If Peggy Guggenheim had known she would be the subject of a documentary made 36 years after her death, she would probably have been exceedingly pleased. She was (positively) self-centred, and passionate about anything that could perpetuate her legacy to posterity. Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, produced and directed by former fashion designer Lisa Immordino Vreeland, portrays its eccentric patron of the arts as a collector ahead of her time. The documentary is sleek, witty, and insightful; by the end, I felt as if I had met Peggy in person.
The film is divided into five chapters (Early Life, Awakening, War Time, Art of This Century, The Museum), following Guggenheim’s travels. Indeed, one of the first things that struck me about her is the constant journeying across America and Europe, from New York to Paris and London. It is emblematic that the place in which she finally decided to settle was Venice, by nature a place of passage, where people tend to come and go.
Roloff Beny / Courtesy of National Archives of Canada
Her parents belonged to two of the most influential families in early-20th-century New York: the Seligmans and the Guggenheims. Both households were wealthy, shaping her self-image and the occupations she chose. Peggy Guggehnehim: Art Addict presents her early years as being not so much determined by her patrimony, though, as by the absence of a paternal figure. Guggenheim’s father died when she was thirteen, and she later declared that she had been looking for such a figure ever since. Vreeland connects this to Guggenheim’s lovers, which included Samuel Beckett, sculptor Laurence Vail, writer John Holms, and artist Max Ernst. For Guggenheim, a liberated personality ‘with a sexual aura’, sex was simply another way to connect with people.
Art increased in importance for Guggenheim when she visited Paris in 1920, where she met many intellectual pioneers of the time, including Pound, Duchamp, Picasso, and Stein. In London, she opened her first gallery, ‘Guggenheim Jeune’, where she started exhibiting the work of her protégés (Brancusi, Kandinsky, and Mondrian, to name a few), who were to become acclaimed artists. The gallery proved influential within London’s art scene, and contributed to an increasing acceptance of then-dawning modern art in institutions such as the Royal Academy. Guggenheim’s huge contribution to the history of art continued when she moved back to American and founded the gallery ‘Art of This Century’, New York, where Jackson Pollock counted among her discoveries. Eventually, she returned in Europe and exhibited her collection in the Venetian Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. Throughout her career, Guggenheim surrounded herself with the right people, and supported a great number of emerging artists, in whom she unconditionally believed. Despite having no art history background, ‘art became the way to find herself emotionally’ as we are told in the documentary. In some phases of her life, she would buy a painting every day.
Courtesy of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice
As Art Addict shows, Guggenheim was an undeniable narcissist who enjoyed taking centre-stage, and this assertiveness and self-confidence helped her to thrive in the male-dominated art world of the time. She was also famously eccentric, from her choices of clothes to her obsession with dogs. However, beneath her frank persona there was no hidden agenda. The portrait of Guggenheim that Vreeland presents discloses aspects that otherwise might have never been attributed to her. The documentary runs smoothly, alternating interviews with people who met her with extracts from her interviews. It also proves faithful to Guggenheim’s artistic vocation, by including a number of works from her collection, set to a captivating jazz soundtrack composed by Steven Argila. In telling the story of this kaleidoscopic patron of the arts, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict celebrates one of the most important figures of the twentieth century, and one of the most inspiring women that the art world has ever known.