Scion to one of America’s great families, the Guggenheims, Peggy – daughter of Benjamin, the multimillionaire who famously sank with the Titanic, smoking a stogie and having a nip of brandy has ice-cold Atlantic water deluged the stricken boat – became famous in her own right for a mighty art collection and ‘discovering’ Jackson Pollock. Her subsequent place in 20th century art history can be seen not only for that truly incredible collection, which today can be seen at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
It’s also evident in how she served as an influential bridge between two major movements: Surrealism and the American school of Abstract Expressionism. Peggy was an eccentric personality with an even more eccentric speaking voice. She talked like a posh Englishwoman with a slight trace of an East Coast American accent. She didn’t much fit in with her filthy rich family, so hotfooted it to Europe and started a life dedicated to art and its exhibition. Finding herself among the bohemians of 1920s Paris, she knew and partied with everybody from Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton, Man Ray, Constantin Brâncuși, Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy to James Joyce.
Guggenheim attests, in an audio clip, that all the stories about the poverty-stricken Irish literary genius we’ve heard down the years were plain true: he loved a drink and to dance a jig when three sheets to the wind. While Guggenheim was into radical art and radical exhibitions, Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (2015) takes a fairly standard-issue cradle-to-the-grave biography approach, with talking head interviews, audio snippets and archive video footage. The highlight of the documentary is Robert De Niro’s recounting the time he visited the Guggenheim Collection, at eighteen and backpacking around Europe, whereupon entering the palazzo, he immediately spied a painting by his mother, Virginia Admiral. The look of shy pride on his face is absolutely adorable. The documentary is at its best when looking at Guggenheim’s inspiring achievements in a world dominated, as it is today, by patriarchal systems. Peggy was a one-off and would be utterly astonished by the art world today paying, as it does, tens of millions for works she picked up for next to nothing.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn