By Jude Warne.
“Her voice is full of money,” Jay Gatsby says of his love Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterwork. There is something in the aural quality of socialite speak that suggests the speaker holds a vague indifference toward whatever matter may be at hand, because its outcome will have very little bearing on her fate. Hall & Oates suggest as much in their 1977 hit “Rich Girl”: “…you’ve gone too far ‘cause you know it don’t matter anyway.”
Socialite and art lover Peggy Guggenheim, upon acquiring inheritance money after her mother’s death in 1937, couldn’t decide whether to open an art gallery or a bookstore. She went with the art gallery simply because it was the less expensive option, and dubbed it Guggenheim Jeune. This creation of Peggy’s would be followed by her New York gallery, the Art of this Century Gallery – in existence from 1942 through 1947 – and perhaps more lastingly The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which opened in 1951 and is today one of the most frequented tourist attractions in Venice. And by association, of course, there was her uncle’s establishing of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York, which became the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1952. Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s recently released documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict seeks to tell the story of Peggy’s incredible life and to celebrate the role that she played in the evolution of Modern Art over the course of the twentieth century. The film succeeds certainly, and along the way, the viewer is entertained by the cornucopia of shenanigans that Peggy partook in, shenanigans that were certainly ahead of their time. Guggenheim, with her self-assumed sexual freedom, was in essence, as the film is quick to insist, a liberated woman.
The last interview that Peggy Guggenheim gave was in regards to a book being written about her life, and the associated recordings were thought to have been lost. Luckily for filmmaker Vreeland, and for us, of course, the tapes were recovered during the making of Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. Peggy’s rich-girl-lilt, the peculiar source of which is directly and quite interestingly explained during the film, can clearly be heard. The documentary moves forth to tell the beginning-to-end narrative of Peggy’s life, and due to the subject matter, no doubt, its viewing experience is strangely akin to that of Grey Gardens (Albert and David Maysles, 1975). Both films are true-tales of eccentric, wealthy, and cultured women who were in direct contact with the goings-on of the twentieth century. Being exposed to these chicks leaves one with the deep sense of their disassociation from real life and real problems. But as privileged gals do, they also seem to possess a pronounced, strange vulnerability, a yearning to trust others and a need for love. They seem to be less guarded, perhaps never having had to defend anything too intensely. Both the extremely privileged and the extremely impoverished have less to lose than middle-of-the-roadies and thus perhaps take greater risks.
Peggy Guggenheim’s whole family was eccentric and its members led remarkable lives, if only for their intersection with history. Her father died during the Titanic sinking; her sister insanely and horrifically threw her own children to their deaths from a New York City rooftop in an attempt to get even with her husband. Peggy herself was the black sheep, a rebel, and a bit of sex fiend, which was quite out of place amidst 1920s societal mores. She found a place for herself in the art scenes of the day, working in an Avant-Garde bookshop in Manhattan and then relocating to Paris at the height of the Lost Generation stronghold there. Guggenheim married the writer-artist Laurence Veil, “to lose her virginity,” had two children with him, then got divorced. For the rest of her life she had a series of relationships – of varying lengths, many of which were one-time-onlys – with some of the greatest or at least most well-known artists of the Twentieth Century, including Samuel Beckett. Many of the talking heads of the doc – figures of the current art world, historians, and those who knew her personally (including Robert DeNiro, who speaks of his artist father’s association with her) – insinuate that Guggenheim possessed a perpetual sadness and sought to soothe it through sexual encounters with intellectual and artistic men.
Vreeland does a wonderful job conveying the importance of Guggenheim’s relationships with various artistic figures and the mutual influences they exercised over one another. Peggy had an important and ongoing relationship with Marcel Duchamp, who organized all of her first gallery’s exhibitions. She held a children’s art show, which featured the debut of Lucien Freud’s work. During the onslaught of World War Two, Guggenheim purchased one European painting a day to save the works from the Nazis. She stayed in Paris for a while to do this, risking her own life, as she was Jewish and if discovered, would surely have been sent to a concentration camp. She also helped artists to get safely out of Europe during the Nazi regime, and she even married the great Max Ernst – a stint that lasted a few years – as part of this effort. Perhaps her greatest artistic relationship was with Jackson Pollock, whom she virtually discovered and introduced to the art world in the 1940s. Guggenheim herself felt that her discovery of him was one of her greatest achievements; at the time no one else had believed in him or his out-there, new style like she did. A key component of Peggy’s character that Vreeland’s narrative stresses was her consistently spot-on intuition for talent.
Guggenheim, even with her pedigree heritage, was a self-made art collector and an impressively influential one, at that. In the film’s last interview excerpts, she describes how by the end of her life she felt successful, though as an old woman she missed having the quantity of lovers that she once did. Her “art first, people second” philosophy seemed to have taken its toll on her family life, along with her black sheep-ness. Peggy’s son grew up away from her with ex-husband Vail, so she was absent from that storyline, and in turn she raised their troubled daughter Pegeen who eventually committed suicide (!).
One of those interviewed for Art Addict wisely explains to us how Guggenheim, though she had separated herself from her family and considered herself to be an individual, still maintained “the ego of a Guggenheim.” With all of her free-spiritedness and radical pursuits, like so many of us she could not escape who she had been born as, and who she really was. “Her voice… (was) full of money” until the end; it was her money, though, that in part allowed her to pursue such a financially demanding life of art collecting, a life that helped to shape our concept of twentieth century art. Ultimately Vreeland’s documentary is incredible in its substance and style, each of which intensifies the other to result in a worthwhile viewing experience.
Jude Warne is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.