Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s portrait of the patron of modern art provides insight into an individual’s relationship with her creative contemporaries.
Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim, both in name and nature, was a woman full of curiosity and idiosyncrasy. Born in 1898, Peggy was the daughter of the astonishingly wealthy Benjamin Guggenheim, who went down with the Titanic when she was still barely a teenager. Marcel Duchamp – the godfather of conceptual art – gave her his first Boîte-en-Valise, a work containing miniature reproductions of his key works in a portable case. She was also the first person to exhibit Kandinsky in London, and she is now buried in the garden of her Venetian palazzo, with 14 of her dogs. Anecdotes such as these are seemingly endless, as the insightful documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict reveals. Take, for example, the following individuals: Jackson Pollock, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Marcel Duchamp. You might think that this is a list of the greatest artistic luminaries of the late 20th century, and you’d be right. But they’re also the bedpost notches of Peggy Guggenheim. Ezra Pound, she says near the beginning of the film, played tennis with her, adding that he used to crow like a cock when he won a point. She once bought Max Ernst a fur coat because he was desperately jealous of hers. It’s on the level of fantasy.
Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s star-studded documentary, however, is indebted to one moment of discovery. It was at the home of Jacqueline Bograd Weld, author of the great biography Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim (1986), which Vreeland had optioned. “Jackie shared everything with me. She had this great apartment, full of objects absolutely everywhere. And she had these two big water dogs, whose only obsession was to eat a significant amount of paper, which is the oddest thing. Every time I walked out of the room, I had to be careful that they weren’t going to eat the research.”
“One day, I found out that she had a basement,” continues Vreeland, who was constantly on the search for new material. Jackie asked her to tidy up while she was down there. “The last box I had looked into held books. I put my hand in and felt a shoebox.” With great surprise, inside that box were reams of lost audio tapes, documenting hours of candid discussion between Peggy and Jacqueline. Vreeland is in no doubt about the transformative effect it had on her documentary, proclaiming: “It was absolutely incredible.”
As a former history of art student, Vreeland, now 52, appreciates the importance of balancing entertainment with historical accuracy. “I think you can see that there was a lot of research that was put into it,” says the graduate of New York’s Skidmore College. “You can’t do this incorrectly, even in the placement of paintings. We can’t do a film like this on such an important figure in the art world and not be correct. We were also fortunate that we had the support of the Guggenheim Foundation: we would have curators and archivists.”
Although she is the granddaughter-in-law of influential Harper’s Bazaar fashion editor Diana Vreeland, the subject of her 2011 debut, the director very much has her own expertise to offer on this new film. “I grew up in Italy, so I knew about Peggy Guggenheim, and I had been to the palazzo when I was younger,” says Vreeland, who had visited Peggy’s collection in its original setting. “I knew about her when I was a kid, and I read her autobiography, Out of This Century, when I was younger. It’s my big passion, art.”
In the film, Peggy – who is widely attributed as having discovered Jackson Pollock – describes herself as the “midwife” of American painting. Vreeland agrees: “The legacy of what she achieved in art history has always been pushed back because her love life and personality have been much more in the forefront. This is really a tale about having a dream and pursuing it and achieving it. Peggy’s achievements are much bigger than people realise.”
“Her impact in different countries, from London to Paris and New York: I would love it if somebody else could tell me what other figure has had that kind of influence. They were the great unsung artists that were struggling, and now they happen to have become the most important artists of the 20th century. She was part of the initial steps in forming modern art and her legacy is going to become greater.” Whilst Peggy Guggenheim was indeed born into a prestigious genealogy, she was far from spoilt and was often cut off from her wider, more straight-laced family. As a child, her relatives treaded the thin line between eccentricity and insanity. Peggy’s uncle tried to kill her aunt Fanny with a baseball bat, and after failing, drowned himself in the New York City reservoir. “When I started to make the film, I didn’t realise how sad her life really was,” Vreeland confesses.
“Sadness enveloped her.” At one point in the film, Peggy gives the heart-breaking revelation: “I think I had seven abortions.” As one talking head in the film explains: lunch at Peggy’s was the worst in Venice – only bad pasta and cheap wine were on offer – the art is what mattered. It was her shining light in life. “We didn’t even go through it that much in the film, we touched upon the fact that she wasn’t loved that much, that it was a strict upbringing. I think that she had something inside of her already. I think you have to have some kind of hunger inside of you. In many ways, she was too ahead of her time.” The stature of those that will to pay testament to Peggy – who was also the first person to exhibit Lucian Freud – confirms her precocity. Whilst in her early days in Paris, she mixed with Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray, in the documentary we hear from the likes of Marina Abramović, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Robert de Niro, as well as megadealer Larry Gagosian and Picasso biographer John Richardson, New Museum director Lisa Phillips, and Art in America editor Lindsay Pollock. “People like Hans and Marina, who are in an elite echelon of artistic figures right now in the world, look at Peggy and want to talk about her,” says Vreeland. “It was ultimately about the love of the art and the artists, and they understand that.”
Given the nature of her two documentaries so far, inevitable suggestions that Vreeland is a feminist filmmaker have been made, but she bats this off as merely a “byproduct” of her work. “I like these women who are really strong characters, that do something with their life, and have inner drive; they do everything on their terms. I think that’s a very important message to continue to emphasise today. The fact that they both happen to be women is a coincidence.”
Vreeland reveals that she is in the midst of filming her latest documentary, which will focus on portrait photographer Cecil Beaton. For this fascinating subject, she has already lined up Sir Roy Strong, David Bailey, Penelope Tree and Tim Walker as interviewees. Vreeland tells me: “I always want to pinch myself and say: ‘Am I here? Is this really happening?’” She may say that she did nothing with her degree, but Vreeland has created a fine art in painting people’s lives on screen.
Words Peter Yeung.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. In cinemas 11 December.