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A New Documentary Enshrines Peggy Guggenheim as a True Iconoclast

Peggy Guggenheim

“I became an addict and I couldn’t help it anymore.”

No, this isn’t some rehab confessional. The subject of the documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, is speaking about her unparalleled modern art collection. 

Often dismissed as an eccentric heiress, notorious for her long list of lovers, the Guggenheim depicted in director Lisa Immordino Vreeland's documentary is a woman ahead of her time. An outsider in her own conservative world of money and society, too plain and too different to be the socialite wife and mother expected of her, Peggy remade herself into one of the most influential figures of the 20th century contemporary art world.

“Her legacy has always been questionable and, in the last ten years, art historians have actually seen how implicated she is in so many things,” Vreeland tells Out. “There are not that many who play such a big role in such a swath of time, in different countries, with different artists.” Vreeland’s last film was the touching, masterful documentary on another larger-than-life woman deserved of a more celebrated legacy, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (the filmmaker is married to one of her grandsons).

Art Addict is centered on a series of once-lost interviews conducted with Guggenheim by her biographer, Jacqueline B. Weld, which Vreeland discovered in Weld’s basement. She supports the audio with archival footage, paintings from Peggy’s collection, and interviews with art world personalities. Art Addict is straightforward and chronological, and the result is a story of reinvention and triumph over tragedy, an attempt to redeem the history of a woman who is all too often reduced to frivolity – but whose impact on art history cannot be ignored.

Through her patronage, her galleries in New York and London, and the extensive collection she enshrined in a Venice palazzo, Guggenheim helped to shape our cultural understanding of modern art. “She wanted to build a collection and to share it with the world,” Vreeland says. Guggenheim’s influences spanned both the European and American art scenes, and she supported and collected the work of artists that would go on to become the masters of Surrealism, Dadaism, and Abstract Expressionism. Guggenheim claimed to have discovered Jackson Pollack, counted Marcel Duchamp as her mentor, and married Max Ernst.

Courtesy of the Peggy Gugggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

Courtesy of the Peggy Gugggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

During World War II, when curators were fleeing Europe, Peggy went to Paris to buy as many paintings as she could. When asked if as a Jewish woman she was afraid of getting caught by the Germans, Peggy replied, “It isn’t in my nature to be afraid. I wouldn’t leave until I got the pictures out.” These pictures went on to comprise the bulk of her modern art collection in Venice, which is one of the most visited in the world. “She was the go-to person. Paul Newman would come to town, and they would look Peggy up," Vreeland explains. "Everybody wanted to get into the collection.”

Yet, for all her accomplishments, Guggenheim’s influence on modern art is often overshadowed by her jarring personality and her frank acknowledgment of her sexuality, something the film also does not shy from discussing. Emotionally detached but voraciously ardent, Peggy came alive through her love for art and artists. “She was very passionate, but in a different way,” Vreeland says. “She couldn’t express it, couldn’t give of herself, and with these paintings and artists, she could. She identified with them in a different way.” Peggy said of the art, “It was my freedom. My liberation.” Guggenheim had affairs with many well-known men (and maybe a few women, as she coyly admitted), and never felt the need to deny it. History remembers her strangeness and her scandals. Vreeland wants us to remember her courage and her triumphs. 

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict opens Nov. 6 in New York. Watch a clip below:

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