November 16, 2015
Two weeks ago, Derek Blasberg interviewed filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland about her newest project, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict for Vanity Fair. The film tells the life story of art world icon Peggy Guggenheim, who's unconventional upbringing, early tragedies and then lifelong devotion to collecting and promoting young artists is as inspiring as it is harrowing. The film focuses on a series of taped interviews with Guggenheim that were long thought to be lost, which crack open the inner workings of the legend.
Derek Blasberg: I’ve seen documentaries about Peggy Guggenheim and this period in contemporary art history in the past, but what sets this one apart is the ability to actually hear her voice. I always thought the tapes from the Jacqueline Bograd Weld biography on Guggenheim had been lost!
Lisa Immordino Vreeland: Jackie had great access and spent two summers interviewing Peggy in 1978–1979 and spoke to 200 other people, many who now have passed away, to put together the book Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim, which was her only authorized biography and published after she died. We had optioned that book, and she was incredibly generous, letting me go through all her original research—except for the lost tapes. We’d walk into different rooms in her apartment, and I’d suggestively open a closet door and ask, “Where do you think those tapes might be?” Then, one day I asked if she had a basement, and she did, and there I found them in an old box of books.
Wow, what was your reaction?
I was absolutely overjoyed! It was the longest interview Peggy had ever done, and it became the framework for the entire film. There’s nothing more powerful than when you have someone’s real voice telling the story, and Jackie was especially good at asking provoking questions.
You do a good job of placing her lineage in early-20th-century American culture. I often forget her father went down on the Titanic. What other interesting elements stuck out in your research about her family, both her mother’s and her father’s sides?
Something that we did not delve into enough in the film was the historical aspect of the “Our Crowd” Jews that came to New York in the early 1900s. Ultimately, this would become what Peggy resisted most. She felt held back by their rules. She opposed the strict upbringing that the German nannies imposed on her, and that instilled in her a strong feeling of rebellion. Her mother’s family, the Seligmans, eccentricities were very well known, but there [are] simply too many to mention in a single film.
Something else I found interesting was the tragedy in her early life. The death of her father, sure. But then there was the death of her lover, and her sister’s two young children falling off the top of the Surrey hotel. My assumption, and I know I’m not a therapist so I’m not an authority on this kind of topic, is that one reason art was so appealing was that there was not the possibility of a painting or a sculpture devastating you.
Art was where Peggy finally found herself. The desire to build a collection became her biggest motivation. She identified with the art and the artists and found solace in all of it. It is a very human endeavor to practice art, but to have the vision to collect it at this time was an example of how, ultimately, she connected with the love of art and artists.
She shaved her eyebrows, she had very public affairs. Would you call her a rebel of her time? Or an eccentric?
Peggy was a total individual. She decided young that she wanted to create her own identity, and she proclaimed this independence when she moved to Paris in the 20s. There, she was not held back by any conventions and started to live life on her own terms, with nothing holding her back. It was a very modern notion to think that you have all of these opportunities, especially as a woman.
Is there someone similar to her in modern culture? An Isabella Blow, a Daphne Guinness?
In my opinion, there is no one in modern culture like this today. Peggy lived during a time when the world of artists who she believed in were underdogs. She supported them, and she collected not only the art but also the artists. Today, some of that world is completely manufactured.
I reckon that, today, people don’t view Peggy Guggenheim in such a scandalous light as her contemporaries did. When I was growing up, I remember her as a mythical figure in Venice, not a woman who had so many affairs. Do you think art history has done her justice by imagining her more as a patron than a scandalous figure?
As time goes on, Peggy’s place in the art world is taken more seriously. And for good reason: there are few figures in art history who played such a pivotal role in the lives of artists in so many countries. She explored the art worlds of London, Paris, New York, and Venice. She was revolutionary at that time because she was picking people out of obscurity, before they were known as successful artists, and she believed in them and she did it on her own terms. I think her personal stories, which are many, have diluted her real accomplishments.
Now, putting my therapist’s hat back on, do you think after suffering so much tragedy, having, publicly, so many sexual relations was a way for her to connect with other people? Or take charge, emotionally, of a situation?
When I originally started to work on the film I did not realize that the sense of loss in her life was so profound. She had a very modern approach to men and to sexual relations. She never cared what others thought. She was interested in these men, who were completely different from what she knew growing up. And yes, I do agree, she was always trying to make up for the deep sense of loss that she felt throughout her life.
Is it true that, in response to her autobiography, Out of This Century, her relatives referred to it as Out of Her Mind?
When her autobiography, Out of This Century, was published in 1946, Peggy said that certain members of the Guggenheim family tried to buy up every copy of the book in New York in order to make it disappear from circulation, and yes, they certainly did refer to it as Out of Her Mind. Peggy was extremely courageous and bold to publish a book, which listed all her lovers and detailed her experience during the most important period of art.
I didn’t know this: Lucian Freud made his first art-show appearance in Peggy’s London gallery when he was a child, in a children’s exhibition. I know the list is too long for you to list, but whom do you think Peggy would be most proud of “discovering”?
Peggy had such a strong hand in so many different artists’ lives, but I believe that Jackson Pollock is the name that she would mention. She considered him her spiritual offspring. He needed her support, and this allowed him to create with real freedom. This mindset of discovering this unproven group of artists would ultimately be her most important legacy. She recalled when she had organized the first show of Pollock’s work at the Museo Correr in Venice, “I remember the extreme joy I had sitting in the Piazza San Marco beholding the Pollocks glowing through the open windows of the museum, it seemed to place Pollock historically where he belongs, as one of the greatest painters of our time who had every right to be exhibited in this wonderful setting.”
Apart from Pollock, were there other artists she mentored or collected who ended up changing the course of art history?
What is so interesting about Peggy is that she played a very significant role in so many countries, at a time when travel was not as easy as it is today, and to so many artists, when it [was] not as easy to communicate ideas as it is today. I will give you some examples of her influence. The first time after World Word II that the Venice Biennale occurred, in 1948, was the first time that Italian artists Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri experienced Pollock’s work, and saw that it was possible to have canvases of that enormous size. It was also the first time they saw Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings in color—they had only seen them in black and white in magazines—which had an enormous influence on them. Another example is when, five years before that, when she was living in New York, Peggy had a collage show called "Exhibition of Collage," which was the first time that Robert Motherwell ever worked in that medium, which we now know became one of the most important processes in his career.
Peggy also organized a landmark show of all women artists. Do you reckon she was a feminist, or was it just that she thought it was time to look at females in art?
That show, "31 Women," in January of 1943, was revolutionary, as it was the first time that a show was devoted only to women artists in all of America. The artists Louise Nevelson, Leonor Fini, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Tanning, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Peggy’s own daughter, Pegeen Vail, exhibited in the show. Peggy was not afraid to show what she wanted and she felt it was important to have a exhibit devoted only to women. She embodied feminist ideals in the way she acted, but she was not a traditional feminist. She simply had a very modern approach to life. She saw that there were endless opportunities and did not feel that being a woman should hold her back.
Larry Gagosian has a good line at the end of the film, saying her collection has made her immortal. What do you think she would make of that sentiment?
I love this statement and I think that there is so much truth to it. She was there before the artists even realized that they needed the support. That is fundamental. She had the vision of wanting to build a collection and share it with the world, which is a very modern thought and it has real gravitas. She really did this for the love of the art, and this is certainly an act of immortality.
Originally published on VanityFair.com, October 30, 2015. To read the full text click (here).
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is in theaters now. Check your local listings.