Review: “Peggy Guggenheim” documentary is an expansive treat that plays it a little too tame

Guggenheim

Guggenheim

She was no great beauty, and knew it. You could say that she compensated for what she didn’t find in the mirror by surrounding herself with beauty of another kind — the sculptures and paintings that redefined Europe and the early 20th century in the wake of World War I. So she started building one of the world’s first and best collections of modern art with a particular fervor. 

“I became an addict and couldn’t help it any more,” says the subject of the aptly named documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. The line comes from taped interviews from the 1970s conducted by writer Jacqueline B. Weld for her biography Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim.

Wayward she definitely was. Her father’s and mother’s families started as Jewish emigrants to the U.S., peddling door-to-door, but able, over 50 years in the 19th century, to amass fortunes in mining and banking. Neither sort of business held any allure for Peggy.  

With a mere inheritance of $450,000 (in turn-of-the-last-century money), she considered herself the “poor” Guggenheim. Not exactly, but her own sense of finite means and the necessity for thrift makes it all the more commendable that she took gambles on artists no one really thought much of when they were starting out: Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and especially Jackson Pollock. She could have lost her shirt. Instead, she created the historic fine-arts playbook for the 20th century. 

Most of that collection resides in the museum situated in the low-rise palazzo she bought in Venice. New York’s famous Guggenheim Museum was created by her uncle. (“It looks like a garage, doesn’t it?” Peggy snarks on tape, a nice way of disparaging both her Uncle Solomon and architect Frank Lloyd Wright.)

She was a headstrong, prowlingly sexual figure who discovered, nurtured or slept with the arts pioneers of her times (she famously spent four days in bed with Samuel Beckett, and slept with Constantin Brâncuşi because she says she thought he’d give her a better price on one of his sculptures). But Guggenheim comes across in Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary as someone we’re still wanting to learn more about at the end of the movie. 

Addict is a valuable testament to the collector’s taste, drive and her influence on the global art scene. It’s a treat to look at, thanks to archival footage and especially images of the artworks she bought. It engages as you watch it, but it never exactly thrills or surprises. 

Perhaps it’s a documentary that got made a little too late, long after Guggenheim and all her contemporaries moved on into that great atelier in the sky. The movie is a little respectable, a little tame — qualities its subject didn’t herself have much patience for. 

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. A documentary by Lisa Immordino Vreeland. Unrated. 96 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema. 

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