See How Peggy Guggenheim Invented Herself


Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland

Submarine Deluxe, 95 minutes, Not-rated.




 Tourists flock to Venice and crowd St. Mark’s Square. The cognoscenti have the wisdom to cross the Grand Canal and set their sights on a low-slung palazzo that fronts the water: the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation. It is a magical place to visit.


Very few people have seen Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, a documentary that debuted at the Tribeca Festival in 2015. Luckily, it’s now readily available in DVD and online. Its subject, Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), is an endlessly fascinating character and “character” is the right word if applied in stubborn but persistent terms. She was the niece of the filthy rich Solomon Guggenheim whose name is on a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed art museum in New York City. Peggy, though, looked to Europe and presciently began collecting modern art before it was fashionable to do so and before prices skyrocketed. 



Her second husband was surrealist painter Max Ernst, whom she divorced in 1946, and she refused to be tied down thereafter. Celibate she wasn’t; she lived a life as promiscuous as an alley cat, having slept with over 1,000 men by her reckoning. As you’ve already surmised, she had some money but little intention of being a conventional rich girl. How many of those do you know who befriended anarchist Emma Goldman? Or had the moxie to adorn the front of her palazzo with an erect naked horseman? One of her few nods to propriety is that the rider’s penis unscrewed so as not to offend visiting clerics. (If you’re wondering–and you know you are–it’s now welded in place as it was so often stolen!) 



 Peggy sponsored, supported, slept with, and purchased art from a veritable who’s who of the modern art scene, from Brâncusi to Tanguy via Calder, Dali, Kandinsky, Picasso, and scores of others. She moved to Venice in 1949, after closing money-losing galleries in Paris, St. Tropez, and London. Some of her art was displayed at the Venice Biennale in 1946, but most of it ended up in the palazzo into which she moved three years later. She was indeed an art addict, one who obsessively purchased works and chose to live in what was essentially an art gallery that happened to have some furniture. The palazzo was, in essence, the backdrop for the various parties, soirées, and salon evenings that defined her life in Italy.


Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary spotlights Guggenheim’s life, loves, and collection. In part, it finishes one begun by Maya Deren and Marcel Duchamp in 1943. That’s actually the boldest thing about the film, much of which relies upon talking heads and art experts that tell us what is before our eyes: Guggenheim was an original, as was the stunning art she collected. I will add parenthetically that I was not an enthusiastic fan of modern art until the first time I set foot in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Maybe it was because being in Venice enhanced the experience, but I think it was because seeing it as I imagined Guggenheim displayed it made it more approachable than what it would have looked like in the more serious context of, well, New York’s Solomon Guggenheim Museum.


I recommend this documentary for its subject and the art, not the filmmaking. I guess in a way it’s appropriate that Vreeland didn’t try to dazzle viewers. When you have a subject this good, it’s generally a wise course to stay out the way. After all, what would it take to upstage Peggy Guggenheim?


Was Peggy a bohemian, a rich girl who played one, or a first-class crank? Draw your own conclusion but the smart money’s on “yes.” And if you’re ever in Venice, be sure to take a vaporetto across the Grand Canal to see what Peggy bought and wrought. 


Rob Weir




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