Film review, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict by Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Published in Canadian Art, 2016


Peggy Guggenheim was born in 1898, an event she describes in her memoirs thusly: “I was born in New York City on West Sixty-Ninth Street. I don’t remember anything about this.”

The new documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, features an array of such sharp one-liners. The film’s director, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, has found tapes of conversations between Guggenheim and her last biographer, Jacqueline B. Weld, which were lost for many years. It’s hard to imagine the film without them.

Art Addict is business-casual and chronological, peppered with some fantastic clips from early Dadaist and surrealist films, which, regrettably, only appear in fragments. These are paired with archival B-roll footage of things like pre-WWII horse-and-buggy street scenes that mostly function to carry Guggenheim’s crackly, luxuriant New England-ese from the tapes. The art is presented Ken Burns–style, with lots of slow zooming and panning over seminal works by Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky and others. This approach has unfortunately become common in visual-arts documentaries.

Numerous contemporary-art personages weigh in on Guggenheim, from Hans Ulrich Obrist to Jeffrey Deitch to Marina Abramovic, the latter of whose two contributions are comprised of emphasizing the importance of patrons over collectors, and commenting on Guggenheim’s thirsty approach to sex as “so refreshing.” Many other curators, writers and affiliates of major American art institutions, their names listed in the credits, are left out of the film entirely.

While the speakers generally do well in portraying the singularity of Guggenheim’s accomplishments, a few relish in the volatile sexism that can accompany discussions of powerful women. Before the opening credits even finish, John Richardson suggests that since Guggenheim wasn’t attractive, she had to resort to other means to gain popularity and social cachet. This is one of the pioneering, if not the pioneering, collectors of modern and contemporary art from the early-20th century, a woman who almost singlehandedly united the European and American avant-gardes. Must we begin with her physical appearance? (Besides, she looked great.)

Later, Dore Ashton, author of The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, weighs in, saying Guggenheim failed to realize people were constantly trying to exploit her, calling her “charmingly naive.” Based on Guggenheim’s own recollections in her memoirs, however, she supported projects and people she perceived as having potential and value (financial or otherwise), so long as it was within her means to do so. It’s obvious that la vie bohème and the artistic communities she moved through were the RMS Carpathia to her alternately traumatizing and boring childhood—a lifeline she felt was alone worth the investment. In the film, when an unidentified male interviewer from the tapes notes Guggenheim’s benevolence, asking if she thought the artists had “repaid [her] sufficiently well,” she responds, “Well, I didn’t expect to be repaid. I think the fact that they have created and given so much to humanity on the whole is enough.”

The conventional documentary form, in particular the biography, is known for its onslaught of talking heads sitting in front of bookshelves. Art Addict is no different, and this multiplicity of voices, with their varying degrees of proximity to the subject and their own interpretations, can muddle the portrait. Halfway through the film there is a sequence about Guggenheim’s botched nose job. A male interviewee postulates that her failed-surgery “funny face” was “a root of a lot of her complexes.” Yet if we must pathologize, why not point to the premature death of her favourite sister, Benita, with whom she never fell out of love; or the Titanic death of her father, who, dressed in his finest, apparently helped women and children board the rescue boats; or the sudden death of her only true love, John Holms, who never woke from minor wrist surgery.

Another interviewee reflects on her social presence: “She wasn’t at all forward and confident. She was charming, but timid.” Another plainly calls her “insecure.” Yet in the foreword for the 1979 reprint of Guggenheim’s memoirs, Gore Vidal writes that she seemed more like a guest than a hostess at her own parties— that she “drifted effortlessly,” and that there was “something cool and impenetrable about her.” He also notes her capacity for “silence, a rare gift. She listens, an even rarer gift.” Some talking heads of Art Addict seem to misunderstand the true nature and power of the introvert.

And so the conventional Art Addict succeeds in summarizing Guggenheim’s life and achievements, detailing her generosity, selflessness and desire to embed herself in the lifestyle of the artists whose work she collected. These are increasingly rare qualities in collectors today, ones Guggenheim was too effacing to claim for herself. The  documentary is more a public service than an artwork, a film about her, not of her. If you want to get to know the real Peggy, go to the source. Read her memoirs.