Tribeca Reviews: Peggy Guggenheim — The Good Addict
For most of us, addiction is not considered to be a particularly desirable trait. It can wreak havoc on an otherwise normal life and send the addict on a merry-go-round chase to nowhere. In Peggy Guggenheim’s case, the word “normal” never entered in her vocabulary. She was an addict as well, but fortunately for the world of modern art in the 20th century, her addiction was to art. We can be thankful she never broke the habit.
French director Lisa Immordino Vreeland is no stranger to documenting the eclectic and exceptional life of a brilliant high-profile woman like Peggy. Her first documentary, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, was adapted from her book about the Harper Bazaar’s fashion icon and won the Silver Hugo Award at the Chicago Film Festival. With Peggy Guggenheim—Art Addict, a recent Spotlight entry at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, she has given us a no-holds-barred look at her elusive subject. While exploring Peggy’s obsessions for contemporary art and the men behind the works, Vreeland reveals the woman herself: a lonely, vulnerable seeker whose wealth could never satisfy her incessant craving for love.
Picking and choosing among the vast number of stills and archival footage, as well as interviews with the likes of art critic John Richardson, writer Edmund White and biographer Jacqueline Bograd Weld (to name but a few), must have been an exhaustive enterprise, if ultimately rewarding. While assembling this jumble, a lost interview with Peggy herself was serendipitously discovered in a shoebox. Even if the director had thrown up her hands and just let the camera pan over this crazy quilt of images, it would still fascinate. The woman and her cast of notables is a gluttonous feast for the eyes.
So, how do you organize a life that tap-danced through the upheavals of the 20th century? It would be hard to find a personage of that era with such a broad, devil-may-care take on life. Just imagine accepting advice on surrealism from painter Marcel Duchamp, sharing a bed with writer Samuel Beckett for four days, marrying (more than once) and producing two children. Add to that mix carting tons of artworks out of Europe on the eve of Hitler’s entry into Paris, transporting husband Max Ernst and others to the safety of Manhattan, and discovering Jackson Pollock while almost single-handedly setting in motion the New York Abstract Expressionist movement. She wisely followed that up by buying a palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal for the creation of a world class museum. For a final act, she arranged to have herself buried with 14 of her beloved Lhasa Apso dogs. And this is just skimming the surface. Vreeland can almost be forgiven for arranging her subject’s life into a kind of broad stroke, March of Time newsreel format (one of the few ways beyond newspaper hard copy that the pre-TV populace had for getting up on events) as a way for us to digest this span of adventures.
At this point, you’re probably asking yourself: who was Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim and why should we remember her? To start with, she was born on August 26, 1898, and was one of three daughters of Benjamin Guggenheim. The family quickly amassed a fortune through mining and banking and that silver spoon fit nicely in Peggy’s mouth, particularly when she sought her independence following an inheritance of $2.5 million upon turning 21 (about $34 million by today’s currency). An interesting aside about the family: Benjamin Guggenheim died on the Titanic when Peggy was 13, and a mistress who survived the sinking was paid off handsomely by the family. Obviously, they wanted to keep her as invisible as possible with the all-too-curious press. Florette Seligman and Peggy’s two sisters with their own tragic destinies (one dying in childbirth and the other curiously dumping her babies from a 13-story rooftop) are worth a follow-up documentary, but will be left on the peripheries of this review.
Peggy’s legacy was the artworks she amassed so that we may enjoy them today. When she moved to Paris in 1921, it was according to writer Calvin Tompkins, “the most exciting place on earth.” She had no historical art training but a passion that extended to her sexual partners as well as her art education. Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dalí, and Pablo Picasso were all acquaintances and friends, if not bedmates. Lawrence Vail, a Dada sculptor, became her first husband and through all the turbulent hijinks of their relationship, a son (Sindbad) and a daughter (Pegeen) were born. Photos of both children are generously provided in the mix, which helps to round out the particulars of her life. Vreeland’s intercuts of mostly familiar artworks, along with the many photo stills of her subject, prove to be the most helpful, however, in the 97-minute documentary. We can be thankful that she gave the art a prominent place in this visual biography. After all, it was this unparalleled collection of 20th century masterworks that assured Peggy an indispensable role in art history.
But not everything in the film is staggering. So many dealers and critics are brought into play throughout with brief commentaries that a little less footage of the decades at large could have been employed, hence allowing for more in-depth dialogue from these individuals about Peggy’s choices in art and how those choices hold up today. We could almost assume a fairly literate audience will seek out such a film so the obvious doesn’t have to be emphasized so frequently. Still, despite this fact, the picture ends up being a beautiful collage and homage to Peggy’s imaginative lifetime.
Lavishly costumed and posed by Man Ray and other popular photographers of the day, it was obvious that Peggy wanted to be noticed. But it’s also clear to the viewer that she wasn’t a pretty woman by conventional standards. A botched nose job left her with what was unkindly described as “a potato nose.” Pace Gallery’s founder Arnold “Arne” Glimcher dismissed away any homeliness affecting her physical attractiveness: “She was an older woman who knew who she was and that in itself is sexy.” An edited sequence of videos shows her exhibiting an unfortunate nervous trait of sticking out her tongue while speaking, which comes across as a painful, if honest, inclusion in the film.
Such eccentricities aside, she had a sense of style which emerges in many of her poses. It’s important for a modern day audience to remember, especially in a beauty-obsessed culture that is so fickle and demanding of anyone in the public eye, that Peggy was a well-regarded, glamorous lady of means for her time. Later stills reveal what could only be described as a resigned melancholy. Rather than basking in the late-life success of her artistic mission and her Venetian lifestyle, she was fraught with the difficulties of a troubled mother-daughter relationship with Pegeen, who died of a barbiturates overdose at 42.
It was in 1938 that Peggy made the move to London that would have a profound effect on the art world — when she flung open the doors of Galerie Jeune in her new city of choice with an exhibition of sketches by Jean Cocteau, the whole world of surrealism opened to her as well. Marcel Duchamp was a key influence, a brilliant adviser who helped in arranging “ready-made” exhibitions. Wassily Kandinsky’s first exhibition took place here and associations with Henry Moore, Constantin Brâncuși, Yves Tanguy, Georges Braque and Max Ernst followed in rapid succession.
Then the outbreak of WWII threatened the continent and in Peggy’s words, “I put myself on a regime to buy one painting a day.” She quickly amassed a jaw-dropping list for what was estimated then to be a $40,000 payload, consisting of 10 Pablo Picassos, 40 Max Ernsts, eight Joan Mirós, four René Magrittes, three Man Rays, three Salvador Dalís, one Paul Klee, one Wolfgang Paalen and one Marc Chagall, among others. Interviewee Lisa Phillips, director of the New Museum, described how Peggy worked to get her artworks out of Paris on the eve of the Nazis’ march into the city. Through inquiries at the Louvre and the help of a workman, “she sent shipments of paintings described as household goods.” These are the kinds of stories that Vreeland has been able to elicit from her subjects that make not for a simple R-rated gossip sheet — and Peggy’s own salacious admissions about her personal life could have resulted in just such a project in less sensitive hands — but a tribute to a courageous and caring woman.
Peggy’s “Art of This Century” gallery in New York in the post-war years was another milestone — and brought not only her band of surrealists to American attention but catapulted Jackson Pollock to stardom. As the story goes, he was working as a carpenter for her uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim, when she discovered him. It was no love match, though. He was often reputed as being rude to his benefactress, but we can only wonder about his indisputable role in abstract painting today without her ceaseless devotion.
Each member of this documentary’s audience will surely take away his or her own favorite reminiscences or images from Vreeland’s own cornucopia from Peggy’s life. One of my personal favorites is a picture of Max Ernst during their brief marriage, posed imperiously on her balcony in a white fur coat that she bought for him. She adored the artist, but his own adoration was fickle to say the least, and mostly focused on himself.
Upon her death in 1979, her Venetian residence and art museum joined other sister museums (in Bilbao, Berlin and Las Vegas) under the aegis of Solomon R. Guggenheim’s iconic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed masterwork in New York City. Compared to a parking lot with circular ramps by some when it opened on October 21, 1959, it was the first museum in the country to be built from the ground up rather than converted from a private residence. But it is Peggy Guggenheim that holds the most charm and not the structure itself. Behind the often inscrutable paintings and sculptures that defy definition, there lies a real human being who was determined to live life to its fullest — and Lisa Immordino Vreeland has given her breath.
“Peggy Guggenheim — Art Addict” premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival on April 20th. You can learn more about the festival by clicking here.