By Pamela Zoslov
Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict shares a trait with another recent documentary, Listen to Me Marlon: the use of of found tape recordings of the movie’s subject, lending vivid autobiographical insights.
Jacqueline B. Weld, the official biographer of famous art patron and collector Peggy Guggenheim, discovered in a basement a cache of tapes, thought to be lost, of interviews she made with Ms. Guggenheim in 1978 and ’79. Guggenheim, then 80, reflected honestly and openly on unusual life and numerous lovers. Her voice adds considerable liveliness to an otherwise conventional talking-heads documentary in which critics, artists, writers, friends and relatives discuss — with admiration and sometimes rueful disdain — Guggenheim’s unique, eccentric personality and her enormous contributions to art.
Born Marguerite Guggenheim in New York City, Peggy was the daughter of businessman Benjamin Guggenheim and the niece of Solomon Guggenheim, founder of the Guggenheim Foundation. The film recounts her lonely girlhood as an unfavored child — “I was the black sheep” — in a privileged family that lived “like royalty” on Fifth Avenue, with mansions and servants. Her father was a philanderer, and as a child the outspoken Peggy asked him about his mistresses (and was, for her frankness, banished from the dinner table). When Peggy was 13, her father went down with the Titanic (“like gentlemen,” the newspaper headline said of him and other tyros who drowned). His mistress survived in the rescue boat.
“She was not a wealthy Guggenheim,” art critic John Richardson points out — Benjamin amassed much less wealth than his siblings — but it was enough that Peggy inherited $2.51 million when she turned 21 in 1919 (about $34.1 million in today’s currency). Rebellious by nature, she went to work at an avant-garde bookstore and fell in with the bohemian artist community. In 1920, she joined other artistic-minded people in Paris, where she posed for Man Ray’s camera and befriended artist Marcel Duchamp. “She was always a rebel. She loved to shock,” says novelist Edmund White. She spoke in a strange accent. She shaved off her eyebrows. She played tennis with Ezra Pound and was friends with James Joyce.
“Do you feel it was a crazy life?” biographer Weld asks of her Paris adventures. “Yes,” Peggy replies. “It was all about art or love.” She had acquired a taste for art, abstract and surreal, and a yen for artists and writers. “They’re certainly more interesting than business people,” she says reasonably. According to one biography, she slept with “1,000 men” while living in Paris. Her plain looks, further marred by a botched nose job, made her timid and self-conscious, but she had an open attitude and a “sexual aura” that drew men to her. At 80, she reflects wistfully, “I wish I was young enough to have lovers.”
She married her first husband, Dada sculptor Laurence Vail, at 23 because “I was a virgin and I wanted to get rid of my virginity.” The marriage was unhappy — “we had terrible fights; he made me feel inferior about my brains” — and after seven years and two children, they divorced. The children, Pegeen, who became a painter, and Sinbad, who loathed art because it stole his mother’s attention, did not fare well. She then had an affair with married English writer John Holms, whom she says was “the most important man in my life.” She speaks frankly about her intense affair with Samuel Beckett (“we were in bed for four days!”) and her five-year marriage to painter Max Ernst.
It was artist Marcel Duchamp who taught her “everything about modern art.” She opened a modern-art gallery in London in 1938, and as World War II broke out, began buying cutting-edge art. Kandinsky has his first show in England at her gallery. As the Nazis began attacking modernism as “degenerate,” Guggenheim went to Paris and bought “one picture a day,” including ten Picassos, 40 Ernsts, eight Mirós, four Magrittes, three Man Rays, three Dalis and one Chagall. Artists and dealers were desperate to sell before they were captured by the Germans. She rescued the art and the artists, by getting them out of Europe, and was unafraid of the Nazis (“It’s not in my nature to be afraid”). She was undeterred in her quest by the prevalent disparagements of modern art, including a letter from her uncle Solomon’s curator accusing her of “propagating mediocrity.”
Guggenheim’s New York gallery, Art of the Century, became a mecca of modern art, with ingenious lighting and design that allowed visitors to touch, swivel and interact with the pictures. She fostered and financed the careers of artists like Jackson Pollock, for whom she provided a house and income.
Guggenheim, who died at 81 in 1979, donated her collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The collection lives on in the landmark museum she founded in her palazzo in Venice, Italy, her home for many years.
Guggenheim was unconcerned about the opinions of others, whether about the avant-garde art whose brilliance she appreciated early on, or the scorn of her erstwhile friend Mary McCarthy, who wrote a nasty roman à clef, “The Cicerone,” about her. (“That was mean,” Guggenheim says.) Her own autobiography, in which she wrote frankly about her sexual adventures, scandalized people, but their outrage did not bother her. Presumably she would also not care that some of the film’s speakers recount her miserliness in everything but art, and the miserably cheap food she served at parties.
Too often, tales of Guggenheim’s voracious sexuality eclipsed her reputation as a patron and preserver of the 20th century’s most important art. This generous documentary, illustrated with a breathtaking parade of artworks and historical photographs, helps restore her proper place in cultural history. Grade: A-