Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict: My Art Will Go On, by David Bax
Peggy Guggenheim is certainly an interesting figure in twentieth century Western culture. As a patron, gallerist, collector and more, she contributed a great deal to the legitimization and proliferation of modern art. She came from a famous and wealthy family and lived an unorthodox life. The failing of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is that it is content to coast on these human interest elements, never plunging below the surface of this fascinating woman.
Part of that, to be fair, is the fault of Guggenheim herself. Vreeland touts the discovery of previously unknown audio interviews from the last years of her subject’s life and uses them as narration throughout. But Guggenheim, though still a smart and lively conversationalist at the age of 81, proves frustratingly unreflective. She offers little – apart from some occasional salacious details of the art world men she’s bedded – and often answers questions only by agreeing with her interviewer’s premise. What we learn of her life – her hardships, her travels, her victories, her loneliness, etc. – is in no way supplemented by the woman’s own supposed insights.
Art Addict thankfully doesn’t dwell too long on the misfortunes that befell Guggenheim and her family but it does include them enough to impart respect for what she endured. Her father died aboard the Titanic; giving up his life vest to women and children and dressing in evening wear, he sat in the foyer of the Grand Staircase with brandy and a cigar to await his demise. Guggenheim’s sister, Hazel, is suspected to have killed her two children to keep them away from their father. And finally, Guggenheim’s own daughter, Pegeen, committed suicide.
Vreeland struggles, however, to make the connection between these troubling incidents and Guggenheim’s true legacy in the arena of art. Still, the film is at its strongest in the latter mode. Replete with images of great works and descriptions of their creators, it could do double duty as a modern art primer for the uninitiated. The most compelling section of Art Addict is the one that details Guggenheim’s fearless efforts to purchase and save important works in Paris in the weeks before the Nazis invaded, actions which could well have been dreadful for her if caught. Hitler so despised modern art that the Nazis held a massive anti-art show called “Degenerate Art” in Munich in 1937, showcasing some 650 pieces for the purpose of disparagement.
Once again, Vreeland’s access to interesting material like that described above maintains Art Addict’s watchability yet she repeatedly fails to locate anything beyond her basic and slightly amateurish presentation. She’s more interested in repetitious mythmaking, as art critics, former friends and others expound glowingly about Guggenheim’s importance to art history well after that foundation has been established. Vreeland shows more interest in Guggenheim’s sex life. This is not without reason but her many conquests, her many abortions and her memoir (which Guggenheim herself describes as being “all about fucking”) are not mined for any richer material than prurience.
By the end, the film’s own title provides the key to its shortcomings. Why, through everything she experienced and suffered, was Guggenheim “addicted” to art? That should be fertile ground to explore but Vreeland is content to offer simply that it’s because her subject was “lonely.” Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is an informative documentary but never an inspired one.