PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT (2015) review
produced by: Dan Braun, David Koh, Stanley F. Buchthal & Lisa Immordino Vreeland
directed by: Lisa Immordino Vreeland
runtime: 95 min.
U.S. release date: April 15, 2015 (Tribeca Film Festival), November 6, 2015 and January 8, 2016 (limited)
When you hear the name Guggenheim, you probably think of The Guggenheim, the famous art museum located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. You may not be aware though how the Guggenheim name become involved with modern art. The museum is named after Solomon Guggenheim, uncle of Peggy Guggenheim – bohemian, socialite, curator – and heiress to her family’s fortune who made an indelible impact on the modern art movement. She started building one of the most impressive collections of 20th Century art – and often discovering artists – in the 30s and 40s, while overcoming her own personal tragedies. Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” serves as an introduction to the fascinating figure, based on her only autobiography, Out of This Century, Confessions of an Art Addict.
Her film presents a woman who was as much an iconoclast and a rebel as the artists and writers she introduced the world to. Guggenheim helped launch such acclaimed talent as Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock – and her second husband, Max Ernst (she had two children from her first husband, writer/poet Laurence Vail, whom she lost her virginity to at age 23) – one of her many romantic involvements. She would often be the first one to promote and purchase the works of artists and sculptors and often the first and only one to believe in their work.
“Art Addict” knows that her life story is just as interesting as many of the famous artist she helped foster, but the film never really delves into who this woman was beyond what she is known for.
Where Vreeland’s documentary catches my attention is when she introduces never-before-released audio recordings of Guggenheim’s interviews with biographer Jacqueline Bograd Weld, in the late 70s. In her own words, we learn of her many affairs, sexual trysts and personal hardships – often in a very anecdotal, humorous manner. It’s like listening to a voice from the past talking about a point in time few of us have any knowledge of. What is shared is often very juicy, particularly the bits of individual gossip shared pertaining to Pollack and Samuel Beckett.
Although “Art Addict” starts out with a Cliff Notes rundown of Guggenheim family history, the film’s primary concern is its subtitle – the subject’s obsession with art. Focusing on this aspect of her life makes the film much more interesting.
We learn that Guggenheim started collecting in the early 20s, picking up works of art in New York, London and Paris, where she would often become intimately involved with painters – mostly men, sometimes women. She went on to open up several galleries, displaying works by artists who wouldn’t be appreciated in the art world for years. When World War II shrouded Europe, Guggenheim settled in New York where she continued collected art and lovers, jumping from one sexually liberated hook-up to the next.
Some of that behavior wound up being destructive – both to herself and to those artists who were married (like Pollack and Lee Krasner), but what comes through the most in these recordings is how much Guggenheim reveled in being free.
I first became aware of Guggenheim in Ed Harris’ 2000 film “Pollack”, where she was portrayed by Amy Madigan, as a fussy and flirty art collector who almost had her way with Jackson Pollack (his impotence prevented that from happening). She was a vivacious supporting character in that movie and although she takes center stage in Vreeland’s doc, it becomes clear early on that we’re really going to learn much than just the highlight’s of her life.
It helps that the film focuses on the artists and the art she collected as well as her relationship to it, but viewers will also leave knowing more about the woman behind the name. Vreeland definitely comes across as someone who is just as knowledgeable and passionate about the art as Guggenheim, which often makes up for a more in-depth examination of this art addict.
My favorite moments from “Art Addict” are the clips of well-known artists, such as William de Kooning and Robert Motherwell, just hanging out talking, either to the camera or surrounded by fellow artistic peers. These clips feel like rare and random footage that puts a voice and a personality to such famous names.
I was also intrigued by The Art of the Century gallery that Guggenheim opened in New York in 1942, which went on to show established Surrealism artists from Europe as well as lesser known works from American artists, often for the first time. It’s where Pollack had his first solo show in 1943. I can only imagine how amazing it would’ve been to attend Pollack’s art opening at this gallery and – not only discovering his work for the first time, but being in the same room as the artist and his circle of peers.
While watching “Art Addict”, I found myself envious of a time when these now famous artists were unknowns and their artwork brand new or undiscovered. Among the talking heads of art curators and historians, I was surprised to see Robert De Niro and learn of his connection to Guggenheim. We’re shown footage of his father, expressionist painter, Robert De Niro, Sr. hanging out at Guggenheim’s gallery in New York, because – as De Niro shares – both his father and his mother, Virginia Admiral, showed their artwork there in 1945. That’s certainly something I didn’t know about the actor.
It’s uncertain if the world would’ve eventually come to know so many of these art luminaries without the assistance of Guggenheim – she considered herself “the midwife” to their works of art – and what “Art Addict” does is confirm her prominence and importance in the art world. What Vreeland does for Guggenheim in this documentary is in many ways similar to what Guggenheim had done for these artists, expose her to a wider audience.