For a film about such a radical, ‘Peggy Guggenheim’ tells its story in a very traditional way.
Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary begins with the heroine’s childhood and ends with her death, with everything in-between falling in strict chronological order. In the time-honoured “show and tell” tradition of the genre, people and objects are mostly brought alive with period photographs (there’s very little footage, and most of what you do see isn’t of Peggy).
Aside from this, the film is basically made up of interviews: none of Man of Wire’s dizzying recreations or Waltz with Bashir’s hallucinogenic animation here. In fact, the bulk of the story relies on a single interview with Peggy herself, with the visuals essentially illustrating what she’s saying.
Despite all this, Vreeland’s film manages to be interesting and entertaining from start to finish. This is mostly because Peggy herself is fascinating. The film paints her as a strange mixture of contradictions: a lonely socialite, shy but confident, reserved but frank, fearless but insecure, sexy but not smouldering. A dynamic and independent collector at a time when women were all but invisible in the art world, she nevertheless relied heavily on the advice of the men in her life (granted, the men in her life tended to be painters and art experts). Annoyingly, we rarely get to see Peggy in action, but a lot of her personality comes across in the way she talks – her interview answers are always short, to the point, and unfailingly honest.
One of the advantages of the film’s reliance on Peggy’s own words is that hardly any time is wasted on discussions of how great/influential/vital for humanity she is. Instead of telling us all that, the story shows us. We’re taken through the young girl’s move to Paris, where she throws herself into the wild, bohemian lifestyle of the Roaring Twenties (enter Dadaism, surrealism, Dali and Duchamp). We follow her to London, where she unleashes the avant-garde on an unsuspecting public and sets the city alight (enter the Nazi years, when Peggy has to decide whether she or her paintings come first). We see her relocate to New York, taking the art world’s centre of gravity with her (enter a lot of weird folk exhibiting weird pictures in weird ways). Finally, we watch her settle in Venice, where her museum becomes one of the city’s top tourist attractions (it still is). If you wanted to buy one of the Guggenheim’s artworks today, it would cost you more than Peggy’s entire collection set her back at the time.
This eventful story makes the art world of the time look so dynamic that it might even convince some people to take a second look at modern art. I know it made me do something I never believed possible: respect Jackson Pollock (although I still can’t forgive Duchamp for the urinal). But mostly, the film gives you a window into the thoughts and feelings of a woman who lived an essentially sad life – with its unhappy childhood, disapproving relatives and broken relationships – but made something out of it through endless determination and an unwavering passion for art. Whether or not you share that passion, this hour-and-a-half with Peggy makes for an inspiring story and a great film.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is out in the IFI on Friday 11th December.
All photographs courtesy IFI