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Archive for September 2016


No. 18 – Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (Lisa Immordino Vreeland, 2015)

Why have so many of the films I’ve watched for this project been documentaries? The first answer is that I watch documentaries the way some people eat Pringles, slack-jawed and without intention. Another more relevant option is that it is (somewhat) easier to make a documentary than a narrative film. In theory, all you need is a camera and an idea, rather than scene breakdowns, auditions, props, locations etc, etc, ad infinitum. Documentaries don’t have quite the same fight for funding and studio support, since studios tend not to commission documentaries, as much as purchase for distribution after completion, so a production company may take a chance on an “unproven” female director when there isn’t a multi-million dollar budget at risk. (Of course, how can a female director “prove” her financial viability without someone giving her that chance in the first place? When a studio does feel like nurturing an up-and-comer, those chances go to male rookies, like Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings Of Summer to Kong: Skull Island) or Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World). And also Josh Trank, but no one’s using him to prove a point after Fantastic Four.) And even without industry support, what’s to stop a director taking up camera and starting alone, and searching for funding for completion and distribution deals after? So documentaries, with their degree of autonomy, control and relative freedom from the usual budgetary dogfights, are proving a vibrant breeding ground for interesting and diverse female directors.

Of course, another reason could be that the female directors in question actually want to make a documentary. Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s lovingly crafted, vigorously researched Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is a great example, bolstered by the fascinating and headstrong figure of Guggenheim, herself no stranger to doing things just because she wants to. Peggy Guggenheim can be best described as a “bad bitch and no mistake”. Why she does not receive the same appreciation as other #QWEENs is beyond me. I hope it is not that she was no great beauty. Indeed, much is made of Guggenheim’s looks, in the documentary and in her life. She had a nose job gone wrong and has a reputation for catching many dicks that were supposedly out of her league. But if anyone thinks beauty is a requirement to be dynamic, alluring and worthy of iconic status, Peggy Guggenheim proves them wrong. She didn’t need to be gorgeous to become one of the most important figures in the art world. She didn’t even need to be an artist.

Guggenheim was poor in comparison to her billionaire relatives, her father having died on the Titanic, leaving her a relative pittance of some millions. She was considered the black sheep of the family, shaving off her eyebrows at school before moving to Paris at 21 where she became immersed in the European avant-garde and eventually, something like its saviour. Post WW1, Dadaism emerged as a reaction against the grotesque propaganda of the age, and she further turned her back on her breeding to delve into Bohemia, associating with icons like with Man Ray, Kiki de Montparnasse, Ezra Pound and James Joyce. The documentary offers a chronological view of Guggenheim’s life, the personal and the professional, through a trove of recorded interviews and admiring context from contemporary figures from the art world. The first part of the film focuses on Guggenheim as a person – the family tragedies (her beloved sister Bonita dying in childbirth, the mysterious death of her other sister’s children during a nasty divorce) and brutal heartbreaks (she casually dismisses her first husband Lawrence Veil’s abuse as him merely walking on her stomach four times and holding her underwater in the bath, the sudden death of the love of her life, John Holms, for whom she gave up her son to Veil). The second part of the film focuses on her professional significance, completing her evolution from dilettante to figurehead.

The film highlights the difficulties she faced in all aspects of her life, and the battles she fought to get the respect she deserved. In interview clips, she speaks frequently of her insecurities about her intelligence, and we see how she was a sponge to the artistic movements developing around her – cubism, surrealism, Dadaism. Deciding a publishing house was too expensive, she used her inheritance to open Guggenheim Jeune, a gallery dedicated to the work of her contemporaries, providing the venue for the first shows of many of the 20th century’s greatest artists. She exhibited Tanguy, Cocteau, Breton, Dali, Magritte – art that was then outrageous. “Strange art, mirroring herself” as the documentary states. Peggy had no formal training but she was a visionary in the realm of modern art, even in the face of the establishment’s cynicism. Her nemesis Baroness Rebay, the founding director of Guggenheim NY, told Peggy she was collecting trash, and refused to allow Peggy’s uncle to support Peggy’s struggling gallery by purchasing a Wandinsky. One clip shows an interviewer warning her that, when collecting modern art, she might end up with a lot of rubbish. Peggy reacts gracefully, stating it is only a danger if you have no taste. Peggy Guggenheim had taste.

The art world was not the only place that hated the new direction. By the late 1930s, the Nazis were targeting so-called “degenerate art”, starting with a weirdly self-defeating exhibition of confiscated art in 1937. Peggy, having closed Guggenheim Jeune for financial reasons, was planning a museum of modern art in London until war broke out. Instead, her collaborator Herbert Reade sent her to Paris to purchase art as the war was ramping up, when Jewish dealers were leaving Europe and artists were desperate to sell. She struggled to transport her new collection out of Paris, with the Louvre initially agreeing to help but then deciding the controversial modern art wasn’t worth the resources compared to the classics. But Peggy managed. As a Jewish woman, it was dangerous for her to be in Europe at all, but she not only persevered and saved the artwork, she also assisted her artist friends and associates escape the encroaching Nazi regime, helping them come to the US, even marrying Max Ernst.

The film views Peggy as the bridge between European and US modernism, surrealism meeting abstract expressionism, by not only bringing the expat artists to New York, but opening The Art Of This Century gallery – one of the first truly international galleries. Her approach to her space to unique in comparison to the stodgy old world institutes. The gallery itself was like an artwork, designed by architect Frederick Kiesler. The lights flashed on and off, the sound of an express train played intermittently. Critics called it a Coney Island ghost train, which wasn’t meant as a compliment but I would have taken it as one. The art was mounted so it could be touched and moved by the viewer, inciting an intimate relationship with the work, rather than being a distant, removed observer going hmmm. The film uses Peggy’s favourite art to tell her story, the drama of acquiring Brancusi’s Bird In Space, her flirtatious goading Alexander Calder to make her an ornate silver headboard for her bed. Art was not simply a business for her – as Donald Kuspit suggests, art gave a meaning to her life.

For all the criticism Peggy faced, and all her own insecurities about her academic ignorance, Peggy had an eye for the art that would define the post-war period. Her show 31 Women was the first exhibition of exclusively women, including Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning (who Max Ernst met then left Peggy for). For all her intense relations with artistic men, Peggy had a strong sense of sisterhood, giving an allowance to the struggling Djuna Barnes, and letting Maya Deren film in her gallery. Peggy was responsible for giving many significant artists their first show, including Jackson Pollock. She had previously commissioned a huge mural when he was still working as a carpenter, and claimed to have given him a regular income and a loan for a house, but felt he refused to give her any credit for his success. Her impact is arguable, but his is not – Pollock was the first modern artist to be accepted by the artistic establishment, even being named the greatest living artist by Life magazine. Either way, she certainly had foresight as to the direction art was taking.

For all Peggy’s inroads as a woman in an unforgiving industry, her wartime works, and her modern attitude, her bohemian sensuality and sexual openness, she was constantly fighting for credit, against her contemporaries, her critics and herself. She wrote a memoir detailing not only her journey through the war-era art world, but also her liaisons with related figures, leaving critics aghast at her brazen sexuality. She frequently mocks her own appearance (as do the commentators and interview subjects), though the documentary points out that she was considered attractive enough for a Man Ray portrait. Why her face is relevant at all is unclear, aside from the fact that it has become part of the Peggy narrative – rich, ugly but somehow promiscuous. Her contemporaries, and the film itself, find it impossible to consider her according to her achievements alone. One moving scene sees Peggy recall reluctantly aborting John Holms’ child, fearing judgement as she was still married to Veil. When the marriage finally ended, she left her son with Veil, knowing that she wouldn’t be allowed to keep him if she continued a relationship with Holms. For all her strength of character and rebellious ways, she was still cowed by the rigid social constructs as a woman in the 20th century.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is a very strong documentary. It does dip in interest when recounting Peggy’s move to Venice, unable to recreate the excitement of her wartime escapades, clashes with the art world as modern art gradually became accepted and esteemed, or even her tempestuous love life. But cinema has always struggled to show interest in a woman over the age of 40. But Peggy herself, such a vivid character anyway, and literally brought to life by a library of film footage and audio interviews, ensures the audience’s attention remains. It is satisfying to see her evolve from an enthusiastic outsider to a respected member of the art establishment herself, by trusting her instincts above the criticism of others. As Robert Motherwell says, you don’t have to paint a figure to express human feelings, and no one lived that adage like Peggy Guggenheim.

This will be my last documentary, unless I find one I have something particularly interesting to talk about. But it’s a solid example to finish on.