Peggy Guggenheim championed artistic underdogs

Peggy Guggenheim on the banks of the Grand Canal in Venice. Guggenheim is the subject of the new documentary "Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict," directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland. Credit: Courtesy of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, Venice
Peggy Guggenheim on the banks of the Grand Canal in Venice. Guggenheim is the subject of the new documentary "Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict," directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland. Credit: Courtesy of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection Archives, VenicePeggy Guggenheim Archives

Arts patron and collector Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) is called many things in the new documentary “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict”: a “visionary genius,” a “narcissist” and “her own greatest creation” — not to mention, by her own admission, “a nymphomaniac” who unapologetically had affairs with many of the artists she supported, long before they became giants of 20th century modernism.

The colorfully eccentric niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim (founder of the Guggenheim Museum) and the black sheep of the dynastic New York family, Guggenheim set her life course, as the film shows, in an altogether more unconventional direction: moving to Europe, befriending and supporting artists whose avant-garde creations were still indecipherable to many, and launching galleries in Paris, London and New York, determined, in her own words, to “serve the future instead of recording the past.”

Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland (“Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel”) incorporates commentary and remembrances from scores of art-world luminaries attesting to Guggenheim’s contradictory qualities. Yet the most riveting voice is Guggenheim’s own, heard in an unflinchingly candid interview, the last of her lifetime, which was rediscovered by Vreeland and provides a riveting framework to the film portrait.

“I was always in awe of Peggy’s accomplishments, but at times I would think, ‘I can’t believe she just said that!’ But it takes real guts to do what she did, to live a life unbound by convention,” Immordino Vreeland said in a recent interview.

Q: The film is built around a lost interview with Peggy Guggenheim that you discovered in the home of her biographer. How did that discovery affect the film?

A: Immensely. There is nothing better than hearing someone’s own voice telling their story. Jacqueline Weld had spent two summers interviewing Peggy (for her book “Peggy: The Wayward Guggenheim”), but said she didn’t know where the tapes were. She lives in this Park Avenue apartment, and I would walk into closets, wondering, looking. Then one day I asked if she had a basement and she did. The tapes were there in a shoe box. The (audio) quality was horrendous, and because it was Venice you can hear the vaporettos going back and forth, and you can hear her dogs’ collars as they run by.

Jackie did a great job of asking informed questions. Peggy, on the other hand, sometimes found it very challenging to answer. She wasn’t very expressive and lacked emotion in her voice, which comes through. I fell in and out of love with her while making this film.

Q: Was it hard to decide how much to focus on Peggy’s sex life, not wanting to let it eclipse her accomplishments?

A: It was a huge issue, tremendously challenging. When people talk about Peggy Guggenheim, her art-historical importance is not the first thing they think about. What they think about is this eccentric person who slept with so many artists. And that is not at all the full story.

However, she was very smart in her decision-making even there (laugh). Look at the list of men: Samuel Beckett, Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp. She married Max Ernst. And she was open and courageous enough to talk about it, which was not at all customary of women then. She didn’t want to be bound by conventional rules, and she wasn’t.

Q: Do you see a connection between Guggenheim and Diana Vreeland, the subject of your last film?

A: Definitely. It’s the idea of reinvention. Peggy knew she didn’t want to be who she was brought up to be, and she re-created herself. I am working on my next film and it’s on Cecil Beaton — total reinvention again. I find these influential, relevant characters of the 20th century, which was a century of transformation, just endlessly fascinating.

Q: John Richardson calls Peggy a “pollinator” in the film. What would you say was her real expertise?

A: That was such a smart statement. She was a facilitator, a conduit. And it was so much a reaction to her strict upbringing that gave her this openness to what was new, outrageous. We have to remember that none of these artists, (Jackson) Pollock and others, had the reputations that we know today. They were all underdogs.

It wasn’t until Peggy commissioned a mural from Pollock that he started thinking in a different way, in a different size, and that painting is pivotal in his career, a turning point for American art.

Over time Peggy’s legacy in terms of what she accomplished in the art world has become more and more significant. If you look at her work in her “Art of This Century” gallery, even in today’s landscape of art galleries, it holds up and is still revolutionary. She did just what she wanted to do, to collect and present a collection of art of a certain period of time, and she did that really, really well.

Q: I love that she calls herself “the midwife,” that she gave birth to the modern art of this time.

A: Yes, that’s exactly right.

Jessica Zack is a Bay Area freelance writer. E-mail: sadolphson@sfchronicle.com

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (NR) opens Friday, Nov. 20, at Bay Area theaters.

To see a trailer, go to www.guggenheimfilm.co.uk.