Arts Review, Movies
Peggy Guggenheim, Art Addict
The buzzword for this decade appears to be “addict” and Peggy Guggenheim was certainly famous for being ferociously stuck on two things: art and sex. Nearly 40 years later, she is still controversial for that twin embrace which saw her collecting art and painters with equal abandon.
Now Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the granddaughter-in-law of fashion icon Diana Vreeland, has created a sympathetic profile of Guggenheim. Filled with archival photos, great art and clips from early avant-garde films, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is a fine film aided to a large extent by the inclusion of previously unknown interviews with the acclaimed art collector and gallerist, which were recorded by her biographer Jacqueline Bograd Weld. The film raises more issues than it can resolve regarding Guggenheim’s validity as a figure in modernist art, but it certainly is filled with amazing material of a woman whose life was affected by the sinking of the Titanic, bohemian Paris in the Twenties, London in the late ‘30s, the Second World War, avant-garde Manhattan during that war and Venice in the post-war era.
Although not the most wealthy of the Guggenheims—her father literally went down with the Titanic leaving the family in relatively poor financial health—Peggy did inherit $450,000, an enormous sum at that time, while still in her teens. She used it to move to Paris from New York in the early Twenties, where she met a who’s who of cultural figures including Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Roland Penrose, Djuna Barnes, Joan Miro, Leger, Picasso—well, the list is endless. She married a painter Laurence Vail, had two kids, got divorced, had a passionate affair with writer John Holms, posed memorably for Man Ray—all before she was 39.
Moving to London in 1938, she started her own gallery, which featured work by many of the great artists she knew in Paris. Then, in 1939, she took a big chance and moved back to France—not a great move for a Jew after the Nazis started World War Two. Over the next two years, she bought an incredible amount of terrific modern art by all the big names, all of whom were trying to get off the continent. For approximately $40,000, Guggenheim purchased and saved wonderful work by such painters as Klee, Gris, Leger, Miro, De Chirico, Magritte and Braque, which would now be valued in the billions (according to acclaimed art dealer Larry Gagosian in this documentary).
Moving to Manhattan, Guggenheim created her most famous gallery Art of this Century. There, she showed off her now fabulous collection and curated some fascinating exhibits, perhaps most notably “31 Women,” a groundbreaking survey of female artists including Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, Louise Nevelson—and Gypsy Rose Lee. The inclusion of the famous burlesque queen Lee in that show foregrounds one of the major complaints about Guggenheim: was she a genuinely serious advocate of modern art?
This question became a public issue when Guggenheim had her memoir Out of this Century published in 1946. Denounced by many for its accounts of some of Guggenheim’s more notable affairs, the book turned her into a risible character to the establishment in Manhattan, London and New York. Adding to her controversial image was Guggenheim’s advocacy of Jackson Pollock, the hard drinking abstract expressionist artist, whom she sponsored for many years. Both Pollock’s public behaviour and Guggenheim theoretically private one were deemed scandalous, to say the least.
Peggy Guggenheim moved to Venice in 1947 and established her own grand home and private gallery. As the years went by, her support for Pollock and several of his colleagues such as Robert Motherwell and Clyfford Still proved to be prescient—as did her long-standing advocacy of surrealism from Breton to Max Ernst (whom she married) to Salvador Dali. Peggy turned her last home into an art museum, which attracts 400,000 tourists a year to Venice—and she contributed a good portion of her collection to her uncle Samuel’s equally inspiring and monumental contemporary museum in Manhattan.
Peggy Guggenheim courted controversy throughout her life but Vreeland portrays her as being a relatively shy and vulnerable person. She always stood behind her memoir, which was revised into Confessions of an Art Addict. (By her final edition, her announced list of lovers included Samuel Beckett, Jackson Pollock and, well, many others.)
One can argue that Peggy Guggenheim was ahead of her time sexually—willing to have the same type of promiscuous relationships that men had during her time (and before and afterwards). As for her choice of art, it’s impeccable and will stand the test of time. Rumours that she chose her artworks after consulting friends and lovers like Breton, Mondrian, Ernst and others seem almost beside the point. After all, she chose her inner circle with taste: wasn’t that curating?
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict will fascinate people like me who love modern art and the machinations of high society from the Twenties to the Seventies. Others may be bored by Vreeland’s rather conventional approach to the film. But if you enjoy art and scandalous tales, have a look at this profile of Peggy Guggenheim—soon.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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