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A Documentary Portrait of Peggy Guggenheim, Collector of Art and Artists

Unknown photographer, Peggy Guggenheim in her bedroom, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice (courtesy of Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice)
Unknown photographer, Peggy Guggenheim in her bedroom, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice (courtesy Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice)

Peggy Guggenheim did enough living for 10 people. Her incredibly eventful life has been the subject of several biographies and one salacious autobiography, but Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s endearing Peggy Guggenheim — Art Addict, currently playing at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, is the first documentary film devoted to the pioneering art collector. The 1978 and ’79 recordings of Guggenheim’s conversations with biographer Jacqueline Bograd Weld, which turned out to be her final interviews and were long believed lost, form the film’s de facto score, punctuating the chronological telling of her life story. Guggenheim’s comments to Weld are less informative — that’s what the lineup of art world superstar talking heads is for — than they are indicative of a sensitivity, temperament, and personality that are difficult to glean from the sensational facts of her life.

Vreeland recounts Guggenheim’s early decades with a mix of archival materials, excerpts from contemporaneous movies, and commentary from biographers and art historians. Born in 1898, she grew up in New York City’s high society. Her mother’s family made its fortune in banking, her father’s in mining. When she was just 13, her father, Benjamin Guggenheim — whose brother Solomon went on to found the namesake museum on Fifth Avenue and the foundation that eventually took over the management of her collection— died aboard the Titanic. At 21, Peggy got her first exposure to art and the European avant-garde working in a Manhattan bookstore; two years later she moved to Paris and fell in with the city’s modernist painters, sculptors, musicians, and writers. This is when the names of famous artists whom she bought work from, financially supported, solicited advice from, gave their first exhibition to, slept with, or some combination thereof, begin to pile up. A frequent refrain in the film — as in the biographies and, by all accounts, her lifetime — is that Guggenheim’s love of art and her love of artists were just about evenly matched.

Roloff Beny, Peggy Guggenheim seen through a sculpture (courtesy of National Archives of Canada and Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice)
Roloff Beny, Peggy Guggenheim seen through a sculpture (courtesy National Archives of Canada and Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice) (click to enlarge)

Though Art Addict focuses on Guggenheim’s curatorial, acquisitional, and sexual triumphs, it also tries to elucidate the impulses and complexes that drove her behavior. Feelings of being an outsider in New York society’s upper echelons after her father’s death likely led her to seek out and identify with the weirdos of Paris’s interwar art community, as several interviewees suggest. According to some, that sense of loneliness, rather than belonging, is also what made sex her default way of establishing a connection with so many of the people in her life.

Vreeland’s film ably synthesizes biographical and psychological portraits of Guggenheim, but devotes frustratingly little attention to how she honed her interest in and eye for art. Between her stints rounding and running galleries in London and New York (Guggenheim Jeune and Art of This Century, respectively), rescuing countless modern masterpieces and several artists from the Nazis, supporting Jackson Pollock through the key years of his career, and founding the namesake collection in Venice, she played an enormous role in shaping the canon of 20th-century art. But how did she know what would last? In one scene her support for Pollock, whose work she originally dismissed, is credited to the advice of Piet Mondrian; in another, a great deal of praise is heaped on Marcel Duchamp for guiding Peggy’s purchases and selections. Beyond those details, there’s little in Art Addict to explain why her addiction pushed her to champion the artists she did.

The comparatively unsexy topic of taste goes largely unexplored, while the more gossipy whos and whens of Guggenheim’s life get the most play. This doesn’t constitute a major flaw in what is, in the end, an effective and affecting documentary biography — just a topic left frustratingly abstract in an otherwise crisp and complete portrait.

Unknown photographer, Peggy Guggenheim in front of her Palazzo, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice (courtesy of Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice)
Unknown photographer, Peggy Guggenheim in front of her Palazzo, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice (courtesy Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice)

Peggy Guggenheim — Art Addict plays at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22 at 6pm, April 24 at 6:30pm, April 25 at 5:45pm, and April 26 at 6pm.

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