How to turn $40K into billions: The extraordinary life of Peggy Guggenheim

CNN  — 

It was the summer of 1940, and the Nazis were on the march. Artists and dealers in Paris were trying to offload as much of their work as possible. Some were Jewish and the art in their possession, modern, abstract, was degenerate in the eyes of invading forces.

Bombs were falling on the boulevards, but for some there was still important business at hand. Enter Peggy Guggenheim at the studio of Constantin Brancusi.

“During the war I wanted to buy a Brancusi,” she recalls. “‘Bird in Space’ was one of [his] favorite sculptures. I used to go and see him every day… the awful thing is, I thought if I had an affair with him the ‘Bird’ would be cheaper.

“When I went back to take away “Bird in Space”, Brancusi brought it out in his arms, and tears were strolling down his cheeks. I never knew if it was because he was parting with me or his favorite ‘Bird.’”

Peggy Guggenheim wearing a pair of earrings made for her by Alexander Calder; 1950s.

No other anecdote quite so perfectly encapsulates Peggy Guggenheim. She was a woman who held the modern art world in the palm of her hand: an obsessive collector beholden to no one, she was addicted to art and drawn to those who made it.

She bedded some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century and collected the artwork of the rest. A strong woman, a sensuous woman, Guggenheim knew what she wanted – and more importantly, how to get it.

Her tempestuous life, filled with excess and laced with tragedy, is now being re-examined by director Lisa Immordino Vreeland in new documentary “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.”

With the help of Guggenheim’s contemporaries and those she influenced, Vreeland also enlists Peggy, disembodied in newly uncovered recordings by her biographer Jacqueline B. Weld, in what transpired to be her final interview.

Lionised by some and despised by others as a dilettante, there are few more worthy subjects.

The enfant terrible

Peggy Guggenheim wearing a pair of earrings made for her by Yves Tanguy; 1950s.

“I’ve always been considered the enfant terrible of the family,” Peggy Guggenheim once said. “I guess they thought I was a bit of a black sheep, and would never do anything that was ever any good. I think I surprised them.”

Born into wealth, her family was sadly distant. Her father Benjamin, a mining magnate, died aboard the Titanic in 1912 – his mistress, however, survived. Her mother, Florette Seligman, was an eccentric who did everything in threes. “She bored me so,” says Guggenheim, “which was awful.”

It was a life “very bourgeois, very dull,” but that was soon to change.

Vreeland’s film freewheels through Guggenheim’s formative years, her exposure to and integration with the modern art community – despite having no artistic ambitions herself.

In Paris she discovered Surrealism just as it was finding its feet: rough, raw and suffused with radical subtext. In London she started a gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, played host to her new found artistic emigres, branching off into Modernism and Cubism.

Salvador Dali, one of the artists Guggenheim befriended during her first stint in Paris.

The names flow thick and fast: first in Paris Man Ray (for whom she became a muse), her great adviser Marcel Duchamp; Brancusi, Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dali. Then in London Cocteau, Kandinsky and a youthful Lucien Freud (indeed, she was the first to ever exhibit any of his work).

Love was found and lost along the way, children were born, but her enduring relationship was with art.

“It was my freedom, my liberation,” Guggenheim claimed, “[a] way of finding herself emotionally,” argues Donald Kuspit, critic and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York.

It was also a mode of self-empowerment.

A happy accident

As she exhibited the works of her friends, she began purchasing their art – sometimes out of pity.

Encouraged by playwright Samuel Beckett – her one-time lover and with whom she once spent four days locked in a hotel bedroom – Guggenheim began her burgeoning collection.

Peggy Guggenheim in her Venice palazzo. Behind her is an Alexander Calder bed head, comissioned by Guggenheim.

She intended to start a museum in London, but was forced to relocate with the outbreak of war. She relocated to Paris, which was unintentionally advantageous. Modern art was labeled subversive and therefore cheap, and Guggenheim took advantage of a buyer’s market.

“I tried to buy one painting a day,” she said, among them Braque, Picasso and Dali.

Guggenheim had amassed what would become the nucleus of her enviable collection, now worth billions. And she did so for a paltry $40,000.

As the Germans advanced, Guggenheim turned to The Louvre to protect her paintings. Remarkably the museum claimed they weren’t worth saving.

She fled to America alongside Max Ernst, an “undesirable,” and Andre Breton, an anarchist, both saved from concentration camps in part by her efforts. Waiting to for her was her collection.

European Surrealism had arrived in America, with its bohemian champion in tow.

Guggenheim’s greatest achievement

A viewer stands in front of "Autumn Landscape" by Jackson Pollock. Guggenheim claimed her discovery of the New Expressionist was her greatest acheivement.

On 57th street Guggenheim rebuilt.

The defining period of Guggenheim’s career, Art of This Century, her new gallery, affords us the clearest glimpse of her incredible imagination. Vreeland’s film takes us into the exhibition via old footage alongside clips from Duchamp’s film “Witch’s Cradle,” shot in the gallery.

Even now the staging appears radical: curved walls, flickering lights, the paintings moveable, suspended from ceilings on wires. It was an unsettling environment in harmony with the artists’ unsettling works.

The gallery was a wild success and cemented her position as a titan of the Modern art community. It was also the crucible that nurtured the prodigious talent of Jackson Pollock.

Guggenheim would go on to claim her discovery of Pollock was her greatest achievement – over and above her collection itself – but history is not entirely on her side. Indeed, it was her friend Mondrian who won her over to the flag-bearer of New Expressionism according to Max Ernst’s son Jimmy.

Nevertheless, her patronage allowed Pollock to quit his job as a carpenter (for Peggy’s uncle Solomon) and turn his hand to art full time. $300 a month and a home in Long Island allowed the artist time, space and a location away from the Manhattan bars and clubs and frequented. The paintings soon rolled in, and Guggenheim was the first to host a solo exhibition of his work.

Guggenheim once described herself as “the midwife,” and her maternal relationship with Pollock shines through in “Art Addict.”

As Pollock rose to prominence, Peggy felt sidelined. “I felt at the time they [Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner] were very ungrateful at the time,” she claimed.

The courtyard at Guggenheim's Venice palazzo, her one-time home, final resting place, and now museum.

Moments like these in Vreeland’s film reveal the true Guggenheim. Beneath the socialite persona, gregarious and often outrageous, she was a gentle soul, retiring and shy when it came to personal matters; deeply affected by her many person tragedies, including the untimely deaths of her sister, nephews and John Holms, the man she claimed was her great love.

Clearly her diffidence was no barrier to success: Guggenheim merely let her art speak for her. Her astounding legacy can still be found in the Venice Palazzo in which she spent her latter years, surrounded by her collection – three hundred and twenty six works by over 100 of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.

“Art Addict” is a whistle-stop tour of a full and colorful life, but Vreeland does just about enough to show you what amongst it mattered most – to the artistic community, but more importantly to Peggy. And in that sense, she does the great woman justice.