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“I’ve had a very sad life, I think,” says the titular art collector in Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. Like Janis Joplin, Guggenheim knew that her “lack of beauty”—as a commenter not-so-delicately phrases it—would keep her from a debutante’s life; she found herself becoming the enfant terrible of her prestigious family and broke away from their mold. Whereas Joplin bloomed once she threw herself into music, Guggenheim chose a different creative medium to find her place in society. As art historian John Richardson says here, Guggenheim “used art to turn herself into a personality, into a star.”
Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary integrates audio recordings from Guggenheim’s last series of interviews with her biographer, Jacqueline B. Weld, and it’s these unearthed tapes that provide much of the film’s narrative. Even though Weld says that “Peggy’s aunts and uncles were all famously off their rockers,” Guggenheim remembers her home life as “very bourgeois, very dull.” But the family was also a target for tragedy: Her father went down with the Titanic, one of her sisters died in childbirth, and another killed her two children. Her daughter, Pegeen, committed suicide.
Guggenheim never sounds distraught in these recordings; in fact, she’s quite casual about serious matters, including abortions: “I’ve had so many abortions, my goodness,” she remarks. Art, as the doc’s title states, became an addiction, but so did romance, with Guggenheim becoming intimate with nearly anyone who intrigued her (women included) or from whom she could learn—or benefit. She slept with one artist, Constantin Brâncuși, hoping that doing so would get him to lower the price of a sculpture. “I think I was sort of a nymphomaniac,” Guggenheim says, adding that a book she published “was all about fucking.”
Guggenheim was a champion of then-unknown modern artists such as Jackson Pollock and Marcel Duchamp, and when the gallery she opened in London lost money, she decided to open a museum in New York. (Not that museum, which is named for her uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim.) Called The Art of This Century, the gallery showcased both American and European art, and displayed the work in a manner that allowed audiences to touch and interact with the pieces.
Throughout her life, as the film’s studio synopsis says, Guggenheim “collected not only art, but artists,” bringing to mind Andy Warhol and his Factory, where he kept company with the hippest of creative types. She supported her artistic friends and kept them close, projecting a bon vivant lifestyle even though she thought of herself as a “lone wolf.” After years of embracing art in different ways, her legacy is The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in a Venetian palazzo.
The recordings of the collector herself aren’t the only highlight of Art Addict; viewers are also treated to a virtual tour of great works that are displayed, black-boxed, onscreen. Guggenheim might have followed an odd path with an independence and hedonism her family have tsk-tsked, but you can’t deny the beauty of her results.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.