niece, a lecture, and a concert partnership with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra.
“We’ve often heard, ‘Why don’t you show the really famous artists?'” says Mack. Her response:”We’re an institution that fosters American art.”
But now, with The Realm of the Spirit, the Gibbes has a chance to give the people what they want. “It’s an incredible intersection,” continues Mack. “We had a role in this modern art movement.”