VIFF 2015: Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
It takes a while to put your finger on what was different about Peggy Guggenheim compared to other similar figures - those who were famous socialites or artists or bohemians. This is it: she wasn't cool. She was a little awkward and dorky compared to the fabulous personalities surrounding her, even those odd and unstable artists who she loved. This makes her more appealing as a subject, and it also makes her achievements more impressive.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is really a film about autobiography itself, how we tell the stories of our lives and how we imagine our selves and personas into being, both as events happen and, especially, after the fact. The trait that many repeat about Guggenheim is that she believed in herself. She had a narrative about her life which she constructed fairly early on and she found a way to realize it and to have it mean something after she was gone.
She was a success on her own terms. She did not inherit the millions of the Guggenheim family because her father died on the Titanic. She had a fair amount of money but spent it all first on her galleries (which showed a large number of important American and European surrealist and abstract expressionist artists for the fist time) and then to buy the art to create her own museum. For her, success was not happiness or love or her own creativity, it was to encourage art and to recognize genius and allow it to flourish and she did so. She helped artists and their art escape the Nazis even though she could have been stuck in Europe and killed. She did come from a famous family and used the name but she was always the outsider.
As much artistic knowledge as Guggenheim gained and as good as her taste and advice were, she seems to have retained a naïveté. She never became disillusioned or hardened, perhaps because her vision was so clear and so pure. When asked if she felt artists whom she had patronized had paid her back adequately she said that she didn't care. All that mattered was the art and if she allowed artists to make important art, then she was fulfilled. Unlike many people in the art world, she was not mean, and that is perhaps what gave her charm and made her likable. When asked about the writer Mary McCarthy she said, oh yes we were very friendly. When asked about a story McCarthy wrote (The Cicerone) which was obviously an unflattering portrait of Guggenheim, she admitted that it was mean but didn't seem bothered. When an art critic who had basically written that she had terrible taste wanted to stay with her in Venice, he just showed up because, he said, he knew how forgiving she was. She was not after power and because of this she was not feared.
Unlike so many other famous women in bohemian circles, Guggenheim was not beautiful. She was obviously smart but not extremely charming. She seems to have enjoyed giving parties but also described herself as a "lone wolf." She managed to accumulate a large number of lovers and was apparently infamous for this, plagued by the double standards of the time. People obviously felt comfortable putting her down. Not that they didn't like her or didn't care for her opinion but perhaps because they weren't afraid of her. Many describe how bad the food and drink were at her parties!
Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland uncovered some interview tapes which were thought to have been lost. While this gave her an exciting story, the interviews themselves (done by her biographer, Jacqueline Bograd Weld) are not scintillating. Weld asks leading questions to which Guggenheim simply answers yes or no. Despite this, the film itself is put together in an interesting way. It is chronological but doesn't just pile fact upon fact. In the end this encouraged me to think deeply about Guggenheim in particular but about life stories in general so it is much more than a story about art.
Playing Oct 9th 6:15 pm at SFU Woodwards.