One Picture a Day

Peggy Guggenheim’s relationships with men were difficult, to put it mildly.

As the new documentary Peggy Guggenheim:  Art Addict makes clear, the heiress and collector was far ahead of her time, both in recognizing the value of modern paintings and sculpture and in navigating the world of fine art — a world often suffused with the most condescending kind of sexism.  She married one man she loved and who abused her terribly, and another man whose art she loved but cared as little for him as he did for her.  She was lustful to comical extremes — she admitted to having over a thousand lovers, and many estimates placed the number far higher — but she was rejected by Jackson Pollock, a man whose reputation she helped make and whose life she helped sustain, in the crudest and most ungrateful terms.  But she never stopped believing in his talent.

As the title suggests, Art Addict makes a convincing argument that Peggy Guggenheim thought about her men the same way she thought about her art.  She simply had to possess both; at the height of her pre-war collecting, she claimed to have put herself on a strict diet of buying only one painting a day. She always treated both well, though they did not do the same for her.  And she indulged her habit at the expense of the rest of her life; while Art Addict makes Guggenheim’s role in ushering the age of modern art crystal-clear, it is not, as so many documentaries tend to be, a hagiography, making it just as clear that she was not well-suited to the role of mother to her children, nor did she make many lasting friendships that weren’t with paintings or dogs.

Guggenheim was born rich, though not as rich as many think.  The role of class isn’t one that’s played up very much in Art Addict; after all, this is the world of high art, and her collection is now said to be worth billions.  It’s hard to sympathize much, from a class perspective, with a woman who came from one of the wealthiest families in America and lived the final years of her life in a literal palace in Venice.  But her father died young (in the sinking of the Titanic), leaving her with relatively little compared to the rest of her kin, and she spent every dime she could scrape together on buying paintings.  She was prodigious in her support of people she considered talented, paying nearly all of Pollock’s living expenses and keeping Djuna Barnes on an allowance until the day she died.  She was also incredibly generous in ensuring that the work of her favorite artists would be preserved in perpetuity; buying up Pollock’s paintings at a time when they could be had for a few hundred dollars at the most, she donated over two hundred of them to museums after he became one of the century’s most celebrated figures, a quantity that might have made her hundreds of millions had she not given them away for free.

Formally, Art Addict is a fairly straightforward, old-school documentary, but director Lisa Immordino Vreeland — who previously performed a similar service for her grandmother-in-law — has access to a fairly vast collection of archival materials, including amazingly candid interviews with her subject, the distinctively designed posters from her Guggenheim Jeune gallery, and some rare artwork, including bits from a lost Maya Deren experimental film she funded.  Vreeland employs a light touch with music, brings in just the right number of talking heads, and allows everyone a voice, from Guggenheim’s greatest defenders to her most vociferous critics.  It’s hardly groundbreaking in style or tone — Peggy herself probably wouldn’t have watched it — but it does everything it sets out to do reasonably well.

Art Addict treats Guggenheim herself like a piece of fine art:  it doesn’t bother to explain her, it simply lets us observe her in the most ideal circumstance and make the call for ourselves.  There are plenty of enigmas in her life:  what went wrong in her relationship with Max Ernst?  What was the degree of her culpability in the suicide of her daughter Pegeen Vail?  What attracted her to Samuel Beckett, and him to her?  What was the true story of the mysterious death of her nieces?  One vital questions suffused the whole film:  to what extent was Guggenheim a feminist?  To some, simply fighting to be part of a scene that was (and is) dominated by men was enough; for others, she may not have been sufficiently vocal, or equally supportive of women in the same sphere.  (After she put on a show called “31 Women”, featuring work by exclusively female artists, her husband Max Ernst left her for one of them, Dorothea Tanning; she joked that she should have stopped at 30.)

One thing cannot in any way be denied:  Guggenheim’s impact on the world of art is nearly inestimable. Over and over she reinvented what was acceptable in the haute monde of fine arts, and she was always a setter rather than a follower of fashion; she was an early advocate of Dadaism, surrealism, Cubism, abstract expressionism, action painting, primitivism, and practically every other innovative manifestation of modernism.  She made Venice into a destination city for the arts, and is primarily responsible for not one but two of the finest collections of modern art in the world today.  She was at the helm of a vastly important gallery show that introduced European surrealists and dadaists to the English-speaking world, and another that introduced modernists to America.  And just before the war, she lived frugally to buy that one picture a day with a mind towards donating them to the Louvre, who told her they didn’t want them.  When the Second World War decimated the European arts scene, Guggenheim’s foresight proved to be the salvation of many brilliant artists, whose work likely would have been lost forever without her.

Peggy Guggenheim:  Art Addict isn’t the best documentary of the year, but it’s a refreshing throwback to the old days when there were set rules about how to make such films and who to make them about. Given such a salacious subject, it’s to the film’s credit that, despite her reputation — much of which she created and cultivated herself –it manages to find hidden depths that reveal much more than was on the subject.  Peggy may not have had any artistic talent of her own, but she was in every way a real work of art.


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