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The Loves and Lives of Modern Art's 'Mistress' and 'Midwife'

A new documentary shows that the underappreciated art collector Peggy Guggenheim was not just an eccentric, promiscuous socialite—she was one of the most important people in twentieth-century art.

by Lauren Oyler
Nov 6 2015, 9:05pm

Photo of Peggy Guggenheim by Roloff Beny. Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada

It is difficult to write about the art collector Peggy Guggenheim without devolving into a list of anecdotes; her biography is comprised almost entirely of extreme circumstances and fun facts. She was born at the turn of the twentieth century, into the superlatively wealthy Guggenheim family on one side and a "highly eccentric"—but also wealthy—banking family on the other; her father died in the sinking of the Titanic. Although at first she couldn't decide whether to start a printing press or an art gallery, she eventually became what she called the "midwife" of modern art: She discovered Jackson Pollock, gave shows to Cocteau and Kandinsky, and put on the first all-female exhibition, 31 Women, in the United States.

Then, there was her personal life, which has probably generated more interest than her professional successes; while she called herself the midwife of modernism, others preferred the term "mistress." She was a self-described "nymphomaniac" and had countless affairs with people like Samuel Beckett, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Bowles (he put perfume on her wrists), the composer John Cage, and "one or two women," in addition to her short marriages to the writer and artist Laurence Vail and to the surrealist painter Max Ernst (who was once so jealous when she bought herself a fur coat that she had to buy him one, too). She used to play tennis with Ezra Pound, despite his anti-Semitism, and gave the lesbian writer Djuna Barnes an allowance for most of her career. When a surgeon botched her long-awaited nose job, she decided that fixing it would be too much hassle and lived the rest of her life with a more bulbous version of the one she'd inherited in the middle of her face.

Guggenheim in front of Alexander Calder's "Silver Bed Head," which she commissioned. Photo courtesy of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

In her new documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, Lisa Immordino Vreeland incorporates all this significance and tidbittiness the same way you would gleefully recount it to a (history nerd) friend. But she also manages to go beyond the level of personality collage to paint a sympathetic, holistic portrait of an underappreciated woman who did, mostly, what she wanted, in work and in life. While at times it seems Guggenheim's male advisers wielded significant control over the collector and patron's enterprise, the film nevertheless depicts Guggenheim as a total professional success as an art collector—who also had a personality. "She had this raison d'être," Vreeland says. "She wanted to build a collection, and she did everything to build that collection."

Vreeland makes heavy use of recently discovered tapes from Guggenheim's final interview with biographer Jacqueline B. Weld, which took place in 1978–79 with Jacqueline B. Weld. Throughout the film, Guggenheim's quiet sense of humor and shy yet matter-of-fact voiceover underlines the patron's extraordinary career and attitude in a likable, very convincing way. The documentary presents Guggenheim's accomplishments alongside—and undistinguished from—her affairs, her neuroses, and her low self-esteem: Remarkably, neither part of Guggenheim's life competes with the other. This allows her relationship to the art world to exist alongside her promiscuity, her famed gallery The Art of This Century alongside her famed memoir Out of This Century. (The latter Guggenheim describes, with a laugh, as being "all about fucking.") Even though Vreeland sets up the documentary discussing Guggenheim's personal life—early on, Guggenheim's voiceover says, in a deadpan moment, "I had so many abortions, my goodness. I think I had seven abortions"—it doesn't detract from the film's thesis that she was a visionary.

Photo courtesy of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

Although several contemporary art world luminaries—including Larry Gagosian, who rarely gives interviews, and Marina Abramovic—sing Guggenheim's praises in the film, Vreeland says Guggenheim hasn't really gotten the respect she deserves. "If you go online and you Google her, it talks about her eccentricities," Vreeland says. "You see pictures of her with her glasses on; it talks about the amount of men that she slept with. For some reason, that negates all of her accomplishments." (That reason is very evident in the thinly veiled short story Mary McCarthy wrote about Guggenheim, "The Cicerone," and in the fact that she was labeled a "slut.")

"For many years she was historically written out of people's lives," Vreeland continues. "Samuel Beckett—there was not even a mention that she was involved in his life."

Read More: The History of Erasing Women's History

Watching the film, which premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival last April, it's hard to imagine anyone not taking Guggenheim as seriously as Vreeland and her interview subjects do: They respect her talents as well as her disadvantages, the qualities that made her successful and the qualities that made her sad. Towards the beginning of the film, the writer Edmund White says he always liked her because he felt sorry for her; the British art historian John Richardson muses that she was so impressive despite the fact that she "had no innate taste or flair for things" (and despite her "lack of beauty"); later, Richardson mentions Guggenheim had "a little girl's enthusiasm about her possessions," a comment that is alternately sweet and pitying. While smoking a cigarette, art historian Dore Ashton describes Guggenheim as a "lonely lady" and tells a story of how she invited Guggenheim to her home: Guggenheim was "so grateful" because "nobody ever thought that they should invite the great Peggy Guggenheim just for a common, ordinary pasta dinner." While all this may support Guggenheim's sometimes-reputation as "the original poor little rich girl," ultimately, it seems like her affairs should have ruined her more than they did.

Photo by Roloff Beny, courtesy of National Archives of Canada

What makes Guggenheim such a compelling figure is that her personality and her success as an art dealer were both intensely goal-oriented—just as she had "constant tryouts for the role of lover," she acquired new works and artists to surround herself with vibrancy. Of course, a patron of the arts is never going to get as much attention as an artist herself, and instead of overreaching from appreciation to imitation, Guggenheim was able to focus purely on what she wanted to do: love art. Sometimes, this had negative side effects: She was a terrible mother, for example, and although she cycled through men, she also expressed real sadness when relationships ended. (In a particularly poignant moment, Guggenheim jokes that she should have made her iconic 31 Women show a 30 Women show, because Ernst met the woman he would leave Guggenheim for while they were hanging it.)

Nevertheless, when someone once criticized her for "giving [her] life to art," she was able to accept it as a compliment. The paintings, she said, became the most important part of her life, and, though she called getting old "one of the worst things that can happen to you," she died feeling like she'd accomplished exactly what she wanted. When an interviewer, possibly antagonistically, asked Guggenheim what she expected in return from the artists she supported, she offered a reply that summed up the confidence that made her such a forward-thinking art collector and the comfort she felt playing that role. "I didn't expect to be repaid," she said. "It's enough to enjoy their paintings."

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