Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s 2015 film, succeeds in part because of its wonderful evocation of the art scenes in between-wars Paris and in 1950s New York. The film is visually lush, with so much wonderful art, vintage photographs and brief film clips, and some very clever fade-ins and fade-outs of individuals within single photographs.
Holding the film together is the iconic Peggy Guggenheim, an interesting eccentric whose candor and anecdotes make up for her apparent lack of gravitas and aesthetic acumen.
A patron, not an expert
At several points the film mades discreetly clear that Peggy Guggenheim did not possess any particularly astute taste or instinct. She says herself that after some bad initial art purchases, she learned to trust not her own instincts, but the advice of others. Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian — they knew art. Peggy Guggenheim might not have been able to recognize great future artists, but she was smart enough to discern who could.
Peggy Guggenheim recalls believing that Jackson Pollack was a terrible artist until Mondrian told her otherwise. Then she championed Pollack, and is now sometimes credited with having made him the superstar he became. As one interviewee says, that credit really belongs to Life Magazine, a dominant popularizer. That recalls the fact that Allen Ginsberg’s career took off thanks to Time Magazine, not his San Francisco beat connections.
Shopping in Europe
While Guggenheim was sailing to Paris, Joseph Duveen and other dealers sought out art for wealthy American industrialists who knew how to make a fortune, but did not know how to judge trophy art. Those intermediaries traveled around Europe, buying many of the great art works that we now see in The Metropolitan and other great museums. But they went for the classics that newly rich industrialists in Pittsburgh and Birmingham would understand. Guggenheim went for the avant garde, and not as a dealer.
As Duveen said, Europe had the art and America had the money. Peggy Guggenheim’s story seems a classic Henry James novel plot, except for the louche parts: new American money in search of art and validating social connections, finding many Europeans eager or at least reluctantly willing to sell.
Was Peggy Guggenheim taken advantage of?
Late in the film an interviewee mentions that some artists exploited Peggy Guggenheim, and I do wish that the film had shown more about that. Who could doubt that some painters chose to exploit this wealthy young woman who compensated for having no art background and for being socially insecure by utterly devoting herself to finding, bedding, and supporting artists.
The film suggests to me that Peggy Guggenheim bought her way into an exciting Bohemian crowd, all that art-revolution excitement, hot jazz, sexual liberation, and the smiling attention of handsome and charismatic art cafe celebrities.
I am sure that other rich men and women also bought their way into the wild Bohemian world, but without the nuisance of rescuing art or artists from the Nazis, something that Peggy Guggenheim accomplished. She sold art when necessary to keep her galleries open, but she mostly kept her purchases. That secured them from dispersal into myriad private collections. Eventually, whether she planned it or not, those works would end up available for the public to see.
Some reviewers find the film shallow
Gary Garrison says the film “never really seems to discover the woman at its core.” David Bax understandably laments the lack of introspection by Guggenheim, but it seems unfair of him to say that the director was “more interested in repetitious mythmaking” than in deep insight into her subject’s psyche.
I for one am content that Lisa Immordino Vreeland focused on Guggenheim’s remarkable historic role rather than speculating about her psyche. The film offers plenty of anecdotes and remarks from which we can form our own opinions. Perhaps Peggy Guggenheim is too complex for a single judgment, perhaps too shallow. There might have been no there there.
At the end of the film Guggenheim is asked about what she misses most from those extraordinary days in Paris, and it isn’t discovering unknown artists: she misses sex. Her autobiography, she says, “is all about fucking.” In her 70s she and a friend quarreled because they both lusted after the same young Italian plasterer working on her Venice palazzo. I wish Tennessee Williams had written a play about that.
These personal details, and the absence of insightful remarks about art, suggest that her youthful support of artists was indeed partly about buying her way into a fun lifestyle that would annoy her stuffy, rich relatives, not just about supporting and promoting extraordinary artists.
But what hedonist or socially awkward introvert ever contributed as much to the world as Peggy Guggenheim did?
Private art and public art
Many of her purchases ended up in The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a popular museum in Venice. That happy ending raises the interesting question of how art moves between private and public ownership.
Much art now sequestered by wealthy owners is likely to end up on public display eventually, as estates are settled and heirs find that they cannot, like Solomon, propose an axe to divide one work among three or four descendants.
A grim alternative possibility to having privately owned art become public is that the 1% might finish accreting everything of value to themselves, and public museums might begin de-accessioning in earnest to keep the lights on.
De-accessioning meets strong resistance these days, but times change. The British Museum has far more Greek urns than seems necessary, and there are plenty of new millionaires in China and Russia who might effect a new Henry Jamesian dynamic when the National Health Service is really in crisis.
Post WWI taxes forced some wealthy families in England to sell off dusty paintings, but taxes on the wealthy in America seem to only go down. American tax laws can actually help preserve some private collections, as some collectors have discovered, by creating tax-advantaged non-profit art museums on their estates, without public access.
The importance of the patron
In this film Marina Abramovic explains the importance of art patrons, compared to art collectors: they support projects that might not be commercially viable. Both patrons and collectors give artists money, but patrons do not expect works of art in return.
I understand that role for patrons, and I do not quarrel with it, and I wish that I had a patron myself. Painters need to buy groceries, and someone has to pick up all those bar bills. Jackson Pollack should not have to do office work 9 to 5 in order to buy paint.
But on the other hand I sometimes feel nostalgic for the idea of artists creating art without too much thought about how much money they can make on it. Paintings are not screenplays or operas or symphonies, which no one writes without hopes of selling them.
An artist could not ask for a better patron than Peggy Guggenheim.