The nymphomaniac–to use her own word–was Peggy Guggenheim, but she was such a remarkable woman that it’s one of the least interesting things about her. Not that the pillow talk isn’t fun, but a case could be made that Peggy is more important to the Modern Art World than Jackson Pollock, the “American Picasso”.
There’s so much to learn and enjoy in the new documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. The same filmmaker made her debut documentary about Diana Vreeland, the iconic fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. I happened to see/love it at the Dallas Film Festival a few years back, so I had high hopes going in to see Peggy. Even though I grew up near New York City, home to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, I knew little about Solomon’s wayward niece, apart from the fact she’d “discovered” Jackson Pollock.
If, like me, you haven’t been to Venice yet, you might not know that the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in a palace on the Grand Canal, is one of Europe’s premier museums devoted to modern art. It’s also one of the most visited sites in Venice. But wait, wasn’t Peggy an American?
Picture this: Manhattan in 1921. Young Peggy, armed with some inheritance, sails for Europe and lands in Paris–if only because the city is known for its art. She’s decided art is very cool–not at college, which she’d chosen not to attend, but at an avante-garde bookstore where she briefly worked. Little does she know she’s sailing into an exciting expatriate community that will include people like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Picasso. She’s not a writer or a painter nor does she aspire to be, but she wants to learn about art. And she does a good job. Suddenly it’s August 1939, and war is about to break out in Europe in a few weeks. Peggy, 40, holes up in a Paris hotel room with the $40,000 she’s put aside to purchase art for a museum she plans to open in London. She’d been living there for a few years following a divorce and the premature death of a great love, and she’d ventured into the art gallery business. While successful in many ways, Guggenheim Jeune wasn’t profitable, and she moved on to bigger and more dangerous things.
In Paris, her goal is to buy at least one painting a day. Keep in mind that some of the artists and gallery owners she’s dealing with are Jewish or homosexuals–not Hitler’s favorite kind of people–so there’s plenty of art for sale, particularly by the time 1941 rolls around. Peggy herself is Jewish, plus she’s championing the kind of art that Hitler despises. In 1937 Berlin, he’d ordered an exhibition of what he called Degenerate Art to showcase the kind of paintings people were supposed to hate. Is Peggy scared? She should be, but she’s got the attitude of a downhill ski racer. Of course it’s dangerous, but this is what I love. Her biggest worry is getting the art out of Paris. The Nazis are coming! Hearing that the Louvre plans to hide some of its greatest art in the French countryside, Peggy asks if hers could be included. Initially the museum agrees, then decides it isn’t worth the trouble. OK? Her $40,000 spending spree has netted her art by Picasso, Miro, Man Ray, Klee, Chagall and others. Days before the Germans reach Paris, she flees to southern France and spends months safeguarding her collection and artist friends. Finally she ships the collection to N.Y., saying that the crates are full of household items like dishes and sheets. She ships herself out, too, along with Jewish artist Max Ernst (ok, she later married him, but still). The whole thing seems like a variation on Schindler’s List.
Back in New York after all these years, Peggy opens The Art of this Century Gallery. Peggy’s gallery space is ahead of its time and so is the art. But lots of artists have fled Europe due to the war, and New York replaces Paris as the center of the Art World. Peggy becomes the link between European and American modernism. This includes meeting, funding and promoting Jackson Pollock, whom she later called her greatest discovery.
In 1947, Peggy closed the gallery and moved to Venice where she lived for the rest of her life. She died at 81, in 1979. To me it seems she never got the full credit she deserves–Peggy Guggenheim should be a household name. Is she more important than Jackson Pollock? The two memoirs she wrote might have made her seem frivolous: tell-alls about her sexual liaisons. (If she were a man doing those things, would it overshadow his other accomplishments?) If you’re still inclined to think of Peggy as a spoiled rich girl, see the film. Her childhood and life had plenty of sadness, tragedy and some eccentric family members who will make you cringe or laugh. When she first saw some of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, she didn’t like them much. But Piet Mondrian, a Dutch painter she respected, suggested there might be genius in his work. Peggy was a good listener.
Now I like to think of Peggy and Pollock as equally important. Their paths crossed, they each had different abilities which they shared with each other, and the result was Great Art. At the end of her life, Peggy told the biographer who wrote the book that became Peggy: the Wayward Guggenheim, “It’s horrible to get old, but I feel like I accomplished what I set out to do.” Was she thinking about all the sex? Partly, I’m sure. But she was probably thinking mostly about the Art.