Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT, documentary, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3.5 chiles
Compared with the grand palazzos that house most of the acclaimed museums of Venice, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is distinctive for its unassuming appearance. It occupies a single story along the Grand Canal, the only portion completed of what was to have been a three-story residence for a distinguished family in the late-18th century. It might seem negligible on its own, but what is gathered inside makes it one of the most visited sites in a city that does not lack for enticements.
By the end of Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict ,anew documentary sure to engage the art crowd, viewers may sense how deeply the museum mirrors its founder. She acquired it in 1948 at a postwar bargain price, but when she filled it with the modern artworks to which she had devoted her life, its value — both aesthetic and monetary — became incalculable. Her family had risen rapidly from peasant-immigrant status after they arrived in New York, such that she was born (in 1898) as a double-heiress, the conjunction of the banking-fortune Seligmans on her mother’s side and the mining-fortune Guggenheims on her father’s. There was plenty of eccentricity to go around the family; her mother obsessively repeated everything three times, an aunt expressed thoughts by singing them rather than merely speaking, and so on.
Peggy Guggenheim developed a tone of discourse — clipped, a touch haughty, not so much imperious as impatient — that one used to encounter among New York doyennes but is now all but gone. She adds her two cents throughout this film, a welcome overlay made possible when the film’s director, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, dug around the basement of Guggenheim’s biographer Jacqueline Weld and came up with the tapes of interviews Weld had conducted not long before Guggenheim’s death in 1979. As a result, Vreeland’s initial idea of having an actress relate reminiscences repeated in biographies by Weld and others was superseded by using Guggenheim’s own voice. Not everything she has to say is equally engrossing, and one gets the impression that she is sometimes rehashing accounts she is tired of telling. Still, the first-person perspective certainly lends an air of immediacy when interspersed among a procession of other talking heads, and it punctures the pomposity some of them emanate.
The film covers her astonishing life in even-handed chronological order, beginning with her sad-little-rich-girl upbringing. Her father perished on the Titanic, though his mistress survived, and her mother was no more gifted in the arena of parenting than Peggy would later prove to be. Although much of the family wealth had evaporated, Peggy headed off to Paris after World War I and immersed herself in the Dadaist circles of Man Ray, Massine, Léger, and the rest. “I think [modern] art gave a meaning to her life as well as confirmed … her sense of being in some particular way an outsider,” observes art historian John Richardson. “Art became her way of finding herself emotionally.”
Then it was off to London, where she opened a gallery in 1938 — Guggenheim Jeune — that put on display her passion for Surrealism, the art that emerged from the subconscious mind. She mounted Kandinsky’s first show in Britain, and on that occasion she contacted her far wealthier uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim, to see if he would be interested in purchasing an early Kandinsky that had appealed to him some years before. A reply arrived from her uncle’s curator, Baroness Hilla von Rebay: “Your gallery will be the last one [for] our Foundation to use if ever the need should force us to use a sales gallery. You will soon find you are propagating mediocrity, if not trash.” “The baroness was a fiend,” Peggy explains. She next turned her attention to founding a modernart museum in London, and art critic Herbert Read, who signed on to direct it, drew up a list of the artists that needed to be represented. World War II got in the way, but Guggenheim headed off to Paris nonetheless — recklessly, one might say, given her Jewish background. In 1939, French artists were desperate to sell their work, and Jewish dealers were eager to liquidate their inventory. For the sum of $40,000, amazingly modest even at the time, she built up a collection of high-quality works by the artists on Read’s list of must-haves and shipped them all off to New York, where she installed herself from 1941 to 1947.
Again, her timing was exquisite. Just as Paris had been the center of the art world during the time of the Dadaists and Surrealists, New York had taken its place at the pinnacle thanks to the Abstract Expressionists. In 1942, she opened a gallery there, The Art of This Century, where she displayed cutting-edge paintings, sculptures, and other artworks installed in rooms that were furnished as if they were in a dream (again reflecting her enduring passion for Surrealism). Motherwell, Arp, Giacometti, and other American and European luminaries were in her fold. Pollock painted a 23-foot mural for her entryway. By 1947, it was time for her to move on to her final stop, Venice, her “dream city.” Again she seized an opportunity. The Venice Biennale, suspended during the war years, reopened in 1948, and Guggenheim lent her collection, an act that did much to define the canon of mid-century art.
In 1951, she opened her museum to house the collection, which numbers 326 works by more than a hundred artists. Ironically, she left it at her death to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which had once spurned her but ended up deciding that her taste wasn’t so trashy after all. It was nonetheless decreed that the collection would remain at the home she had created for it in Venice, a living testament to an extraordinary life and an unwavering mission.
Vreeland’s film brings Guggenheim’s life into vivid relief by incorporating period film clips of the cities in which her career unrolled, as well as footage of many artists with whom she was associated. Some of the latter clips are largely unfamiliar, lending interest for viewers inclined toward the history of modern art. In the course of this tale, which is far more widereaching (and spicy) than this brief summary suggests, Guggenheim emerges as an utterly confident presence through tumultuous times, as a woman who husbanded her substantial but not limitless resources to become an essential patron, advocate, and enabler of the art of her era.
Venetian class: Peggy Guggenheim