To say that she saved modern art would not be hyperbolic. When Peggy Guggenheim, daughter to tycoon Benjamin Guggenheim, who went down with the Titanic, left the confines of tradition behind to pursue collecting art and seducing some of the most prolific artists of the day, like Max Ernst, Paul Bowles, and Marcel Duchamp, she was unknowingly starting an empire, a safe haven for the underdogs of the creative world.
Director Lisa Immodrino Vreeland, after exploring a heroine of fashion in Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011), now turns to the rich, controversial, and often melancholic life of a woman who gave chance to those who shaped life, who breathed color into a world drowned by the darkness of war and sorrow. In Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, Vreeland shines a light on the person behind the collection, going beyond the eccentricities and into the spirit at the core.
CAMPUS CIRCLE: The Guggenheim name is one of the most recognizable in the art world, and Peggy’s legacy is one at least marginally known by many. Going into Art Addict, what was the one thing you wanted to explore more and clue people into about Peggy Guggenheim?
LISA IMMORDINO VREELAND: I think the one thing that was really lacking in her legacy was the fact that her role in the art history world was underplayed, simply because she had done such a good job talking about her exploits—her personal exploits—that they really overshadow her accomplishments in the art history world, which were huge. I think that’s what we really wanted to focus on. We really tried to direct that in the film. There was so much to address, frankly, from her childhood troubles to the continuous death that surrounded her, and how she had this ability to really overcome it. When she found the arts she found solace. I really do feel that the conversation is about her repercussion in the art world and what she left us with.
CC: Peggy’s legacy is so deeply embedded in grand historical events, such as WWII where she, in a sense, was a soldier in her own way, smuggling art and artists out of the warzones of Europe. Was it difficult to keep focus on her story within that greater context?
LIV: Yes, definitely. When you have such a vast amount of material, you all of the sudden have this encyclopedic rendition of who she is. If you’re trying to make a film, you don’t want to put people to asleep. What gives us insight into her personality? First of all, the construction of the film is done in a very traditional way. It’s straightforward and biographical. We were thinking of starting at the end of her life and going back, but his ended up working much better. It was an issue of trying to delineate certain aspects of her childhood that really formed her and what would be useful for the viewer to understand what she was like. Then the historical aspects—her version of what happened in WWII is so fascinating, because her concern was to help the artists and save the art. Of course, we had to keep very typical WWII footage, so there wasn’t anything really revealing about that, but what was revealing was the footage of the artists. That was my favorite part about it. A lot of people don’t know about degenerate art. Frankly, it only came to the forefront in the past years, probably because The Monuments Men (2014)—correct me if I’m wrong. It was literally a discussion about what do we think is important.
CC And then your discovery of the tapes added a new deluge of information on top of the various resources you were already working from.
LIV: You know, I wasn’t even certain the tapes were going to work, and the producers really pushed for it. I’m really happy they did. When you start the process of working with the tapes, and you decide you’re committed to the tapes, you start to unravel the story. Substitutions for content start to be made. It was a reediting process in those different moments when you have to switch things around. We had the basis of the story laid out, so it was more about figuring out how the tapes can enhance what we had. She had a tendency to repeat herself a lot. What she said in the tapes—a lot of the answers are almost verbatim to what she said in her autobiography. The difference is we had her biographer, Jackie Wells, asking her all these often-difficult questions. That’s what’s nice, because in the moments when Peggy gave us not great answers—like ‘yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘isn’t that wonderful?’—none of those answers are very revealing. Thankfully, Jackie had pried such provocative answers in the tapes that it worked much better.
CC: Peggy’s overt sexuality and promiscuity, which at the time was incredibly taboo, is now what most people first remember about her. How did you want to incorporate that aspect of the story while enlightening people to what they might not know?
LIV: I knew we didn’t have to be vulgar about it when she already was very forward about that part of her life. We had a whole other scene that we took out, which wasn’t offensive, but it was just a bit too much. It really came down to her relationships and love affairs with certain people. When you have her talking about [writer/composer] Paul Bowles, and we have all this great archival footage to show it, it was just a gift, frankly. There are so many people who know he was a writer, but don’t know what he looks like. Her sexual exploits are so much of who she is. I would think, if a therapist really examined this whole thing, she was always in a way trying to replace her father, which I think is normal when you use a parent at a young age. He had already paved the way for her to sleep with multiple partners, because he was doing that. So, unfortunately, the example he set for her was sex. But, really, these exploits were about her being alive. This was very courageous of her to not only have these affairs, but to try to find herself, but to also write about it. For me, it’s not shocking to talk about her love affairs. I thought it took great courage to be a woman who came from this traditional family, and wrote down—even though she used a pseudonym—about all these different affairs. At the same time she didn’t hide away from it. There’s a funny story about the Guggenheims when the book was published in 1946 in New York, that the Guggenheims were running around to all the bookshops in New York trying to buy all the copies. I think it’s so funny that they were so concerned. She had this great openness to her. That’s not how women lived back then and there—it was a very modern approach. I find that part of her appeal. She’s not a typical feminist, nor would she ever call herself a feminist, but it’s about these figures setting examples for us today. Standing up, doing things on her own terms, going after what she wanted to, not thinking like she was a woman doing these things. Instead she was driven by an inner dream, desire, and passion. Listen, there’s nothing more beautiful than that in the end. Of course, she did have financial means. The money—it’s not secondary because it gave her comfort—but it’s not a story about money, it’s a story about courage. It’s a story about a woman who steps out in front of her life, grabs it and lives it.
CC: It’s not too farfetched to say that Peggy single-handedly saved some of the greatest works of art of the 20th century. And she was able to do so based off her personal relationships, both sexual and otherwise. Would you consider her a hero?
LIV: I do, I do. But her problem was often her personality. She didn’t have this giving, worldly personality. That was the hardest people for a lot of people to digest. If you can look beyond that, and say that you don’t have to have a bubbly personality, and frankly with all the death that surrounded her and the unhappiness as a child—how do you force someone to be happy go lucky? The fact that she did what she did despite all of those issues is remarkable. That really, ultimately, is the story. She had this modern outlook on the world before there was a concept of what that outlook was. Although there were other women that were collecting, there was not a woman like that in that scheme of the Cone sisters, or the Whitney, or Isabella Stewart Gardner, or Gertrude Stein—they didn’t have as broad of an impact as Peggy. She had this impact in different countries around the globe. From England to Paris to New York to Venice—it’s huge. But then there’s also the fact she did it on her own, on her own terms. She was surrounded by these advisers, they guided her, but it was her gut instinct that drove her to certain artists and to invest her money in certain places. She’s believing in these underdogs before anyone else was.
CC: It’s always a tricky game speculating what someone would be like without certain experiences, but do you think Peggy would have been driven to such success without the numerous tragedies of her life?
LIV: I think somebody has to have something pretty extraordinary inside in order for any success to happen. I love the idea of reinvention, and that’s why I’m attracted to characters like Diana Vreeland and Peggy Guggenheim. But I think there’s something deep inside, some deep-seated passion or drive that just hasn’t surfaced yet. I think you have to have a certain type of personality to live this kind of life and to have this inner drive. I think that the tragedies helped her come to this, but, in a way, I wish she didn’t have them, because maybe she would have been a happier person. Maybe she would still would have been the same. She never was really shown true love by her parents. If you’re not shown the love how do you give the love? She was not a good mother. She identified with these artists who were the rebels, the underdogs, the unknowns. They ended up becoming the biggest names in the world in modern art. The art became a sanctuary for her. It also became a mission.
CC: Part of Peggy’s legacy is creating some of the most unique gallery spaces the modern art world has ever seen, and they were a hit. Why do you think we don’t see more of that influence today instead of the norm of the sterile white box? Do you think it was simply a matter of time and place?
LIV: I think Guggenheim Jeune in London was very traditional. The shows were very innovative but the space itself was traditional. It was really Art of the Century that was totally different and an example today of what an innovative space is, because today it really is just all about showing art in that white cube. What I liked is that she broke down the sense of formality of looking at art. At that time, the MOMA was open, and there was a defined line of there is the painting, and there is the viewer, and its about keeping distance between the two. She broke that down completely at her gallery. Architect Frederic Kiesler was playing an integral role in the avant garde scene of New York, and his design for [Art of the Century] was totally whacky, but it made the experience of viewing art exactly that—an experience. They had those sawed off bats with the paintings on them, took the paintings out of their frames. Just that sense of taking a painting out of its frame is bringing an informal approach to the viewer. What was nice about the Venice gallery is that it was really her home… It was all very reflective of her. She was presenting the space as ‘this is how I live with my paintings.’ It’s nice to take the preciousness out of art. Today it’s become this manufactured landscape, an aspect that never existed before. Before it was about the art. It was only about the art. It’s taken a vicious turn.
CC: Finally, what was the one thing that most surprised you about Peggy in the making of Art Addict?
LIV: I didn’t realize going in how profoundly sad she was. After looking at all this archival footage of her, you realize how uncomfortable she was in her own skin, and how difficult it was for her—she functioned 100%, but it was a real issue for her. I just wish she was more giving of herself. When you read her autobiography you do not quite get all of this, that she’s not that generous of a person. She was obviously generous in different ways, but I wish she could’ve been more present for her family and loved ones. But she put it all in her art and that was what truly mattered to her.
PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT hits theaters Friday, November 13th.