Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979) led one of the great uncategorizable 20th-century lives. Poor little rich girl? Sexual libertine? Scandalous memoirist? Parisian emigre? Venetian doyenne? Influential art collector? Even more influential gallery owner? All of the above.
If that weren’t enough, her second husband was the painter Max Ernst, and her lovers included Samuel Beckett, Paul Bowles, Constantin Brancusi, and, if only for one night, Jackson Pollock.
Lisa Immordino Vreeland made a lively, engaging 2011 documentary, “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel,” about the legendary fashion editor (and her husband’s grandmother). Vreeland has made an equally lively and engaging documentary in “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.” Clearly, she’s drawn to independent, larger-than-life women. If the documentary isn’t especially deep, maybe that’s because its subject wasn’t.
Guggenheim was the black sheep of an impressive, and impressively wealthy, family. An uncle founded the Guggenheim Museum, another the Guggenheim Foundation. Her father died on the Titanic. She complained about the paltriness of her $450,000 inheritance. Yet that would be worth $10.5 million today — and it bought an awful lot of contemporary art in the ’30s and ’40s, when Guggenheim built her collection. She inherited a comparable sum upon the death of her mother, in 1937.
By then, Guggenheim was living in Paris. She’d had two children, been divorced, and become devoted to modern art. A year later, she opened a gallery in London. She returned to Paris in 1939, after closing the gallery. Taking her art with her, she moved to New York in 1941. She opened the Art of This Century gallery, which became a kind of bridge between Old World and New, Surrealism and what would soon become known as Abstract Expressionism. Among the then-unknown artists she showed were Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, and Robert De Niro Sr.
De Niro’s son is among the documentary’s talking heads. The actor tells a charming story of visiting Guggenheim’s palazzo in Venice, where she moved after the war, to see paintings by his father and mother, the artist Virginia Admiral, and striking up a conversation with her. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection has long been one of the most-visited museums in Venice.
In addition to period footage and lots of stunning close-ups of Guggenheim’s art, Vreeland presents a wide range of art-world talking heads. The closest thing to a contemporary is the art historian John Richardson, now 91, who describes dinner parties in Venice when he was a young man.
Of course the most important contemporary is Guggenheim herself. Vreeland manages to include her, too. A collection of audio interviews a Guggenheim biographer conducted toward the end of her life provide a spine for the documentary. Guggenheim proves surprisingly terse in her answers, terse, that is, for someone so notoriously open about her life. Not that she’s withholding: Guggenheim takes pride in such a memorable life, and with reason. Not so good at the art of living, she was unrivaled at the living of art.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland.
At Kendall Square.
95 minutes. Unrated.
A previous version of this article misstated the name of Virginia Admiral.