“Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” 

The Woman Who Was Peggy

Amos Lassen

Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland has made the most out of taped conversations with art collector, Peggy Guggenheim, a mover-and-shaker. Guggenheim was born into a wealthy family. She lost her father on the Titanic and she seemed to be always seeking freedom from the boring life that came with wealth. She escaped to Paris where she was met and was entranced by the creativity, rebellion, and exotic lives of artists and writers such as Salvador Dali, James Joyce, Fernand Leger, and Wassily Kandinsky. When her first marriage failed, under the tutelage of Marcel Duchamp, she opened a gallery in London in 1938. She saw herself as “a midwife” and so introduced art collectors and the general public to Joan Miro, Constantin Brancusi, Yves Tanguy, and many others.


Just at the same time, Guggenheim, who had no formal training in art, began purchasing paintings from these avant-garde artists. When World War II changed her plans, she returned to New York and set up The Art of This Century Gallery where she showcased the creations of an incredible number of artists. Her intuition led her to champion certain painters and for many years she was Jackson Pollack’s patron.


Director Vreeland takes us through archival footage, stories, and expert commentary from art critics and others in order to celebrate Guggenheim who made so many contributions this to the world of art.

In this documentary Guggenheim tells her biographer Jacqueline Bogard Weld that she only had a fortune of $450,000 growing up, which was a paltry sum for a Guggenheim even in the days preceding the 1920s. She adds that her fortune doubled when her mother died and left her nearly five hundred thousand dollars. The arts are forever grateful to what she did with her inheritance.


The film covers an impressive range of terrain as it tells Guggenheim’s journey from the cradle to the grave in which she defied convention, lived an eccentric lifestyle, and amassed a landmark collection of art.

We see prized pieces from Ms. Guggenheim’s collection but somewhat too quickly to appreciate them fully. Immordino Vreeland shows that Guggenheim’s real knack was not for spotting essential artworks, but rather for finding talent. She uses Guggenheim’s shrewd eye, passion for the arts, and penchant for veering from the mainstream to chronicle the host of artists she fostered in her career. Perhaps most significant among the artists was Jackson Pollock, but there were also post-World War Two painters as Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. She was a major collector of the Surrealists, especially Max Ernst, with whom she had a short-lived marriage. Long before arts councils gave grants, there was Peggy Guggenheim and we hear how appreciative, the arts community was of her commitment to the arts.


Guggenheim had the courage to preserve and take risks in a male-dominated field. Especially significant is Vreeland’s look at Guggenheim’s formative years as an art gallery owner near the onset of World War II. The film has Guggenheim recount the astonishing story about she amassed a collection of works that are now priceless for the mere collective sum of $40, 000 by purchasing paintings by artists who were fleeing the forces of fascism and needed funds to escape. As the film chronicles the growth of the Peggy Guggenheim collection in London, New York, and its eventual home in Venice, it shows how the various forces that created modern art were empowered and partially sustained by her.


Yet the film doesn’t shy away from Guggenheim’s dark side as it acknowledges her failures as a parent and the scandals of her family, including an especially troublesome case in which her sister allegedly dropped her children off the thirteenth floor of a building. Similarly, the film tells of Guggenheim’s many with artists (from Ernst to Samuel Beckett) and her penchant for kissing and telling. The film uses the complexity of Guggenheim’s life to convey how richly the arts fill voids in an existence and add meaning when one searches for answers.

peggy6We hear from Robert De Niro (his parents, both artists, showed work with Guggenheim), Marina Abramovic, and Larry Gagosian, and they liken Guggenheim to a work of art in her own right. Guggenheim was a colorful and peculiar character. Few collectors, promoters, or gallery owners have left marks as lasting as those made by Peggy Guggenheim.

Leave a Reply