Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 10, 2015 4:41 pm 
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"Getting old is awful. It's one of the worst things that can happen to you."

Yes, this documentary is conventional, but its subject hardly is. She is one of the most important figures of modern art as a patron, mistress, dealer, and collector. Peggy Guggenheim started out as a kind of black sheep offspring of two super-rich American Jewish families, the Guggenheims and the Seligmans. She had inherited "only" $450,000,* quite a lot in the Thirties, but not enough to make her of any importance compared to her plutocrat relatives like her uncle Solomon. She had two galleries, Jeune, in London before the war, then the revolutionary Art of This Century Gallery in New York from 1941 to 1947. Both introduced and promoted major new twentieth century artists. In between, in Paris, at the outbreak of the war, like others, including some servants of the Nazis, she bought up masterpieces of modern art for a song, assembling a collection current gallery czar Larry Gagosian says would be worth billions, for an incredible total of $40,000 spent.

Among this film's surprises is the news that the Louvre, which was hiding the bulk of its vast holdings out in the country to keep the Germans from stealing them, proclaimed Peggy's Mondrians and Picassos "not worth saving." But she managed to get her collection successfully shipped to New York disguised as housewares.

After the war was over, Peggy returned to Europe, settling in the magical city of Venice, and was a force behind its becoming identified with avant-garde art through her collection, preserved and housed in her unique one-story palazzo Venier dei Leoni -- an essential stop for any visitor -- and the Biennale. Robert Di Nero, both of whose parents were artists, recounts visiting there in a wanderjahre when he was 19 and the first thing his eye fell upon being a painting by his mother.

She is closely associated with some key figures. She attached herself to that pivotal modern art tinking, Marcel Duchamp, and listened closely to his pronouncements. It's reported that when she initially devalued Jackson Pollack, saying his work was messy and undisciplined, Mondrian differed, saying Pollack looked like the most interesting painter he'd found in America. Peggy subsequently set up Pollack with a place outside New York to live and work where he completed his greatest masterpieces.

Along the way are struggles and squabbles, sex and men and dogs, and plenty of recordings of Peggy's own voice from rare interviews filmmaker Vreeland rediscovered. Her accent at one point is described as a "strange" one adopted by a ground of Jewish girls sent to the same private school in Manhattan. But with its gushy use of superlatives, it just sounds like an old fashioned socialite's intonations. When such a person says something is "marvelous" or they "adored" it, the truth must be dialed down a bit. She "adored" Max Ernst. At any rate he was attractive (as well as an important t artist) and she married him. The film doesn't allow us to get a very clear fix on Miss Guggenheim's personality. Was she shy and insecure? It's said so, but look at all she did. She was a loner, we're told; but then she's heard saying she very much enjoyed parties. To confound the impression, stills of her are constantly been shown to illustrate one or another of her contradictory supposed qualities -- her plainness, her charm, her lack of taste; her style -- the latter set off in her later years in Venice as a modern art grande dame in dramatic designer dresses, draped in furs and her dozens of cuddly little long haired dogs, with her wild glasses.

As a personality, even as a face, Peggy Guggenheim remains hard to define after seeing this film. But this is not a flaw of the film. Bohemian and socialite, she is complex and hard to pin down. There's not just one of her. Her life spanned most of the twentieth century, and touches on some of its major cultural events. She was an independent tastemaker at a time when one person could make a unique difference, over and over again, decade after decade. Her almost incalculable significance, in arousing awareness, creating careers, establishing a great personal collection, launching a key program of art fellowships, is a subject of wonder even for those who know modern art history well, and this swift survey does it justice as an outline, though for more precise details one must consult the biographies whose authors have a word in this film.

The filmmaker, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, also directed the 2011 Diana Vreeland documentary, The Eye Has to Travel. She is the wife of Diana Vreeland's grandson.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, 96 mins., debuted at Tribeca April 2015; showed in 14 other festivals. Opening at two theaters (IFC, FSLC) in NYC Wed., 4 Nov. 2015, it opens at Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and Shattuck in Berkeley 20 Nov.
*So she says in a taped interview. The Wikipedia article says she inherited $2.5 million, the equivalent of $35 million today. The $40,000 spent for her painting-a-day collection assembled in Paris should probably also be similarly adjusted.

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