Following “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” which chronicled the life of the famed fashion director of Harper’s Bazaar, filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland is back with another illuminating documentary about singular creativity and passion in the art world, this time focusing on one of the most famous art patrons.
“Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” is an intimate portrait of the woman whose passion for art and life helped to create one of the most immense and respected art collections in the world. Guggenheim’s undying support for fledgling artists like Jackson Pollack gave rise to some of the most important American artists and artworks of the 20th century.
Indiewire sat down with the Vreeland to discuss Guggenheim’s legacy, her dark past and her love for the finer (and sexier) things of life.
Your documentaries so far have been about creative women. As a creative woman yourself, what do you think is drawing you into these women’s lives?
First of all, I’m very different from these women. They’re such iconic figures in history. I relate to them in various ways and I think the biggest way is just that I’m very attracted to their story of transformation. The way that they reinvent themselves. That’s the most interesting parts of their history, that’s the part that I like. And it seems like it’s a very relevant story because so many of these things need to be brought out for a new generation.
No one is really making these kinds of films anymore. I don’t understand why, because there’s a lot of interest in it. But it’s also this pursuit of a dream, of following your own passion and achieving it. And that, ultimately, is the story that I really like. It’s sort of old-fashioned, that whole thing, but it’s nice to hang onto.
Much of the backbone of the film revolves around tapes of Jacqueline Wells’ interviews with Peggy. You mention in the prologue that they were long lost but you found them during the production.
Well, first we identified her book on Peggy as the book to option for the film. One of the many reasons was that she was totally collaborative and she had access not only to Peggy but to so many people who have since passed. So she had all sorts of research that was important to be able to use. When she told me about these tapes, she said she didn’t know where they were. Just because you option a book doesn’t mean you have to let the filmmaker enter your home, but she did because she’s just that kind of person.
She had huge containers of research. I just sat and went through all the material and still the tapes were nowhere to be found. One day, I went down to the basement, which we hadn’t been in yet, and in the few boxes that she said she had already organized and didn’t have the tapes in them, that’s where I found them.
There’s reference to Peggy’s belief that sex and art are linked, and you combine those elements really nicely in the film. It never feels judgmental.
Her accomplishments have very much been overshadowed by her personal story. People don’t even know about her involvement in art, they just think of sex and her crazy glasses and style. But they know nothing about her life: So full of sadness, death, unhappiness. So there was a really great balance to be able to have that as part of the film, and also her accomplishments in her art world, which are so important and wide.
But historically, those elements have been linked. Think of how Picasso went through women. I think first of all, it made her feel good. But it also made her happy to see these men interested in her, which was very opposite to the way she was brought up. I think it’s talked about almost too much, and in fact, the head of the museum in Venice were really kind of mad that sex was such a large part of the film, but it’s really part of her history. It’s the truth, you can’t cover it up. But it in no way belittles her achievements.
And frankly, she did more to belittle her own achievements, ultimately. I think the perception of who she is and what she’s done in the art world has grown in the past years. People are finally realizing how immense her collection is. I think this film is really going to be a testament to how big her legacy is.
You don’t appear in the film at all. Do you prefer to be absent in your projects?
I don’t believe in being in my films. I actually am in it in a cameo. It’s this one shot that we thought was good that I happened to be in. I had my Hitchcock moment at the very end of the film. But I think it’s about being true to your characters and I tend to protect them. I want to tell the story and I want people to walk away with a dream. With Peggy it was a little harder. With Ms. Vreeland, everything that came out of her mouth was inspiring.
But Peggy isn’t like that. What she achieved and believed in is inspiring. The spirit inside of her was inspiring. But she didn’t give that much of herself. It was a difficult process to try to find things that she said that had gravitas. Anything that we found that we could use and was inspiring we did.
While it’s generally light-hearted, there are moments of the film that are shocking and dark. There’s information that suggests her sister might have killed her children, she confesses to having had seven abortions —
I didn’t know her life was so sad. And I had read her autobiography before because I was an art history major. But it was the manner in the way she wrote things. It was like something falling off of her shoulder, but not with the impact that it might affect us. All the sadness and the death was really shocking to me, the role it played in her life. I think that she was also just not giving of herself. She wasn’t loved. So if you’re not loved, how do you give love? You don’t have the tools.
What do you think the film says about Peggy Guggenheim’s legacy?
What we see is a woman who had thicker ankles, wasn’t that sexy, but lived in a very contemporary way. And when you look at the people who are interviewed in the film, from Marina Abromavic to Larry Gagosian, who are very powerful in the art world, they’ve all taken something from her. If they want to talk about her, that’s a worthy enough of a subject. She was a real personality, also. She had her own rules in life, and she wanted to support the art and the artists. She was doing it before anyone else was there.
She did this all for the love of the art. She didn’t do it for other things. She didn’t do it for self-gain, recognition. When she started to build a collection, and that is a huge thing, it’s more than patronage. This is when patronage wasn’t totally understood. She approached life in a very modern way. She left the fold of her family, she moved country to country, which was not something that you would do as a woman then.
She identified herself with artists that were total unknowns and she supported them. It’s all really courageous and it also made her feel good. She didn’t just fall in love with them, she fell in love with their art.
You’ve written, produced and directed all of your own work, too.
When I’m preparing for the film and doing the research and the interviews, I’m very involved because I don’t understand how someone else can do the work. I’m very involved in all of it, and it’s nice to be on the ground doing it. It’s important to be close to the editor, too. I’ve come to this so late in life, I’m doing this because I really love it and I love to do research, and I’m very on the edge of this whole world.
It’s hard enough to do a documentary, it does take two to three years, and you’re always holding your hat out. But the research is my favorite part. I’m working on my next film right now, and I’m knee-deep in research and I love it.
Can you tell me about it?
It’s on Cecil Beaton. It’s clear that Peggy could be a mini-series. There are so many chapters that can be told and should be told. But after I’ve done three years of a project, I’m done. And if I can come up with a little box set of DVDs of these great historical figures, that would be great.
I wasn’t interested in Diana Vreeland because she was family, but because of the world she was in. And for Peggy, I’ve always had an interest in art. And for Cecil, he’s been circling around all these stories. What’s great about him is the creativity: Fashion photography, war photography, “My Fair Lady,” winning an Oscar.
I think that people are really curious to see these stories to see what makes these people tick. Everybody’s convinced that our crowd is 50 and older, but I hope that “Peggy” will attract younger viewers as well. It’s a very human story, but it’s also about the message of following your dreams. She’s about perseverance, inner strength and these are all qualities that should be discussed.
“Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” hits theaters November 6.