Peggy Guggen­heim: Art Ad­dict

PEGGY GUGGEN­HEIM: ART AD­DICT, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Arts, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — James M. Keller

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

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