Art History documentary

April 23, 2024
The McMurtry Building

The heiress and unparalleled booster of 20th-century art is the focus of a new film by Lisa Immordino Vreeland.

The Guggenheim family, early Americans who made a fortune in mining, provided its fair share of gossip-column inches in the 20th century. Benjamin Guggenheim, one of 11 children to patriarch Meyer Guggenheim (1828–1905), went down with the Titanic in 1912. He left a widow, Florette Seligman, and three daughters, one of whom would grow up to become the famed art patron Peggy Guggenheim. (Benjamin’s brother Solomon is the man whose name sits atop the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed museum on New York’s Fifth Avenue, which was called both a parking garage and a giant toilet when it debuted. But that’s a whole other story.)

Back to Peggy: at an early age, she centered herself in the apex of contemporary art’s creative thunderstorm. She traveled the world promoting artists she believed in, dodging world wars, and having casual affairs whenever and with whomever she saw fit. She was a quintessential modern woman, bad nose job and all. Her family was so shocked when she wrote her memoirs in a tell-all called Out of This Century, in 1946, they tried to buy up all the copies and referred to the book as Out of Her Mind. Through it all, Peggy proved to be a revolutionary who changed the course of art history.

In the new documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland paints a picture of Peggy as both a scandalous art-world vixen and a forward thinker whose life inspired the careers of artists such as Max Ernst (whom she married), Jackson Pollock (whom she discovered and almost single-handedly made an icon), and many more. The movie premiered this week at—you guessed it—the Guggenheim Museum and will open in theaters on November 6. Afterward, I interviewed Immordino Vreeland (whose last hit documentary, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, was about her husband’s grandmother, the hallowed Vogue editor) about finding the tapes that inspired the film and how history now looks back on Peggy Guggenheim with the admiration she deserves. I’ve seen documentaries about Peggy Guggenheim and this period in contemporary art history in the past, but what sets this one apart is the ability to actually hear her voice. I always thought the tapes from the Jacqueline Bograd Weld biography on Guggenheim had been lost!

Immordino Vreeland: Jackie had great access and spent two summers interviewing Peggy in 1978-1979 and spoke to 200 other people, many who now have passed away, to put together the book Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim, which was her only authorized biography and published after she died. We had optioned that book, and she was incredibly generous, letting me go through all her original research—except for the lost tapes. We’d walk into different rooms in her apartment, and I’d suggestively open a closet door and ask, “Where do you think those tapes might be?” Then, one day I asked if she had a basement, and she did, and there I found them in a old box of books.

Wow, what was your reaction?

I was absolutely overjoyed! It was the longest interview Peggy had ever done, and it became the framework for the entire film. There’s nothing more powerful than when you have someone’s real voice telling the story, and Jackie was especially good at asking provoking questions.

You do a good job of placing her lineage in early-20th-century American culture. I often forget her father went down on the Titanic. What other interesting elements stuck out in your research about her family, both her mother’s and her father’s sides?

Something that we did not delve into enough in the film was the historical aspect of the “Our Crowd” Jews that came to New York in the early 1900s. Ultimately, this would become what Peggy resisted most. She felt held back by their rules. She opposed the strict upbringing that the German nannies imposed on her, and that instilled in her a strong feeling of rebellion. Her mother’s family, the Seligmans, eccentricities were very well known, but there [are] simply too many to mention in a single film.

Something else I found interesting was the tragedy in her early life. The death of her father, sure. But then there was the death of her lover, and her sister’s two young children falling off the top of the Surrey hotel. My assumption, and I know I’m not a therapist so I’m not an authority on this kind of topic, is that one reason art was so appealing was that there was not the possibility of a painting or a sculpture devastating you.

Art was where Peggy finally found herself. The desire to build a collection became her biggest motivation. She identified with the art and the artists and found solace in all of it. It is a very human endeavor to practice art, but to have the vision to collect it at this time was an example of how, ultimately, she connected with the love of art and artists.

She shaved her eyebrows, she had very public affairs. Would you call her a rebel of her time? Or an eccentric?

Peggy was a total individual. She decided young that she wanted to create her own identity, and she proclaimed this independence when she moved to Paris in the 20s. There, she was not held back by any conventions and started to live life on her own terms, with nothing holding her back. It was a very modern notion to think that you have all of these opportunities, especially as a woman.

Is there someone similar to her in modern culture? An Isabella Blow, a Daphne Guinness?

In my opinion, there is no one in modern culture like this today. Peggy lived during a time when the world of artists who she believed in were underdogs. She supported them, and she collected not only the art but also the artists. Today, some of that world is completely manufactured.

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