A New Documentary Examines the Life of Innovative Art Collector Peggy Guggenheim

Ahead of her time

Back in 1978 and 1979, art collector and socialite Peggy Guggenheim gave what would become her last interview. She spoke to Jacqueline B. Weld for her biography, Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim. Those tapes were thought to be lost before director Lisa Immordino Vreeland (Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel) found them as she was working on Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, her fascinating documentary about the woman. Those never-before-heard tapes form the main narrative structure for this well-crafted warts-and-all documentary that opens on Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.

At the film's start, we hear about Peggy's humble background. Her parents both became peddlers after moving to the States. But they didn't stay peddlers. Her mother's family went into banking and her father's family went into mining. They quickly accumulated wealth. They were remarkably eccentric too. According to Weld, Peggy's mother "did everything three times," and her aunts and uncles were "famously off their rockers." She discovers the art world when she's 21 and heads off to Paris, where she meets people such as writer Gertrude Stein, photographer Man Ray, poet Ezra Pound and writer James Joyce. When her mother dies and leaves her $450,000, she opens an art gallery and cultivates a number of up-and-coming European artists — people such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp.

Peggy closes the gallery in Paris with the intent of opening a museum in London, but World War II disrupts those plans. To save her art collection, she sends it off as "household goods" on a freighter bound for the States. It arrives safely, and she follows the collection to New York where she founds Art of This Century, a Midtown space where she hosted a number of significant exhibitions. "It was one of the first international galleries in New York, mixing American and European art," says one critic. "It was an astonishing innovation," says another critic. "The space was something that no one could imagine."

Though she had no training and even lacked what one pundit calls "innate taste," she became a major force in the art world. She famously rescued Jackson Pollack from a life as a carpenter and helped introduce his artwork to the world. She gave him an income and loaned him money to buy a house, giving him the time and space to work on his painting. In one scene, she discusses buying some of his paintings for a few hundred dollars. She describes him as "one of the great artists of the 20th century," and she encouraged him to make a "larger than life" art. She also put together an exhibit dubbed 31 Women to focus only on female artists.

After closing her New York museum, she heads to Venice, a "place of passage," where she buys a palace that she converts into a museum. The place immediately becomes a huge tourist attraction.

The film alludes to various artists and art movements, making it appeal more to the art historian than the casual art lover. Still, Vreeland successfully chronicles Guggenheim's story and uses a variety of clips and images of artwork to tell the story of this remarkable woman. And while the film clearly champions her art collecting skills, it also addresses her various insecurities and suggests that her botched nose job had something to do with her drive to prove herself (though it certainly didn't limit the number of male suitors she had).

Vreeland also doesn't shy away from stories about Peggy's promiscuity and her failed marriage to artist Max Ernst. When talking about Ernst, Peggy simply concludes she was "never loved." Guggenheim also struggled to raise her children, something that's also addressed in the movie. She refers to her daughter's marriage to a "psychopath" of a man whom she couldn't stand. Her daughter's untimely death deeply disturbed her.

Given the way Peggy championed artists who were not yet famous, it's clear from this documentary that she was ahead of her time. Vreeland provides a well-balanced and thorough examination of her illustrious career, concluding the film with a segment about her Venetian palazzo which currently houses her incredible collection.

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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