Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s second feature-length documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, continues the filmmaker’s trend of exploring the lives of powerful women in the art world,1 focusing on art collector and – as the film posits – artist collector, Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim. Over the span of her lifetime, Peggy Guggenheim built a huge reputation in the art world, using a moderate inheritance from her father to champion artists including Picasso, Duchamp, Mondrian, Dali, Magritte, and Pollock. Additionally, Guggenheim claimed over 1000 sexual relationships over the course of her lifetime, many of which were with the intelligentsia of Europe and America between the 1920s and 1950s. These two converging aspects of Peggy Guggenheim’s story are explored by Vreeland in the film, which spans the entirety of Guggenheim’s life, from birth, to death, and beyond.
At the centre point of Vreeland’s documentary is an extensive collections of taped interviews between Guggenheim and her official biographer Jacqueline Bograd Weld which, up until now, had remained unreleased, lost in Weld’s basement. Through these tapes, Vreeland reconstructs Guggenheim’s life in her own words, proficiently recreating her lived experience, and tracking the acquisition of her art collection over time. Through this framing device, Vreeland tangentially grapples with major world events – including the sinking of the Titanic and Europe in the lead up to World War II – as well as the changing approaches and responses to different artistic movements over time by the world’s major art collectors and galleries.
Intercut with Peggy’s tale are interviews with the people who knew her, art historians, and people who have been touched by her life in some way. These range from interesting and informative, to more mundane celebrity cameos, and are even, occasionally, offensive, with one male art commentator in particular both shaming Guggenheim for her sexual appetite and claiming that there’s no way she could have possibly accrued the collection without external support from major male figures in the art scene. It’s an odd inclusion as – for the most part – Vreeland seems enamoured with Guggenheim, fully supportive of her actions and artistic decisions. Many of these interviews don’t assist in adding a counterpoint to the pro-Guggenheim rhetoric of the majority of the feature, nor do they further flesh out her backstory. Instead, they solely serve as a platform to cheap verbal blows, directed at somebody who can no longer respond or fight back.
On a formal level, the film is quite strong. Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict feels like a professional documentary, one made for the cinema rather than for the classroom or television broadcast. The editing, title cards, and visual quality of recent interview footage are impressive, as is the audio quality of discussions between Guggenheim and Weld, placing this documentary a cut above the current crop of “Kickstarter generation” features that hinge solely upon the content embodied within their broader, generic structure. In saying that, the film has a tendency to drag in its later moments, losing much of the steam which propelled the film forward in its opening third.
It’d also be an overstatement to claim that there are any major revelations in this documentary, given that much of the gold from the tapes was included in Weld’s written biography of Peggy Guggenheim, Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim. That’s not to say there isn’t rare content within – of particular note is footage of Maya Deren’s The Witch’s Cradle, an incomplete film shot by Deren and Duchamp at Guggenheim’s New York gallery Art of This Century. It’s also refreshing to hear someone recount their own life in their own words through a platform that predates contemporary podcast culture. Guggenheim’s commentary provides a fascinating backdrop to the photos of her life and onscreen images the works she collected and championed that crop up throughout the feature.
Although Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict offers little more than a glimpse into the life of one of the world’s great art collectors, the high production values and use of materials previously unavailable elevate this documentary above others of its ilk. Vreeland has managed to construct an impressive tale about a fascinating character with virtually indescribable influence over a particular era of art creation, and – even taking into account its shortcomings – that alone makes the film worth seeking out.