It’s been 36 years since Peggy Guggenheim’s death, and the debate still rages: Was she a connoisseur in her own right, or was her taste entirely formed by the men around her? Needless to say, such a question would never be asked with such persistence of a male art collector, and Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” accepts the legitimacy of the query when the documentary should be challenging the assumptions behind it. Still, Guggenheim is such a fascinating figure that few will snipe at a character analysis that rarely gets below the surface. “Art Addict” is ideal PBS-type fare.
Though they were both grandes dames, Guggenheim and Diana Vreeland (the subject of the bio-docu “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” co-helmed by her granddaughter-in-law Immordino Vreeland) were very different types. Vreeland showed how personal style can wend its way into every corner of creativity, making personality a key element of inspiration. Guggenheim was less secure, encouraging the artistic process without passing through the crucible of her own temperament.
Like the previous docu, “Art Addict” uses a mix of archival images and talking heads, though the buoyant stylishness that pervaded every element of “Vreeland” has been replaced by a more generic, less playful sensibility. The biggest calling card here is the use of recently rediscovered audio tapes between Guggenheim and her authorized biographer, Jacqueline Bograd Weld: The questions aren’t terribly probing, but the subject herself, with that distinctive Gotham-gentry voice, seems never less than candid, and the recordings are invaluable.
The double draw of Guggenheim as character and collector has always created a problem of emphasis for biographers, including Weld, whose 1986 bio was criticized for dishing the dirt (and there’s a lot) without really engaging with her subject’s importance as collector and guiding force in recognizing modern art’s greatest talents. In her galleries, before the house museum in Venice, Guggenheim helped introduce the world to Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko and scores of others now recognized as key masters of modernism, yet the juicy details of her sexual escapades, which she spoke of freely, often overwhelm her significant legacy.
Fortunately, Immordino Vreeland is more balanced than Weld, and her interviews with the art scene’s movers and shakers help situate Guggenheim within her era while giving space to her impact on our own. The docu’s approach is straightforward, recalling Guggenheim’s privileged yet eccentric family, the trauma of losing her father on the Titanic, and her desire to escape from the constraints of her conservative milieu. (More could have been said about the psychological impact of fabulous wealth combined with the pariah status attached to Jewish families in many high-class circles.)
In 1921 she moved to Paris and mingled with the people Woody Allen dreams of: Picasso, Dali, Joyce, Pound, Stein, Leger, Kandinsky. She married an abusive man, had two kids, divorced, and flung herself body and soul (in equal amounts) into the bohemian life, relying on Marcel Duchamp to help hone her eye. In 1938 she opened a gallery in London and began showing Cocteau, Tanguy, Magritte, Miro, Brancusi, etc., and then back to Paris and New York after the Nazi invasion, followed by her marriage to Max Ernst and the opening of her gallery Art of This Century, which became one of the premiere avant-garde spaces in the U.S. (Maya Deren’s “Witch’s Cradle” was shot there). In 1947 she moved to Venice, and since 1951 her collection has become one of the world’s most visited art spaces.
“Art Addict,” with its joint implication of “sex addict,” generally does a good job balancing the two poles of its subject’s life, but Immordino Vreeland makes little of the fact that the men interviewed talk of Guggenheim’s promiscuity, ego and eccentricities, while her women friends speak of her vulnerability and lack of cant. Case in point: When asked “What question would you ask Peggy Guggenheim?,” art curator Diego Cortez responds, “How was Samuel Beckett in bed?” How sad to reduce her life to a footnote in Beckett’s sexual conquests.
Apart from the Maya Deren clip and another of Hans Richter’s “Dreams That Money Can Buy,” no mention is made of her association with avant-garde filmmakers, and only at the end do we learn of the monthly allowances she sent to people like Djuna Barnes. Better explored is the vital role she played in Jackson Pollock’s career, yet the question of whether Guggenheim really had her own taste, or was merely guided by others, continues to undeservedly dog her reputation.
Too much archival footage (including Luis Bunuel, Man Ray and Rene Clair) is used to generically pad out the visuals, and why use a still shot of the lost John Jacob Astor mansion when the Benjamin Guggenheim house still stands? Graphics are uninspired, and the pleasantly jazzy score is used with little creativity, but sound work is fine (vital for the recordings), and clips with artists like Pollock and De Kooning are judiciously inserted.