The Guggenheim family name is closely tied with the history of modern art starting with Solomon Guggenheim, founder of the New York museum of the same name. However, I’d like to focus on his niece, Margaret “Peggy” Guggenheim for this Women’s History month edition of FabArts. Most of what there is to read about Peggy, as far as the internet goes, can be found on the Guggenheim website. But for those looking to dive a little deeper, I recommend the 2015 documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict The film follows lost audio tapes from the last interview Ms.Guggenheim gave before her death and paints a picture of Peggy as a patron, collector, and colorful personality at the heart of American and European Modernism.

Peggy was a “poor” Guggenheim, that is to say a mere millionaire to her cousins’ and uncles’ billions. She was born in New York in 1898. A self-described black sheep, she left the United States and found “her people” in bohemian Paris in her early 20’s. Peggy was not an artist or a writer but she integrated herself all the same eventually amassing a world class art collection from her contemporaries. I was really interested to learn about her involvement in the art scene and how she came to own such a trove of treasures.

In 1938 Peggy opened her first gallery in London. This is when she started to get serious about her collection and began putting together shows that really shook up the art world establishment. Cubism, surrealism and abstract art were generally looked down upon and definitely not in fashion in England. Regardless, many who would become heavy hitters of modernism were represented including Mondrian, Miro, Braque, Picasso, Dali, and Kandinsky. Though the gallery venture was only a year long and financially unsuccessful, the film characterizes it as a major touchpoint in Peggy’s development as a patron and collector.

After the closing of the gallery in 1939 Peggy set her sights on the museum world and began buying works daily to add to her collection. This is the part of the film I was most looking forward to but it fell a little flat for me. I wanted to hear more about what she bought and why but other than stating that she was advised by Marcel Duchamp and Herbert Read her motives aren’t discussed. I suspect her reasons were equal parts to preserve the work and to preserve her name for posterity. At one point in the film she mentions that her family did not think too highly upon her or her potential, I think it would have been very “Peggy” to want to prove them wrong. Instead the film focuses on the fact that she and the modernist artists were fleeing impending German invasion. (Not only did Peggy evade the Nazi’s herself, she effectively smuggled her whole collection to the states via steam ship and was instrumental in helping artists escape as well.)

Upon arriving in New York she had another short lived but cutting edge institution called Art of This Century which I am sorry I’ll never get to see in the flesh. Here Peggy staged the landmark show 31 women in 1943, which is thought to be the first museum exhibition of exclusively women. This was another part of the film I would have liked to see developed more! Featured women included Frida Khalo, Djuna Barnes, Leonora Carrington and the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Unfortunately other than saying Peggy had, “many female friends,” there isn’t really much there. It is mentioned that one of the women captured the heart of Peggy’s then husband Max Ernst. Peggy recounts, “I should have just had 30 women,” with a chuckle.  Ultimately, Ms. Guggenheim cements herself as a tastemaker and collector when she opens her final museum in Venice in 1947. The collection remains one of the most visited attractions in the city to this day.

I don’t know that I’d categorize Peggy as a traditional feminist, there is no talk of her politics in the film, but she was definitely a take-charge woman who stuck to her gut, which I think we all need more of. As for the movie, it presents a humanizing portrait that is entertaining and educating save for the few holes I mentioned. I’ll be looking further into her biography and adding her museum to my international to-do list next time I’m in Italy. Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is available for rent and purchase through the iTunes store.

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