As sharply put together as it is, 'Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict' feels both overstuffed and cursory.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
Peggy Guggenheim is a familiar name to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of 20th-century art. Her name is linked with dozens of the century’s most notable artists and writers. She was often directly responsible for discovering them, being the first to show their paintings, to buy them, to sell them, to believe in a painter or sculptor. It is safe to say that without her, the shape of 20th-century art would be much, much different. And the story of her life is nearly as fascinating as the long list of artists she helped foster and flourish. But the new documentary of her life, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, for all its encyclopedic knowledge of her life, never really seems to discover the woman at its core.
More than anything else, what makes Peggy Guggenheim so interesting is that it is built around never before released interviews Guggenheim recorded with her authorized biographer Jacqueline Bograd Weld in 1978 and ’79. Hearing Guggenheim candidly recount the many affairs, sexual escapades, and hardships of her life is refreshing and often deeply humorous. And when Guggenheim gets going, discussing a relationship, or the friendly gossips of Jackson Pollack or Samuel Beckett, it’s hard not to be engrossed.
The film gets rolling with a very long and convoluted history of the Guggenheim family. The details are fascinating, especially considering the impact the family would later have on the art world, but although much of the information revolves around the instability in young Peggy’s home, not much is ever done with the facts over the course of the film. Sure, links can quite easily be drawn between certain aspects of Guggenheim’s life and her childhood, but the film doesn’t seem interested in doing any sort of follow up work. Rather, it strives to plod ever forward, carefully tracing the linear progression of Peggy’s life.
In this respect, the film succeeds. Guggenheim’s life was rich with famous encounters, anecdotes, and art (lots and lots of art). Starting in her 20s, Guggenheim became enthralled with art and the artist’s life. She bounced between New York, Paris, and London, shacking up with artists, picking up pointers, and generally living the life that many would dream of. She opened numerous galleries and collected work by a who’s who of 20th-century painters (many of whom were not yet recognized by the establishment, even derided). And as the world fell into the chaos and terror of World War Two, Peggy and her art defected Europe for New York, and fought back against the senselessness of the violence that engulfed the world.
Throughout, Guggenheim casually remarks upon her numerous affairs, often with men (and sometimes women) who would wind up being some of the greatest minds of the 20th. Like many of the expats of her generation, Peggy was sexually liberated, jumping between relationships and marriages, most of which wound up in one of her many books, like her autobiography Out Of This Century. And while some were destructive or could be seen as failures, what comes across in her interviews with Weld is her absolute joy of being free. It’s a refreshing sentiment.
But what becomes clear after a relatively short time, is that besides the new audio clips, Peggy Guggenheim doesn’t seem to want to offer much more to the conversation. It seems content to simply be a biography, peppered with moments of revelatory knowledge, but mostly stuffed with the highlights (and for good reason: there were a lot of them). Which begs the question, what should a documentary about someone do? Fully recount her life? Hone in on a single aspect or time period? And while there is no correct answer, Peggy Guggenheim feels lacking, in need of an unpacking of its titular subject, or an attempt to make something of the facts.
What lifts the doc above simply being a beat by beat notation of Guggenheim’s life is the vivid art, from a smattering of artists, collected throughout. It’s the very same work that often drove Guggenheim, and to see it on the screen while Peggy recounts one of her many intriguing stories is to better understand her, the relationship between herself and art, and the relationship between life and creation. In her direction, Immordino Vreeland puts her clearly immense knowledge of art on display, vividly bringing together (much like Guggenheim) the paintings that helped define the 20th century.
Peggy Guggenheim is undoubtedly a fascinating subject, a woman who helped to shape the artist world as we know it today, introducing many of the century’s greatest artists. But cramming a life like Guggenheim’s into an hour and a half without something central to focus on leaves Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, sharply put together as it is, feeling overstuffed and cursory; an in-depth scratching of the surface.