Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

“What was Samuel Beckett like in bed?”

Peggy Guggenheim comes across, in Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s new documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, more as an art enthusiast than an art expert. This is, in fact, one of the most appealing aspects of the film – the sense of discovery that we enjoy along with the subject, even though it also ensures that the content stays largely above the surface of Peggy’s historical context. Peggy initially embraced modern art due to her own curiosity in the community it involved. No artist, she inserted herself into the art world partially as a way to latch onto and then sell what she chose as her ideas and values. She became a collector because she could and wanted to; the privilege of being born a Guggenheim allowed her to entrench herself fully in her chosen hobby-turned-career, even as she struggled with a sense of alienation within the family after her promiscuous father’s death on the Titanic.

The film moves along at a swift pace, dividing its plot points into the major portions of Peggy’s life. Vreeland’s direction allows Art Addict to avoid feeling like an exhaustive history lesson attempting to dissect or discern Peggy Guggenheim in any resolute fashion. We join Peggy – her relaxed yet distant voice sharing previously recorded comments on her journey, along with the comments of those who knew or studied her – on a chronological exploration of how a seemingly self-interested sprawl through modernist artists and sexual partners ended up creating a meaningful bank of art and memories.

From the get-go, it’s clear that Vreeland has no plan to avoid the gossip that has always characterized Peggy’s reputation. Peggy’s own comments show a self-awareness that neither negates nor explains all of her behavior. When Peggy published a tell-all biography in the early twentieth century, as the film shows, she changed all of the names of the lovers she described. However, another edition revealed all, and by the time she chatted with a biographer, as hear here, no one was covering anything up. The Peggy in the commentary appears to marvel at her youthful indiscretions but never to apologize for them. She wanted to do what she wanted to do, and it just so happened that joining this European community of daring artists allowed her to find meaning in her life.

The film does indulge in the gossip. To be fair, this tabloid fodder was what Peggy herself chose to expose to the world. One commentator quips, when asked what question he would ask Peggy if he could, “What was Samuel Beckett like in bed?” The film feels like an exercise in name-dropping (mostly of famous men), with Peggy’s connections to the most famous avant-garde painters, writers, and makers seeming more and more natural and organic as the minutes pass. It stops seeming surprising that she takes credit for having a relationship with Beckett or taking credit for Jackson Pollock’s fame; being an about-town socialist was something she both enjoyed and used to further her own success. The film even briefly admits to the comparison between Peggy and Gertrude Stein, the latter an art salon connoisseur who similarly helped with war efforts. The difference, the film seems to argue, is that Peggy’s legacy is the art collection that resulted from her social experiences, not any creations of her own.

Differences in social standards today mean that many of Peggy’s reflective comments may sound old fashioned, even as her behavior seemed outlandish at the time. When discussing her first husband, she chuckles while explaining that he started getting along with her only after their divorce; before that he hit her. A later marriage to artist Max Ernst seemed more a practicality than anything else, as she helped his family escape Nazi persecution the same way she carefully sent her collected works back to the U.S. Peggy never shies away here from the realities of Ernst’s other relationships once back in America. Her responses to many points of her biography often seem somewhat indifferent, as if she had no real control over the plot; it just happened and it’s in the past. Of her daughter’s death (seemingly self-induced), Peggy expresses a removed sadness from the situation, while other commentators suggest she was never comfortable acting like a mother. We learn that Peggy had a botched nose job partway through her life, one of many indications that her seemingly eccentric behavior – including never fixing the nose – was a response to feeling that she couldn’t get by on her looks.

That Peggy never fit into social roles – mother, wife, heiress, gallery owner – both made her seem like a rebel and also allowed her a sense of power. Despite being a woman, she ran an incredible art business that helped introduced multiple modern art movements to the U.S. She talks about how little she paid for the works then, in today’s dollars, and seems to understand, as expressed again in an emotionless pondering, that her success may never have been possible today. The black sheep of the family, she didn’t actually have very much money to invest in art, and yet she got to know the artists she decided were worth pursuing, eventually choosing to spend money in a way that proved shrewd and purposeful. Even though she had little in common with her uncle, who started the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the success of her galleries must have impressed, or at least surprised, the family known for its business prowess.

How much of Peggy’s success was a result of the fortuitous coincidences that made it possible? Would she have been more successful, or less, if she’d been less nomadic, less social, less enthusiastic in her relationships with influential men? The film never seems seriously to question the circumstances surrounding Peggy’s life, plus or minuses, and her own distant manner of speaking doesn’t do much to elucidate the validity of her art expertise. Did Peggy succeed because she was a Guggenheim, one has to wonder, or despite being one? Did she get as far as she did more by taking advantage of her femininity or more by repudiating it? Would she have been successful without Europe, without men, without the war era in which she lived?

Art Addict hardly feels like a love letter to Peggy, and it neither deeply analyzes nor doubts her success. The film provides snapshots, quotations, questions, and anecdotes that all add up to a sense of wonder – all raising the question, “Why isn’t Peggy Guggenheim a household name?” The film’s main argument is that Peggy deserves to be recognized for her role in the history of the modern art movement, not for any admittedly fun stories about the surprising behavior she used to adopt that role. Even as the film reveals more about the social awkwardness and weak confidence that Peggy sometimes displayed, it underscores the comfort the art itself gave her, how confident she always was when discussing her collection. Her pride in her collection was the result, after all, of a true interest (or addiction, as the title of the film suggests), and she wanted that to be her legacy. This argument comes through clearly, in the context of a very entertaining, briskly paced documentary that feels gratifying for its honesty, even as it gives little heed to a slightly larger question: [Why] should she be a household name?