In the exclusive circles of the art world, Peggy Guggenheim is infamous. A patron for some of the most accomplished artists of the 20th century, today she is known for her adventurous sex life and her lifelong devotion to modern art before it was cool.
But “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” describes, in no uncertain terms, the person behind the heiress to the Guggenheim fortune. Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland, granddaughter-in-law of Diana Vreeland, dives as deep as she can into the intricacies and eccentricities of Guggenheim’s life. However, when dealing with a subject as insecure and, frankly, strange as Guggenheim, it is impossible to get what feels like the full story.
Framed around the audio recordings of an interview with Guggenheim herself during the last year of her life in 1979, the film allows her to speak for herself. But I couldn’t imagine a woman like Guggenheim would let anyone else talk for her. Describing herself as both a nymphomaniac and an art addict, she name drops her various cliques of lovers and artists with casual ease and humor. The talking heads, including surprising figures such as Robert De Niro and art critic John Richardson, only add to this carefully drawn portrait of Guggenheim.
Told in chronological order and divided into the different emotional passages of her life, the film describes how Guggenheim has always been “the wayward Guggenheim” — the black sheep of a prestigious family that was the equivalent of American nobility. After her father died going down in the Titanic, she was left with 450,000 dollars. While this may seem substantial for a teenager, it was a meager allowance for a Guggenheim.
She moved to Paris and opened her first gallery on a whim, deciding that a gallery would be less expensive than a publishing company. In the very nonchalant way to which the viewer must very quickly adjust, Guggenheim affirms that she couldn’t have opened the gallery if her (mother) hadn’t died. Though Guggenheim routinely discusses incredibly sad topics in the film, including the suicide of her daughter, her multiple divorces and the botched nose job that led to her lifelong insecurity in her appearance, she never quite varies from the same posh voice with which she addresses everything.
Guggenheim was revolutionary in so many ways. After opening her gallery in Paris right before World War II broke out and Hitler invaded France, she waited until the last second to move back to America to continue her work. There’s a fantastic line when her interviewer asks her, “You realize you could have been sent to a concentration camp?” and she responds, “Of course!” in her offhand and erratic manner. Guggenheim is all at once naïve and sophisticated, intimidatingly smart and alarmingly foolish. She’s described as not particularly beautiful, but incredibly charismatic and sexual. We see this in every portrait of her and every word that she says — she’s an alluring compilation of contradictions, impossible to tear our ears and eyes from.
After the Nazi invasion, she opened a gallery in New York called Art of This Century. It was here that she became truly known in the U.S. for her avant-garde lifestyle and artistic choices. She opened the exhibit 31 Women, one of the only spaces for female expression in the patriarchal art world. After tiring of New York, she moved to Venice, and her home-turned-art-museum has since become one of the world’s most popular spaces for modern art.
Watching the film feels like opening a scrapbook. The lively colors of the b-roll under the audio of Guggenheim’s interview are reminiscent of the art that she worked so hard to present. The opening titles are splattered with Pollack-esque paint, and the rest of the film seems like a collage pasted together by a modern artist that we should know, but don’t.
The film inspired so many questions in me. It made me want to learn about the artists that Guggenheim loved and was loved by; it made me want to ask about the types of art that people are making right now, the kind that would excite the artists I’d just learned about. But one question really stuck with me as I walked out of the theater: am I in love with Peggy Guggenheim?