If Peggy Guggenheim had lived during the Italian Renaissance, she might have rivaled the Medicis in procurement of art. The 20th Century American art patron and avowed bohemian, Peggy Guggenheim, was overshadowed by her libidinous lifestyle, eccentricities and the artists (mostly men,) who benefited from her fortune and acumen.
“People just didn’t realize her pivotal role in the Modern Art world, says documentary filmmaker, Lisa Immordino Vreeland by Skype from London, England where she is researching her next doc on photographer and costume designer, Sir Cecil Beaton.
Immordino Vreeland’s first biographical documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, illuminated another woman of incredible vision – the legendary Vogue editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland. “She was my husband’s grandmother and unfortunately I never met her,” she confides. “Unlike Peggy, she was a very happy person and is still influential even today in the world of fashion.”
Her newest film, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is a fascinating and provocative look into one of the art worlds most eccentric and overlooked visionaries. Based on the book, The Wayward Guggenheim by biographer, Jacqueline Bograd Weld, Immordino Vreeland intertwines newly discovered audiotapes recorded with Guggenheim in 1979, (just before the heiress died,) with rare photos and footage of Picasso, Dali, Stein, Man Ray, Miro, Kandinsky, Pollock and De Kooning to name only a few.
The director had actually considered using an actress to play Peggy Guggenheim, until, digging around in Weld’s basement, she uncovered the treasure trove of original taped interviews.
“I’m fascinated by the story of reinvention,” says Immordino Vreeland. “I was an art history major and I just loved Peggy’s character. She was very strong yet had a lot of pain in her life. That really surprised me when I started making the film and I wondered how she could deal with all of that stuff.”
Growing up in the pre-eminent New York Jewish society of the 1900’s, Peggy Guggenheim suffered through a dysfunctional and lonely childhood. “I had been brought up to believe that I was ugly, because my sisters were great beauties. It had given me an inferiority complex,” Guggenheim admits in the film. She considered herself the black sheep of her very traditional German Jewish family and was prone to outlandish behavior including shaving her eyebrows off in a desperate attempt to gain attention. Her mother, Florette Seligman would repeat every sentence three times (possibly suffering from Tourette syndrome,) and thought Lysol was the cure for everything. Her father, Benjamin, away with a mistress in Europe much of the time, drowned in the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912.
When Guggenheim inherited $450,00 in 1919 at age twenty-one, (about $5 million in today’s terms,) she “escaped” to Paris where she immediately felt at home with the avant-garde art scene and all the decadence that it entailed. With Marcel Duchamp as her mentor, she remade herself into an art collector, astoundingly, mostly self-taught, using her inherent gut feeling, and a good eye. She bought Surrealist, Cubist, and Abstract Expressionism when no other institutions, including the Louvre, thought them worthwhile.
“In 1938, when Peggy opened Guggenheim Jeune in London, she was the first person to show specific artists in a certain way,” explains Immordino Vreeland. She was always on the cutting edge, open to ideas that were new and outrageous.”
But her greatest discovery was Jackson Pollock who was a carpenter and a total unknown at the time. Guggenheim supported him monetarily and believed in him like no one else did. “It’s all really courageous and it also made her feel good. She didn’t just fall in love with them, she fell in love with their art,” affirms Immordino Vreeland.
Among the many intriguing details Art Addict reveals:
- When WWII broke out in Europe, the Louvre refused to store the Guggenheim Collection. Guggenheim knew that Hitler would destroy everything, classifying it as degenerate art, so she packed them in crates marked ‘Kitchen Utensils’ and shipped them safely out of Paris to New York.
- Guggenheim mounted New York’s first exhibition of women painters entitled Exhibition By 31 Painters in 1943 at her Gallery, Art of This Century. Among artists Frida Kahlo, sculptor, Louise Nevelson, and Leonora Carrington was Virginia Holton Admiral, actor Robert De Niro’s mother.
- She was the first to create extraordinary innovative exhibition rooms with sculptures in the centre and art hanging from the ceilings
- By her own unapologetic admission, Guggenheim had thousands of lovers; seven abortions, a botched nose job, a tryst with Samuel Beckett and let one of her husbands, Max Ernst, wear her clothes.
” I think it was really ballsy of her to have been so open about her sexuality, ” says Immordino Vreeland. ” This was not something people did back then. So many people are bound by conventional rules but Peggy said no. She grabbed hold of life and she lived it on her own terms.”
In 1949 Guggenheim bought the sumptuous 18th Century Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on Venice’s Grand Canal where she installed her extensive Modern Art Collection. Open to the public, it’s one of the greatest tourist attractions in Italy. It is there, in the garden that Guggenheim’s ashes were laid to rest in 1979, next to her beloved 14 Lhasa Apso dogs.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is distributed in Canada by Films We Like.
Opens in Vancouver, Canada Dec 18th at VanCity Theatre: VIFF Website and across the U.S., Florence and London in January 2016.