I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“She wasn’t loved, so she didn’t know how to give love.”
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is a documentary portrait of one of the world’s most legendary female art collectors and patrons. Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s last film, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, was a similar retrospective on the life and career of the fabled fashion icon. This time, Vreeland (the director—not the style maven) explores the vivid, art-filled life of Peggy, a champion of creative talent. The film is a mixture of vast archival footage, still photographs, and interviews with some of the art world’s prominent movers and shakers—mostly men—such as Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Larry Gagosian, Marina Abramović, and Arne Glimcher. Vreeland also unearthed the last interview Guggenheim ever gave and wove those sound bites into the narrative; featuring Peggy’s long conversation with biographer Jacqueline Bograd Weld, these audiotapes reveal her particular brand of bawdy humor.
Heiress to a family fortune, Guggenheim strayed from her life of privilege, and became immersed in the stranger, less predictable world of art. She’s famous now as a collector and gallery owner—having harvested not only an impressive assemblage of modern art (purchased cleverly and cheaply), but also a collection of lovers, mostly artists themselves. Guggenheim possessed an intuition for artistic genius and a self-professed “addiction” to seeking out the best and most innovative. She was an advocate for the work of creators whose names are huge today but considered wildly avant-garde at the time. She discovered and facilitated the career of Pollock and was the first to show the work of Rothko, Kandinsky, and Lucian Freud. She was intimately linked to Calder, Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, and even joked she had an affair with Brancusi just so she could get a better price on his sculpture. She married Max Ernst and brought him to America during World War II. She had female friends, too; hers was the first gallery to host an exhibition devoted to exclusively women artists.
Fellowships and scholarships weren’t abundant in those days, so Guggenheim’s support of artists in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s was essential. Although she mixed business with pleasure, she claims the art always came first. “Do you think artists are great people?” Weld asks during their interview. “They’re certainly a lot more interesting,” Guggenheim replies. “Sometimes they’re disappointing, but sometimes they’re even better than their art.”
While she was certainly a citizen of the world, Guggenheim’s personal life was bleak and complicated; many of those close to her died tragically, and many of her friends remember Peggy as a lonely figure. She was never especially comfortable in her own skin, but employed art and her collector’s notoriety as a way of carving out her niche in the world. She hobnobbed with artists and writers most people would kill to meet (her life wasn’t so different from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris); then absorbed and espoused the artistic ideals of whatever time period she was privy to, from surrealism, to cubism, to abstract expressionism.
I spoke with Lisa Immordino Vreeland about the unique construction of her documentary, common misconceptions about Peggy, and the importance of reinvention and rebellion.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold You have a long background in the fashion world.
Lisa Immordino Vreeland I do! Which doesn’t give me any credibility in the film world, that’s for sure.
AJG That explains your interest in making your last film, The Eye Has to Travel. The fashion and art worlds often intersect and collide. Have you always had a passion for art, and where did the interest in Peggy Guggenheim come from?
LIV I was an art history major, so I’ve always had a passion for art and traveled to see exhibits. That’s all I want to do when I go to different cities. I grew up in Milan, and we went to Venice, so I grew up understanding this world and knowing a little about Peggy’s history. When I was promoting Vreeland, that’s when I started to work on Peggy. What really attracted me to her, and to Diana Vreeland too, was the sense of reinvention. Reinventing yourself and finding a whole course for your life that you didn’t really know you had. I found that fascinating.
AJG How do you think Peggy reinvented herself—in the sense that she came from a certain upbringing and became the rebellious black sheep of her family?
LIV I think she totally rebelled against her family. She also took her time finding a métier in her life, and didn’t want to be what she was brought up to be as a Guggenheim. She went to Paris in the ’20s, and began to understand whom she was. But it still took her some time, collecting and being in that world until the late ’30s. She did not want to be what her family thought she should be.
AJG Why was it important for you to not only have a lineup of superstar art world talking heads, but also to find the recording of Peggy’s more intimate, final interview with her biographer Weld?
LIV I think we were lucky that we found it—that was very fortuitous for us. It’s sometimes hard when you have a figure like this; there was obviously some film that was shot on her, but to really make her come alive, you need people to talk, some who knew her and some who didn’t, and you kind of question: “Well, how real is this?” In the case of these tapes, they were very hard to work with, but we ended up finding enough material to piece together the narrative of the film. We didn’t have a lot of film footage, but we do see her in many still photographs, and we watch her grow up on the screen. And she especially comes alive through her voice in the Weld interview. Though her voice, at times, is not that alive! She’ll withhold things, and that was also hard to deal with.
AJG You mean there are things she’s reluctant to talk about?
LIV No, I just think she was very emotionally detached at times. You can see how she was very uncomfortable with the camera; she would coyly look at it if she were being filmed. At times, her answers with Jackie [Weld] were simple “yes” or “no” or “wasn’t it wonderful?” That doesn’t give the viewer much. But Jackie did such a good job of asking questions. Her questions were imperative to keep the narrative moving forward.
AJG Peggy’s sense of humor comes across in the interview clips you chose.
LIV I felt that when I read her autobiography many years ago. It’s quite funny and nonchalant at times. But she’s also covering her feelings up, because there are some sad and shocking things she’s talking about. She casually mentions, “Oh, I had seven abortions.” And you’re like, “Okay, that’s a scary thought.” Those are the type of things some people today can’t even talk about.
AJG You made The Eye Has to Travel four years ago. How was the production process or the challenges of making this film different from the last one?
LIV What I love is archival footage, and I think it’s clear that’s my style. With Peggy, we had such beautiful footage of all these artists; those are my favorite moments in the film. With Vreeland, we had these great editorials. But this time we had artwork to deal with—you can only show artwork in one or two different ways. Legally, at some point you have to show it full-screen. But it can become quite pedantic, so I think the way we used it, as part of the narrative, to tell the story, worked quite well. It didn’t have this heavy-handed academic feel to it. When we used the paintings, they’re chosen and placed in the areas that they are for a reason—because they’re art historically correct there. I get a little nerdy about that and want it to be accurate.
AJG One challenge for documentarians with a lot of interview footage is how to fill the visual space and give the audience something interesting to look at while they listen to people talk. As you just mentioned, you used a ton of archival footage, which is something you did in your last film, too. How did you make those visual decisions?
LIV Sometimes it’s very easy. It’s part of a narrative. Since we had her talking and describing artists, it was so important to show them. Other times, it was more about trying to illustrate something we didn’t have an image for. Sometimes it can be forced—but I like the way we did it. For example, she was talking about how attracted she was to Paul Bowles, and we have this great footage of Bowles. I’m sure there will be some people who don’t like it. But we had such beautiful footage, and a lot of people aren’t familiar with it. We had a license for creativity there.
AJG One similarity between Vreeland and Guggenheim is that neither was technically classified as an “artist” or creator. But they were both creative in their sense of being curators or arbiters of taste. Do you believe this talent for having taste in recognizing great style or great art is as impressive or important as the talent for actually creating that art?
LIV Oh, I think so. There are people that play certain roles in life, and Peggy was this genre-choosing pollinator, but she was also a facilitator and a conduit. She had this sense of openness, for her to play such an important role in so many different countries, and the artists who lived in those countries; London, Paris, New York, and Venice. There are not that many historical figures who have done that. She had the great fortune to be there before a lot of those people knew they needed the support. She had an incredible openness about her—which is interesting, because of her background she shouldn’t have it—but this is how she displayed her rebellion, and showed her true self. She found the freedom to feel good about herself. From the moment she decided she wanted to build the collection, she wanted to share it with the public. She wanted to build a museum and give back. Those are the fundamental principles of what patronage is.
AJG Not wanting to keep it to yourself.
LIV Right. I like that there’s not an immense sense of ego. Of course, toward the end of her life, in the ’60s and ’70s, you see all these goofy pictures of her in her palazzo with fur coats. She’s getting old; let her be a little vain! But it wasn’t ego.
AJG The biopic is a popular film genre right now. What’s the biggest challenge in distilling someone’s very complicated, busy life into a 1.5 hour documentary?
LIV It’s very hard in her case, because there’s so much material. And the breadth of it, not only her art historical accomplishments, but also her personal life, which plays such a huge role in the steps she took. What do we put in, what do we take out—there were a lot of sleepless nights figuring out that balance. Also, not making it so scholarly that you’re just going to fall asleep. I’ve been speaking to a lot of younger journalists today, and I’m excited they like it—unless you’re just being nice to me. [laughter]
AJG No, it’s very lively. There’s the art history, and then there’s the titillating details of her sex life with a plethora of famous artists, and the humor of that.
LIV I adore the Italian writer Italo Calvino, and I don’t know the exact words in English, but he has a saying about something being useful and also teaching you a lesson. That’s kind of the way I think of this: that you’re entertained, but you’re also learning. In the case of this film, there’s a lot of art historical accuracy, which I can vouch for, because of the amount of museums and people in the art world who have seen it. But many people who’ve seen the film say, “I never knew that.” So there’s a takeaway, which is important. Plus there’s also a real understanding of who she was—she had this great sadness. Through the sadness, she was able to achieve what she did. She was driven by her passion to build something, and she overcame everything else. That is, fundamentally, the story I like. It’s a little schmaltzy, but I like the idea of being passionate, having a dream, and succeeding in it.
AJG Were there misconceptions about Peggy you were trying to correct with this film?
LIV Definitely. Art historically, she has not been given everything that’s due to her. Her accomplishments are so much bigger than what people think. Hopefully this film will really change that. A lot of people didn’t know about her personal life; they knew about her extravagance, the way she was eccentric with the glasses and the way she dressed, and her lovers, but they didn’t really understand how she had all these people who died around her, her father died on the Titanic, her daughter killed herself. You understand her much more as you learn all these things.
AJG Why do you believe she hasn’t she gotten her due?
LIVI think because she’s not an intellectual. If you talk about historical figures, women in the art world, you think of Isabella Stewart Gardner—she would be considered more intellectual than Peggy. And then there’s Gertrude Stein, who was obviously an intellectual. Yet Peggy’s achievements are so much broader than either of those women, you can’t even compare it. Because of her other sides, her sexual side and her aloofness, she has been omitted from people’s biographies. If you look at Samuel Beckett’s legacy, there’s no mention of her. She’s written about quite extensively in Pollock’s life, and Duchamp’s, but she’s often not taken as seriously as other really big collectors. She’s probably a little bit at fault for that, for not being as generous as a persona, and not giving much of herself. I don’t think she knew how to. She wasn’t loved, so she didn’t know how to give love.
AJG One of the unfair criticisms of Peggy is her promiscuity, that it’s somehow a bad thing, when many men around her did the same thing. Have you felt at this point in your career, especially since transitioning into the famously male-dominated film industry, that you’ve been pigeonholed or had your identify oversimplified in the same way, being a woman?
LIV No, I don’t. I don’t believe in it. I don’t look at men as being my competition. I feel like I have the desire to do something and accomplish it. I just think of my own motivation and drive. I never pigeonhole myself in a situation, thinking, “Oh I’m not going to get it because I’m a woman.” Maybe that’s a naïve way of thinking about things. I also march a little bit to my own drum. I do my own projects the way I want to do them; I’m not looking for fame, I’m just looking to tell a good story and get it out there to the public. Hearing “no” is not going to put me down—it just motivates me more.
AJG In the interviews your film showcases, some of the male art world power-players seem most interested in discussing Peggy’s sexual history, and the women talk more about her vulnerabilities and character. Did you notice any difference between the men and women in terms of their attitudes about Peggy?
LIV I did. It’s an odd thing, but I just found more men who personally knew her—and by the way, they were all gay men. They did have a different attitude. But they all really loved her for her individuality, and all had different points of view about her. I’d say John Richardson knew her the best; he would stay at the palazzo with her for the Venice Biennale, with his boyfriend. The men, their point of view… I don’t think they looked down on her, but they had an opinion on different things.
AJG Do you have another figure in mind whose life you’d love to delve into next?
LIV I’m doing a film about Cecil Beaton.
AJG That’s a good one.
LIV I agree. It’s gonna be fun.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict opens November 6, 2015 at Film Forum in New York City.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic and non-fiction writer. She has published arts writing with BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, and Indiewire.com.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee