Happy birthday to you, wherever you are, Peggy Guggenheim! What a gal.
The adored, slandered and all-around infamous niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim, yes, those Guggenheims, would have turned one hundred eighteen years-old today. Her father Benjamin most unfortunately went down with the Titanic, dragging all of Peggy’s yet-to-be-earned inheritance with him. Nevertheless, when she came of age in 1919, she also came into the cool equivalent of 34.1 million of today’s dollars. Still not as astronomically wealthy as some of her cousins, she worked a day job at an avant-garde bookshop and encountered the first of the artistic and bohemian types who would fill her realm of good taste. She left New York for Paris at the age of twenty, turning up “a little lost girl” among the city’s maze of cobblestone streets and grand boulevards as a Guggenheim might, even a poor one…
The rest is history–sometimes sophisticated, sometimes bawdy, always colourful. As Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, a 2015 documentary directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, freely suggests, the woman is still worth gabbing about. How true. There’s not many among us who built lives in Venetian palazzos upon thousands of pieces modern art and mind-stimulating love affairs, even fewer of the fairer sex. But Peggy was a woman unabashedly herself, who did as her male equals did, exercising her hungry eye and formidable appetites of another nature. But her promiscuous reputation should no longer obscure her accomplishments, as it often did during her lifetime, for there are so many other things she did than take Dadaists to bed.
With funds acquired after her mother’s passing, Peggy invested in her first gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, bringing the work of all the rough and tumble artists she encountered on the continent with her to London’s Cork Street. Rough and tumble artists like Salvador Dalí, Rene Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Jean Cocteau, Wassily Kandinsky and Marcel Duchamp. There she even put on an exhibition of children’s artwork and chanced to show the work of Lucian Freud for the first time. When the early days of World War II blossomed blackly, Peggy scooted back to Paris to gather up as many canvasses as possible, buying at least one a day and having others brought to her at all hours of morning and night through channels of friends in Montmartre. And so she amassed one of the world’s greatest single collections of modern art, for the paltry sum of $40,000.
When the Nazis marched too close for comfort, Peggy fled back to New York with the German artist Max Ernst, whom she wed shortly after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour. Together they brought many of their artistic friends from Paris to shelter in the United States. Peggy set up shop at her second, quasi-experimental gallery, The Art of This Century, one of the first of its kind to hang works by artists from both sides of the Atlantic together. And so, by marrying Ernst (even if not all that happily) and providing asylum and show space for refugee painters, Peggy formed a physical link between European and American modernism, between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
Often scoffed at in the American press for her radical display techniques and totally liberated sexuality, Peggy left once more for Europe as she always intended when peace took root. She sailed to watery Venice, a pastel city of passage, one as historically sexed-up as she. And she stayed; settling in on the Grand Canal in an exquisite contemporary villa with sculpture gardens by Henry Moore and the rest of her collection about her. Peggy wanted her art to remain accessible, and so it has—the Peggy Guggenheim Collection remains the most visited site in Venice, a big hit among all those travelers just stopping by the nobly sinking city.
And it would seem Peggy, a mostly self-made black sheep, still loved to gab about herself near the end. The documentary opens, and is spattered throughout, with audio from tapes from Guggenheim’s last ever interview with her biographer in the late 1970’s, tapes once thought lost. Hearing the candidness and amusement in Peggy’s own voice as she comments on her “very bourgeois, very dull” upbringing, her maturation into “sort of a nymphomaniac” and her long life “all about art, and love” is what makes this documentary so outstanding. Viewers meet the more insecure rich Jewish girl who chose to roll with her botched nose job, who was exploited more than she knew and never felt equal to her blood relatives; who instead met her own gang of weirdos in smoke and idea-choked Parisian cafés. Of course the swaggering, lusty and ambitious Peggy takes centre stage, too, which is only right in a film so dedicated to portraying all the sad, smart, sensual facets of a life so full.