In the current noble vogue of admirable female figures in documentaries, now comes Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict by Lisa Immordino Vreeland. Guggenheim may not be news to the art world, but for the rest of us the film might stir wishful nostalgia for a breakthrough time in cultural history — check out the image of Guggenheim in an exotic dress, as photographed by Man Ray. It also offers some hints on how to meet the right people at the right time for your career. And, oh yeah, sex and how some artists were in bed.
“I was the midwife to modern art,” Guggenheim asserts. That’s a big claim, but it is verifiable that she put together the core collection of modern art for $40,000 (it’s now worth billions, according to influential gallery owner Larry Gagosian, one of several commenters in the doc). Art historian John Richardson calls her a collector of a kind that never existed before, a star.
The major interview is with Guggenheim herself. Though she died at 81 in 1979, a “live” — never eerie — Q&A is the spine for the doc as she answers questions, sometimes even correcting, in her tart and witty style, what might have been a haze of hagiography. (Her authorized biographer, Jacqueline Bograd Weld, asks the questions on interview tapes that had been thought lost until Vreeland rooted through Weld’s apartment to find them.)
Here too is a primer for using men for sex and career connections, though Guggenheim had intense feelings toward (the) many of them. Marina Abramovic, interviewed here, says, “She would take the man she wants on her own terms…so refreshing.” We learn her affair with Samuel Beckett began with a four-day tryst interrupted only by room-service calls. Of a gorgeous Max Ernst, another conquest, she says, “He had a beautiful body.” Indeed: Witness a shirtless Ernst, painting.
The filmmakers take a stab at psychobiography to explain Guggenheim’s savior impulse toward not just great art, but artists. People leave and die, but art is forever. The volatile Jackson Pollock — just one of many Peggy helped — is featured: She gave him a stipend and a loan to buy a house (and the peace to create) on Long Island. Her lifelong support of pioneer female writer Djuna Barnes is also noted.
The overall picture is of her essential vulnerability, with the most insightful probes coming from actress Mercedes Ruehl, who played her onstage, and from Guggenheim herself. She declares her own life “sad,” and we might start to understand her quest for permanence: She suffered a depressive episode as a child, and deaths — a favorite sister; a daughter who o.d.’d on barbiturates; a great love, John Holms, who succumbed during what should have been a simple operation; and a father who went down with the Titanic when she was thirteen — seem to have stalked her at every turn.
Ditching the high-bourgeois lifestyle and the suitor she was expected to marry as a member of New York’s moneyed Jewish elite, Guggenheim visited Paris in 1921 and stayed, finding her spiritual home in the café society of bohemia, soaking in Dadaism and making contact with Joyce, Pound, Stein, and a man — writer Laurence Vail — she bedded, and whose brain she picked for ideas. She eventually married him. Impressively pre-feminist, she always refused the victim stance, brushing off cavalier treatment by another lover/husband, Ernst, and even the occasionally violent Vail.
The film begins with a quickie family history: the Guggenheims and the Seligmans (the maternal side) going, in two generations, from immigrant peddler status to amassing great fortunes. Was Peggy’s ability to hustle and bargain an inherited trait? She laughs that she slept with Brancusi and that maybe this brought down the price of his Bird in Space.
At forty, she opened her Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London, boldly exhibiting Kandinsky, Dalí, Man Ray, Henry Moore, and others who were considered oddities, if not “rubbish.” The doc suggests that cubism and surrealism spoke to her own sense of strangeness. Finally settling the loaded question of who really made these picks, Guggenheim credits lists put together by Marcel Duchamp and critic Herbert Read. “Very clever of me, wasn’t it?” her voice asks. On the eve of WWII, when the Louvre refused to shelter her collection — which included Picasso and Mondrian — she got the lot (and herself and Ernst) to New York and her 57th Street gallery, Art of This Century. Here she added work from Americans Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Willem de Kooning. Here too was the very first show of only women artists, including Frida Kahlo, Louise Nevelson, and Virginia Admiral, Robert De Niro’s mother. De Niro is a grateful commenter in the doc, and it’s a thrill to see the original programs for these exhibits.
Excepting the New York years and their jazz score, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict does not swing with the jaunty rhythm of The Eye Has to Travel, Vreeland’s 2012 doc about former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, her grandmother-in-law. And the movie loses steam in the last segment with Guggenheim’s final move to Venice and her third great museum. It concludes with her pretty much alone, saying, “I accomplished what I wanted to do and I’m very happy about that.” Still, you almost feel sorry for the “poor little rich girl,” wishing she were around to see that her visionary lockdown remains spectacularly in place.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Opens November 6, IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 3, 2015