I snuck out of work early on Tuesday to see the 4pm showing of “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict”, at Lincoln Center and I am so glad I did. What a fascinating story of a woman who was estranged from her family — those who founded the iconic, Frank Loyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum on 5th Avenue in New York City — yet managed to pave her own way in the art world, as well as the way for many artists. The documentary is based on Guggenheim’s last recorded interview with her biographer, Jaqueline B. Weld. Candid, both confident and self-deprecating, and with humor, Guggenheim recalls her life as a socialite, outcast, expat, lover of art and artists, and the indelible contribution she made to 20th century art as we know it.
Here’s what I learned…
Peggy was born in 1898, to Florette Seligman and Benjamin Guggenheim. The wealth she was born into (the Guggenheims ran a lucrative mining empire) also came with great tragedy. Her father, who had left the family business, forgoing some of the fortune that came with it, died on the Titanic when Peggy was 13. Many more family misfortunes (depressions, deaths, suicides, in-fighting) followed. While her nuclear family was well-off, it didn’t compare to her uncle, Solomon Guggenheim, and his heirs, who had amassed great wealth both in mining, and as an art collector.
When Peggy was 21, she received her inheritance (meager in comparison to those that had remained heirs to the mining fortune), moved to Paris and married Laurence Vail, a writer with whom she had two children. Through this marriage, and an early friendship with Marcel DuChamp, she became closely acquainted with the who’s who of the avant garde art movement of the 1920s. Picasso, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, the list goes on. (If you’ve watched “Midnight in Paris” or read “Z” about Zelda Fitzgerald recently, you can vividly imagine what their parties were like). DuChamp not only connected her with these artists, he gave taught her about their art and styles and advised her on what to collect. Peggy is not shy talking about the many affairs she had with some of these artists, including the playwright Samuel Beckett. Her risqué behavior was considered an embarrassment to the Guggenheim family back in New York, furthering the rift begun by her father’s dissension, among other reasons.
Peggy used her wealth and connections to open a gallery — Guggenheim Jeune — in London in 1938. When she realized the gallery, while popular, was operating at a loss, she closed shop and planned to open a Modern Art Museum in London with her friend and art historian Herbert Read. Using a list of up-and-coming artists Read had given her, Guggenheim bought 128 works by Picasso, Man Ray, Magritte, Dali, Chagall, and others for $40,000. World War II foiled her plans to open the museum in Europe, as modern, “degenerate” artists were among the targets of Hitler’s regime, and she herself was Jewish. She was forced to ship the works — labeled “household items” as not to raise suspicion — back to the US, and to flee as herself. She also helped several of the artists seek refuge in America, including Max Ernst, her second husband.
Back in New York, she opened The Art of This Century Gallery – dedicated to modern art. She is credited with discovering Jackson Pollack, then a carpenter working for her uncle. She sponsored him, giving him a stipend with which to create works, and commissioned a mural from him for her gallery. She supported female artists as well, at one point showing an exhibit of 31 women artists, among them Dorothea Manning. Max Ernst later left her for Manning, leading Peggy to joke that she wished she’d only featured 30 female artists in the exhibit.
She closed the gallery in 1947, after her divorce from Ernst, and moved to Venice, Italy. She moved into the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal. There she lead an eccentric life, surrounded by a collection of beloved Pomeranians, as well as artists. Her home became party central for the art scene of the time. Before her death in 1979, she donated the palazzo and her collection – valued at $40 million — to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, despite the family rift. If you’ve ever been to the Guggenheim museum in Venice, you’ve been in her home. She’s buried out back, along with 14 of her dogs.
Stories told directly by Peggy, as well as friends, art historians, and admirers throughout the film, paint her as a woman who refused to fit in the mold of the time. By pairing her considerable means with a voracious appetite for art (and artists!), Peggy Guggenheim was a huge champion of and friend to emerging artists throughout her lifetime.
I could go on and on, as I’ve already gone down a google rabbit hole researching this fascinating woman and all the various players in her story. Go see it, or wait for its arrival on iTunes in February.