On Art: Peggy Guggenheims Passions

Peggy G
Peggy Guggenheim with Alexander Calder’s “Arc of Petals” mobile, and Jean Arp’s “Overturned Blue Shoe” on the wall behind her.

By Helen A. Harrison

For the amorously inclined, the perfect Valentine’s Day movie is “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” a feature-length documentary about the legendary lady whose fame as a collector of modern art is rivaled only by her notoriety as a collector of lovers. The film will play at the Sag Harbor Cinema on Saturday and Sunday at 3 p.m.

Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland — whose debut film, “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” chronicled the career of her grandmother-in-law, the renowned fashion editor — this portrait of an equally formidable female is based on a 1986 biography of Guggenheim, who died in 1979. The author, Jacqueline B. Weld, interviewed her extensively shortly before her death, and lost track of the tapes. But during the exhaustive research for this nuanced character study, Vreeland found them, and has used them to excellent effect in the narrative, which delves deep beneath the surface image of a woman who is often dismissed as a flighty, promiscuous socialite.

In a family of colorful crackpots, Marguerite Guggenheim was the self-described black sheep, rebelling early and often. Moving to Paris at age 23, she embraced a bohemian life style whose rough edges were smoothed by inherited wealth — not a huge fortune, but enough to enable her patronage of artists and writers. Well aware of her naiveté, she sought guidance from art-world insiders, notably Marcel Duchamp, whom she credits as “my great, great teacher.” He introduced her to the Cubists and Surrealists whose masterpieces form the core of her collection, now enshrined in her eponymous museum in Venice. Examples sparkle throughout the film, like precious gems scattered on a light box.

Some people questioned Guggenheim’s judgment for investing in such novelties, others wrote her off as a gullible dilettante who was being hoodwinked by charlatans, but she was undaunted. When she opened a gallery in London, there was virtually no market for modernism, so she decided to create a museum to rectify the widespread ignorance. Unfortunately World War II derailed her plans, and she was forced to return to her native New York City, where her gallery, Art of This Century, became a beacon for the nascent American avant-garde.

She never shied away from controversy, and even agreed with some of her critics. “Yes, all that’s true,” she invariably declares, whether admitting to affairs with married men, neglecting her children, or sleeping with Brancusi because she thought it would get her a better deal on one of his sculptures. As Hitler’s army was conquering Europe, she was frantically buying “a picture a day” from artists desperate for enough cash to escape. For this she was disparaged, as if she had exploited them, whereas in fact she was their lifeline. She also paid the passage for several of the Europeans who fled to the US, including the German painter Max Ernst, whom she married in order to protect him after America declared war on the Axis.

Her union with Ernst was shorter but no less turbulent than her first marriage, to Laurence Vail, the father of her two children. An especially poignant section of the film deals with her troubled daughter Pegeen, who committed suicide in 1967. Guggenheim’s failure as a mother is often attributed to her obsession with her collection and the self-aggrandizement it afforded her. But without glossing over her shortcomings, the film examines her complex motivations for collecting art and supporting artists. When she opened her New York gallery, she took a flier on unknowns like Pollock, Motherwell, Still and Baziotes, giving them their first solo exhibitions and in effect launching their careers. She lived long enough to enjoy the enormous satisfaction of seeing her commitment vindicated by history.

Amid the host of voices testifying on Guggenheim’s behalf — from friends and acquaintances to art historians, critics and art dealers — her own statements confirm the passion she developed and nurtured throughout her singular career. Surprisingly, for someone so relentlessly driven and stubbornly devoted to the modernist cause, she is soft-spoken and quick to credit her advisors, remarking, “I always got hold of the right people.” Whether she means in the galleries or in bed is left open. In the end, as she puts it, “It was all about art—and love.”