Confessions of an ‘Art Addict’ at Aspen Filmfest
If You Go …
What: ‘Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict’ at Aspen Filmfest
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Sunday, Sept. 27, 5:30 p.m.
How much: $15 GA; $12 Aspen Film members
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenfilm.org
More info: A Q-and-A with director Lisa Immordino Vreeland will follow the screening.
When documentarian Lisa Immordino Vreeland began researching the life of famed art collector Peggy Guggenheim for her new film, she didn’t expect Guggenheim herself — who died in 1979 — to narrate it.
But an auspicious archival discovery gave her Guggenheim’s voice, which serves as the backbone of “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.” The film plays Saturday at Aspen Filmfest.
Vreeland had optioned the film rights for Jacqueline Bograd Weld’s 1986 biography of Guggenheim. She dug into the archives in Weld’s Manhattan apartment, looking over the notes and transcripts that helped Weld shape that definitive Guggenheim book. Weld had mentioned her extensive interviews with Guggenheim, recorded in the last two years of the collector’s life, but she thought they were lost to history.
“She kept telling me about these tapes,” Vreeland said. “They were lost, but she knew they were somewhere in her belongings. So I would walk through the house every once in a while and open a closet and say, ‘What do you think? Are they here?’”
In Weld’s basement, where Vreeland had agreed to gather reams of old tax returns in garbage bags, she stumbled on a shoebox. Inside was a stack of cassette tapes. On them — worn by time into poor quality — were Guggenheim’s candid final interviews with Weld in Venice.
“It was amazing,” Vreeland said. “It totally changed the game. … She really does come alive in those tapes.”
Their conversations — with Weld gently prodding Guggenheim to talk about her affairs, her family, her father’s tragic death, her genius eye for art and her miraculous transport of artwork out of Nazi-occupied France — soundtracks much of the film.
“Peggy’s answers were not enough for us, but because Jackie’s questions were so clear and good, that allowed us to put together the narrative,” Vreeland explained.
In “Art Addict,” the audio tapes are complemented by rare archival footage of the art legends that Guggenheim supported along with contemporary talking heads evaluating her life and impact.
Guggenheim was a mercurial subject, rarely discussing her favorite paintings and offering little insight into how her incredible eye for talent developed. As a result, many biographers — and Guggenheim’s own autobiography — have opted to dish on her lovers and her flamboyant, bohemian personal life, often letting the bedroom escapades overshadow her incredible impact on modern art. “Art Addict” addresses that skewed public picture of the woman who staged the first exhibitions of legends such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, championing the likes of Salvador Dali and Wassily Kandinsky. The film aims to balance both sides of its subject.
It attempts to solve the riddle of Guggenheim, beginning with her early life as a friendless child of privilege with a wild streak whose father dies on the Titanic when she is 13 and who suffers an early nervous breakdown.
“I was always a black sheep,” Guggenheim says in the film. “I wasn’t supposed to do anything good. I think I surprised them.”
“Art Addict” dubs her time in Paris in the 1920s and ’30s as an “awakening.” It’s there that she finds her bohemia and where she befriends pioneers such as James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Ezra Pound, Man Ray and Gertrude Stein, in whose shoes she aims to follow as a tastemaker.
Her first art gallery, in London, opens in 1938, showing Magrite and Miro and Brancusi, among others.
The World War II section of the film is a highlight, detailing her efforts in Paris that saved the works of countless modern masters — a task Guggenheim carried out at the risk of ending up in a concentration camp herself.
“It’s not in my nature to be afraid,” Guggenheim says of the danger.
From there, she goes to New York, marries Max Ernst and opens the vaunted Art of This Century gallery, where our idea of post-war avant-garde art is seemingly born. Her patronage, including paying monthly salaries, allowed the likes of Pollock to focus on their craft.
After the war, she returns to Europe, settles in Venice and opens her collection to the public, where it remains a global attraction today.
“One thing I realized when I started making the film, was what a sad life that she had and how much tragedy was in it, because of the manner of her autobiography,” Vreeland said. “There is such spirit and humor in it, but there was also this deep-seeded pain.”
Vreeland’s previous documentary, the critically acclaimed “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel,” focused on the fashion legend (and the filmmaker’s grandmother-in-law). Making the Vreeland film, she said, her inspirational subject was easy to admire. Guggenheim — not a warm person, not a good mother, not always loyal or ethical in personal relationships — was harder to warm up to.
“I went back and forth between liking her and just not,” Vreeland said. “I love that once she decided what she wanted to do she stuck with it and achieved it despite people not believing in her.”
The film gives the often salacious details of Guggenheim’s sex life ample time on screen — recounting affairs with Pollock, Samuel Beckett and many leading artists and writers of her time — but doesn’t allow it to overshadow Guggenheim’s achievements in the art world. But balancing the tabloid side with the more important side of the story proved a challenge.
“My producers wanted me to put in as much sex as possible,” Vreeland said. “If you Google Peggy, what comes is that she slept with a million men. It is a big part of the story. … She had this brave stance of ‘This is who I am. I’m a woman. I’m leading my own life.”
After three years of digging into Guggenheim, Vreeland is staying in the world of 20th century art and style for her next documentary: She’s tackling the life of legendary fashion photographer and costume designer Cecil Beaton.
“I’m attracted to these creative characters doing everything they can to fulfill their dreams,” she said.
“Art Addict” will be in limited release in the U.S. in November before being distributed internationally. It screens Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Paepcke Auditorium. A Q&A with Vreeland will follow.
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