Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
96 minutes, U.S.A./U.K./Italy, 2015
Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Dakota Group/Fischio Films/Submarine Entertainment
The slickly produced, celebratory celebrity biographical documentary has become a subgenre of the form in the last few years, and by now it seems anyone who ever made an impression in film, television or the arts becomes the subject of one. The best of them transcend the built-in audience of those who are already invested in the subject and open the minds of viewers to someone they either never heard of before or never considered that important. For example, you needn’t be well-versed in Andy Warhol to enjoy Superstar in a Housedress, Craig Highberger’s bio-doc of underground film star Jackie Curtis.
Lisa Immordino Vreeland has already paid expressive tribute to her husband’s grandmother in Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel (2011). Even those who look down on the fashion industry had to reckon with the undeniable legacy and appeal of that film’s charismatic subject. Vreeland follows it up with Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, applying the same formula of snazzy montages and lively talking heads to another notable cultural figure. Although not herself a creator, Peggy Guggenheim had a good eye for art, and facilitated artists’ creativity with a passion that left an indelible mark on the world in which she traveled. It’s not a criticism to point out this repetition of technique; although Vreeland doesn’t reinvent the wheel, she infuses the proceedings with great energy. One cannot help but be seduced by Guggenheim’s world.
Like her documentary on the famous editor, Vreeland’s new film uses the subject’s own narration to tell much of the story, this time thanks to taped interviews by Guggenheim’s biographer Jacqueline B. Weld from the late-1970s that were thought lost. (Weld found them in her basement while preparing for her appearance in this film; her book Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim was published in 1986.) Through these interviews, plus interviews with colleagues, friends and members of the art world, we learn that, aside from promoting an appreciation in North America for modern art, Guggenheim was, in some way, making her own life a work of art: “Art became her way of finding herself emotionally,” says one of the talking heads.
Guggenheim considered her discovery of painter Jackson Pollock her greatest achievement; her second greatest was her immense art collection, which she first exhibited in 1944. “I think I got interested in modern art the minute I got into it,” she tells Weld, an interest that she also saw as an opportunity to distance herself from her moneyed family and to make of herself something unique. Guggenheim’s friend and art historian John Richardson tells us, frankly, that she was also interested in making her mark as “a kind of collector that never quite existed before” since she “was never going to make it as a siren.”
The Guggenheims and the Seligmans, her mother’s family, began as peddlars when they arrived in America and moved up financially by getting into mining and banking. By the time of her birth, Peggy’s family was downright rich, her aunts and uncles “all off their rockers”. Her life was marked by tragedies: her father was lost on the Titanic when she was 13, and her sister, Hazel, is believed to have caused the accident that killed her own children after learning she would lose custody in her impending divorce. When Weld asks Guggenheim if she thought she had a good mother, she replies: “I don’t think there were any good mothers in those days.” Fatherless, Peggy grew up the “poor” relative – at least, when compared to her uncle Solomon, after whom the art museum in New York is named – prompting her to work at a book store in her twenties. That job exposed her to the art world and inspired her career as an enfant terrible. She ends up in Paris , where she discovers Dada, “the language of disillusionment” that arose from the ashes of World War I. Guggenheim feels at home among the bohemians of Paris, but returns home and meets Lawrence Vail, her first sexual experience, and the man she marries (at 23) and has her children (two) with. The quality of the marriage, according to her, is such that “he walked on my stomach four times and held me under the water one time, but other than that ,I don’t think he beat me up much.” She and Vail divorce after seven years and become the best of friends. (“Husbands always get better afterwards,” she tells Weld.) She then meets John Holms, a love affair that requires her to give up her son to her ex-husband. Because she and Holmes are not married, she has seven abortions (her estimate) to avoid children born out of wedlock. (“In those days it meant more.” ) After five years together, Holms dies during a minor wrist operation as a result of a reaction to anaesthesia (he had been drinking the night before). Her summation: “I’ve had a very sad life, I think.”
Following her mother’s death, Guggenheim opens her first gallery in London with her inheritance, showing the likes of Jean Cocteau and Andre Breton. Her children’s art show at the Guggenheim Jeune premieres work by Lucian Freud, as well as that of her daughter, Pegeen. About Marcel Duchamp, she says that, unequivocally, he “taught me everything about modern art that I know today.” After a year- and-a-half, she closes the gallery and plans for a museum in that city, an idea thwarted by the onset of World War II. The Nazis arrive in Europe, attacking modernism with the “Degenerate Art” exhibit, while Guggenheim obtains many artworks from Jewish dealers who are desperate to get out of occupied Paris. Guggenheim originally plans to store her acquisitions at the Louvre, but the directors don’t think any of it, including artworks by Mondrian, worth saving. Instead, Guggenheim ships everything home to New York.
At this time, Guggenheim also helps artists escape Nazi-occupied Europe, including Max Ernst, whom she later marries. (She says that while artists are not great people, “they’re certainly more interesting.”) The number of displaced European artists finding refuge in America, especially in New York, means that the Big Apple gradually becomes the centre of the art world. Guggenheim is in a prime position to be its high priestess. Whether or not this was intentional is up to debate, but there’s no doubt that she took the title and ran with it: art collecting was a male-dominated world, but Guggenheim didn’t care. “I was the midwife” for the creation of great works, she says, ignoring the insults of her nemesis, Baroness Hilla Rebay, advisor to Solomon Guggenheim, and the meanness of Mary McCarthy’s story The Cicerone, which was written about her.
Guggenheim curated her own life along similar lines to the art she promoted, beginning with a memorable personality and appearance. She was one of the first people to have plastic surgery, her nose job botched halfway through and left unfinished because she could not bear the pain of continuing. She was “legendarily cheap” and had an odd tic of the tongue, which would dart out and back in mid-conversation. But, she had no trouble attracting people. “I found her attractive,” the art dealer Arne Glimcher says. “She had a sexual aura” and a guileless personality with no hidden agenda. “She had the ego of a Guggenheim, a certain authority about her,” Richardson states, and “she used the name to good ends.” Many agreed, as she enjoyed relations with her fair share of artists. “Sex and art went hand-in-hand,” and while Guggenheim preferred her men to be gorgeous, she had affairs with plenty of creative minds, including Samuel Beckett, who didn’t have, to an objective observer, the amount of physical appeal Guggenheim usually sought. Sometimes, it seems that she was just being practical, as when she began an affair with Brancusi to make him sell her a sculpture for a lower price. She thought it curious that she was considered promiscuous when the men she socialized with were as sexually active. And, even if she had not met all these artists, one gets the sense that Guggenheim would have become an art collector all the same.
Guggenheim’s accomplishments once she found her place in the art world were immense: the “Art Of This Century” show in 1944, her “Exhibition By 31 Women“, the first art exhibition consisting of work by women only. “31 Women” also introduced Ernst to his next wife, the artist Dorothea Tanning. (“I should have had 30 women in it, not 31,” Guggenheim jokes.) When she discovers Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, she invests in him, lending him the money to buy the house on Long Island and work. In 1946, she publishes her memoirs, Out Of This Century, their frankness met with disdain by her family. In 1947, she closes her New York gallery and moves to Venice because “there is no normal life in Venice. Here, everything and everyone floats.” She continues to show her collection, appears in Joseph Losey’s film Eva, starring Jeanne Moreau, in 1962, and even mounts an exhibition in New York at her uncle Solomon’s “garage”. In 1962, she becomes an honorary citizen of Venice, remaining there until her death, at 81, in 1979. She is buried in her palazzo with her fourteen dogs. The palazzo, which houses her collection, remains among the most visited museums in the world.
Vreeland’s film wonderfully and succinctly captures the woman and her accomplishments. “Art patron is more important than a collector,” the performance artist Marina Abramovic says in the film. Much of the art that came to the forefront in the mid-20th Century may not have without Guggenheim’s patronage. While at the same time acknowledging this, Weld asks Guggenheim whether she misses her “turbulent days,” or if she wishes she could be with Ernst again. “No,“ she says. “I wish I were young enough to have lovers.”
Bil Antoniou is a playwright and film critic whose reviews can be found at myoldaddiction.com. He is co-host of the podcast BGM: Bad Gay Movies/Bitchy Gay Men, which is available on iTunes. He is currently working on his fourth play.