Peggy Guggenheim wasn’t your typical Jewish girl. Although her stock was from immigrant families peddling door-to-door on New York’s Lower East Side, by the time she was born, in 1898, it was into enormous wealth and a Park Avenue palace, forged by the merging of mining and banking families.
She went on to carve herself a niche in the art world to become one of the most famous and influential collectors of 20th Century works. She slept with most of the artists, too.
I’ve read Peggy’s memoirs – bought on a hot day during a visit to her museum in Venice – and they are brought enjoyably and spiritedly to life in Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s elegant documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.
Very little is made of Peggy’s Jewishness save for one mention of the school she was sent to on W72nd St where “super rich Jewish girls all learned to speak this way”. That is to say with an accent one might describe as American Posh, a strangely patrician gentrified tone more suited to English girl’s boarding schools.
Perhaps this schooling beat all the New York-y Jewishness out of her. It’s important to mention in this case because the meat of Immordino Vreeland’s film is the taped sound interviews with Peggy, newly discovered in the archive of Peggy’s biographer Jacqueline Bogard Weld.
Thus Peggy roams this film like a ghost, preserved in interview and through many still images. You really get a feel for her personality through that voice – brusque, unflustered, grand, breezy and distinctively different, a bit like that Venice Palazzo itself.
Chiefly, the documentary delights in ringing off the names of the artists she nurtured. Rothko, Pollock, Miro, Max Ernst (whom she married, unhappily), Giacometti, Clyfford Still, Man Ray and the French surrealists such as Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton and Yves Tanguy.
We see a lot of paintings and get cute little anecdotes of the type: “He was a tiny little man” or “I only slept with him once, hardly worth mentioning,” or “On the day Hitler invaded Norway, I bought a picture from Fernand Leger for a very good price.”
The film glories in Peggy’s time in 1920s Paris, when bohemian artists abounded – the doc recalls Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris in that respect for here is someone who really did hang out with Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Djuna Barnes and Dali, as well as sleep with Samuel Beckett.
But it also reveals how she helped many artists – and art works – escape the Nazis in Paris and set up in New York, founding the crucial avant-garde gallery Art of This Century in 1942. It was there – and I did not know this – that she first exhibited work by Robert De Niro’s father and mother, Virginia Admiral, something to which the actor himself here gives gruff acknowledgement.
On to Venice and the founding of the current gallery in 1951, and tales of eccentric parties with lots of gay men and apparently terrible food…This film skips along very entertainingly, at the sort of chop-chop pace that suits both Peggy’s voice and the modernity of the paintings she loved.
The film speaks for itself, resisting any need to over-discuss Peggy’s trailblazing role as a woman in the art world. Like Woody Allen’s protagonist Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson, most of the time you’ll just wish you could be invited along.