Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
Interview with director Lisa Immordino Vreeland
CHIARA SPAGNOLI GABARDI, OCT. 2015
Lisa Immordino Vreeland, whose acclaimed debut feature documentary Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel followed the life of Harper's Bazaar fashion editor, turns her lens towards Peggy Guggenheim: a fascinating woman who defined and assembled the premier collection of 20th century modern art.
Immordino Vreeland examines how this colorful character was not only ahead of her time but helped to define it. Peggy Guggenheim was an heiress to her family fortune, who became a central figure in the modern art movement, since she collected not only art, but artists. Her personal history included such figures as Samuel Beckett, Mark Rothko, Max Ernst, Jean Cocteau, Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp, as well as countless others. While fighting through personal tragedy, she maintained her vision to build one of the most important collections of modern art, now enshrined in her Venetian palazzo.
The new film, Peggy Guggenheim – Art Addict offers a rare look into Guggenheim’s world: blending the abstract, the surreal and the salacious, to portray a life that was as complex and unpredictable as the artwork Peggy revered and the artists she pushed forward.
In this Exclusive Interview director Lisa Immordino Vreeland tells us about the making of Peggy’s portrait on film.
Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi: How did you select the footage? Apparently Jacqueline Weld played an important role...
Lisa Immordino Vreeland: Jackie was the first person to contact Peggy to write a biography about her, and it was fortuitous that Peggy was still alive to have these conversations, that are the only recorded ones. Thankfully Jackie’s questions were smart, because Peggy often did not give enough information and her answers were very withdrawn, especially because we are talking about the last two years of her life, 1978 and 1979. To put it all together was hard because it was a lot of patching together different moments of interviews, and it was a very slow process. Also the quality of the tapes was horrible, they were absolutely the most compromised I’ve ever heard, that is why it’s subtitled in certain places.
CSG: In her interviews and throughout your documentary Peggy’s duality emerges: she was a shy person who would become very extrovert in social occasions. Do you think art represented her own accomplishment and rise to stardom?
LIV: I think so, and she had this métier in her life. She knew she had found something that became her passion and driving force. Before she was just living a life without a direction, but art gave her a real purpose and she had this determination from the very beginning, to build a collection she would share with the public. This is very much connected to the Jewish tradition of patronage, which played a huge role in her life, without her realizing it. It’s a fascinating time she had when you look at pictures from the sixties, when Peggy is in Venice wearing a fur coat, leaning close to her paintings. She was a destination at the time, and all the stars attending the Film Festival would go visit her, from Marlon Brando to Paul Newman. But she wasn’t doing this for the stardom, rather for the love of the arts.
CSG: Since you mentioned patronage, don’t you feel that today the figure of the Art Patron is somehow disappearing, as opposed to the mere Art Collector?
LIV: If I think of patrons nowadays my mind goes immediately to the executive producer of this film, Maja Hoffmann and her LUMA Foundation, that supports the activities of independent contemporary artists. Maja follows artists just like Peggy did. Times have changed though, because in Peggy’s days there were actual art movements, that she was witnessing and was pivotal in. Today there is a little disaccord between the fact there are no real movements. I personally don’t see how Urs Fischer and Marina Abramović are connected artistically. The patron’s idea of support follows up on the artist’s project, but something that makes it more complicated than in the past are also the prices, that are so high.
CSG: Talking of prices Peggy managed to put together her collection for very little, about $40.000. In 1939 she was buying one piece per day, was the wartime influencing how Peggy built her collection?
LIV: She was very thrifty and probably it came to her advantage that people were needing money at the time. But despite the war, prices were low for art back then. The early Pollocks in America were very inexpensive. It would be interesting to compare the tags of the artwork when Peggy bought the pieces and see what they would be priced today.
CSG: As it concerns the ephemeral criteria in judging art, in your film there is a very interesting quote by Marcel Duchamp: “Art is a fraud, it is a mirage. It’s more about the man, the artist.” Do you think that was the secret of Peggy’s intuition in discovering talent, that she would pick the personage rather than the actual work of art?
LIV: The presence of someone like Duchamp goes without explaining, he was a remarkable intellectual who was incredibly influential in opening significant developments in painting and sculpture of the twentieth century. So it was definitely the personality that captivated Peggy, but he wasn’t paid by her to be an advisor, he was doing it because he believed in her ability to identify the idiosyncrasy of artists and their work.
CSG: Peggy would spend a great amount of time with artists and, looking at her libertine habits, it seems as if she wanted to fit in their rebelliousness. Would you say that this cliché is a crucial element to be part of the art world?
LIV: In that time those were the underdogs. Now they have become the most important masters of the twentieth century. Peggy was rebellious: she did not like her family or upbringing and wanted to break out from it. She completely transformed herself in another human being. If we take an example of a tormented artist, Rothko ended up killing himself. So I don’t think you have to be crazy, but there has to be something wild in the artist’s personality. If I think of contemporary artists, Gilbert & George are very unconventional in exploring how we can get in touch with ourselves; from the minute they start doing The Singing Sculpture. Tracey Emin too is completely out of the ordinary. During Peggy’s time artists were really struggling and going through wars, they were pursuing that connection, just as Marina Abramović does today. I had the chance to talk to her and join one of her performances, with my daughter Olivia, and realized she is doing something revolutionary and eye opening in this regard.
CSG: Do you think that just like artists would vent out their struggle and pain in their creations, Peggy compensated with art her family sorrows — from her early childhood, to her failed marriage, as well as the death of her sister and daughter and betrayal of many lovers?
LIV: She was struggling through life and she gave meaning to the money she had, and found a definition of who she was. Peggy’s parents didn’t give her love so she did not know how to give love back. She wasn’t a great mother. She was a decent wife but never felt love. She had great sexual exploits, that were very courageous for the time, also to write about them, but art mainly gave meaning to her life. She was forty years old when all of this happened.
CSG: She definitely represented the quintessence of the liberated woman, but do you feel she may have been exploited by some to a certain extent?
LIV: She was an attractive woman when she was younger and she had great charisma. To come from her background and surround herself with bohemian artists, she must have had something magnetic about her. She wasn’t Lee Miller Penrose, who was populating streets in Paris, she was Peggy Guggenheim. She had an openness and there might have been people who took advantage of her. But I think her biggest shortcoming was that she was never considered an intellectual. Unlike Gertrude Stein, who was an écrivant and was in the position of literary innovator, Peggy’s legacy was intertwined in the arts to an extent that people have ignored so far, and I hope this movie will help to change people’s perspective on this matter.
ASG: Peggy created her persona, as you show in your documentary she was self-educated, and just like many others who were self-taught (like George Bernard Shaw, John Clare, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway) she was cultured above average and mingled with people notwithstanding social class. You seem to be fascinated by women who can relate to everybody, from the upper crust to more humble backgrounds, and can fix their gaze on someone and make them blossom at the beginning of a career. Do you have another female character up your sleeve who has this allure and will engage you in your next project?
LIV: I have a man up my sleeve. I’m going to do a film on Cecil Beaton. It’s the idea of transformation that captivates me. How these people reinvent themselves, that kind of story truly attracts me. Once again it’s about someone who lived during the 20th century, finding their métier and life force that gave them new energy and determination. Diana Vreeland used to call him “Cecilia” — as we know there is a very feminine side to Cecil Beaton — and what’s nice about it is there’s a great combination about art, film, photography and creativity.
Lisa Immordino Vreeland's prismatic inside look into the life of the legendary art collector and heiress opens November 6th WM