Peggy Guggenheim Documentary by Lisa Immordino-Vreeland Reveals Life of Nonstop Art and Sex

The film unabashedly looks at the sex as well as the art patronage.

Peggy Guggenheim.
Peggy Guggenheim lounging on her bed with Calder headboard behind.

A new film devoted to the cultural and sexual exploits of one of the great art patrons of the 20th century gets its big screen debut at the Tribeca Film Festival Monday night.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, a 90-minute documentary, pulls back the curtain on a life that included affairs with some of the great artists of the modern era in the course of building of an unparalleled collection. Guggenheim’s holdings of Picasso, Ernst, Calder, Giacometti, Magritte and many other masters now reside in a palace in Venice, part of the foundation started by her uncle Solomon, founder of the namesake museum.

The film centers on a recently unearthed 1978–1979 audio recording, the last interview of her life, with biographer Jacqueline B. Weld. The tapes were long thought to be lost, the filmmaker reveals, but turned up in Weld’s basement during the making of the film. Excerpts are woven throughout the film, along with abundant archival photographs and films. Also featured are interviews with luminaries from dealer Larry Gagosian and Picasso biographer John Richardson to art historian and author Dore Ashton, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, and Art in America editor Lindsay Pollock.

“She managed to put together the nucleus of one of the great collections for the almost laughable sum of $40,000,” New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins points out.

The director, Lisa Immordino-Vreeland, is also the filmmaker behind the 2011 documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, described as “dizzyingly enjoyable” by the New York Times and “fascinating” by the Guardian. She’s the wife of a grandson of the iconic fashion editor.

Revelations, on Tape

“I didn’t know that she also gave Lucian Freud his first gallery show,” Immordino-Vreeland told artnet News by phone last week. He was included in a show of art by children staged at Guggenheim’s gallery in London.

“Many people may not know that she supported these artists when their work was so avant-garde, they weren’t accepted even by the art crowd of their day,” she said.

Offsetting these triumphs, she also suffered terrible losses, including the suicide of her daughter Pegeen, the death of her sister Benita in childbirth, and the apparent murder by her sister Hazel of her two children.

The film devotes a fair bit of time to her sex life, as Guggenheim herself did, perhaps as a way of breaking out of the strict social confines that her family, who made their fortune in banking, sought to impose. The family members themselves, the film points out, were “famously off their rockers,” with murder and suicide attempts aplenty.

“I think I was sort of a nymphomaniac,” Guggenheim says. Referring to her autobiography, Out of this Century, she says that her family called it “Out of Her Mind.”

“My book was all about fucking,” she says mischievously on the tape. Naturally, Guggenheim was branded a slut, though commentators point out that she was no more promiscuous than her male lovers, and just did all the same things they did.

“So refreshing,” says Marina Abramović in the film.

The Girl with Galleries in Paris, London, and New York

In her early days in Paris, Guggenheim mixed with Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Kiki de Montparnasse, Man Ray, and James Joyce. She and Ezra Pound played tennis. Marcel Duchamp, an early advisor, gave her his first Boîte-en-Valise, a work encompassing miniature reproductions of key works in a portable case.

She used an inheritance to open an art gallery in Paris, choosing that venture because, she says, it was cheaper than starting a publishing company. She showed Cocteau, and she befriended Tanguy and Breton, but even so she wasn’t always taken seriously.

When she gave Wassily Kandinsky his first UK solo at her London gallery, the artist urged her to ask her uncle, Solomon Guggenheim, to buy a painting. His adviser, Hilla Rebay, sent a response: “Your gallery will be the last one for our foundation to use if ever the need should force us to use a sales gallery. You will soon find you are propagating mediocrity, if not trash.”

Unfazed, Guggenheim replied, “I was quite amused by your letter. I think you have quite the wrong idea about my Art Gallery.” Guggenheim, of course, would later come around.

Peggy Guggenheim conceived the notion of starting her own museum as World War II loomed, and went to Europe, where she opportunistically bought a mountain of art while artists were desperate to sell it, and smuggled her collection out of Europe by billing it as household supplies, with the help of a friend in the shipping industry. She also saved the lives of Max Ernst, André Breton and others by getting them to New York. Ernst married her later, in what Richardson calls a canny career move, but repaid her kindness by leaving her for Dorothea Tanning, who was included in Guggenheim’s show “31 Women,” possibly the first all-female group show.

“Should’ve made it 30 Women,” Guggenheim quips in the film.

On her arrival in New York, she started yet another gallery, Art of This Century, giving solo debuts to a host of artists including Hans Hoffman, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still.

Speaking of Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner, she confides in the tape, “Once we went to bed together, when Lee was away somewhere, which was very unsuccessful, and he threw his drawers out the window.”

Finding a Home in La Serenissima

After the war, Guggenheim set up shop in Venice, where she lent her collection to the Venice Biennale in 1948, with a huge effect on future editions of the Biennale, which became increasingly oriented toward the modern and contemporary, Richardson observes.

The food at her Venice parties, though, was the worst, he adds.

Courted by numerous institutions, she wound up donating her holdings to the foundation begun by her uncle Solomon, after showing them at “my uncle’s garage,” as she called Frank Lloyd Wright’s trademark spiral on Fifth Avenue. “Isn’t that what it looks like?” she asks on the tape. “All that circular business.”

Guggenheim is buried in the garden at the Venice home of her collection, along with 14 of her dogs.


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