I have mixed feelings about this documentary. I appreciate the opportunity to learn more about an interesting and non-conformist woman who had an impact on the development and understanding of modern art, something that seemed to be the domain of men in the mid-20th century. The documentary itself, though, is rather pedestrian and does not match its subject’s love of challenging and expressive art.
The film is built around an audio interview with Peggy, made just before she died in the late 70s and unearthed only recently, and the film maker seems overly impressed by this coup. Much of the interview is Peggy confirming details from her autobiography and biography and, although hearing her voice gives her significant presence in the film, it is not the most interesting way to tell a story. There is something a little flat about its linear storytelling, it has lots of superficial information without much depth.
What I liked about this film was Peggy herself, although it took half the film before I felt this way. At first she seemed to be a privileged white woman, unaware of her fortune and convinced that she was poor. Poor for a Guggenheim. Her father Benjamin sunk with the Titanic and although he had lost all the family’s money, the $450,000 she inherited (maybe equivalent to $5.5 million today) allowed her to open a gallery and so find her great love, modern art.
Peggy was more than an insightful collector, buying the works of Dali, Duchamp, Tanguy, Picasso, Ernst, Pollock and many more for hundreds of dollars, rather than than the hundreds of thousands and millions they go for now. She was a patron of the arts, recognising talent and financially supporting individual artists through stipends, loans and exhibitions in her gallery. She was pivotal in the success of Jackson Pollock and befriended many artists in New York and Paris.
What strikes me is the chutzpah she must have had to persist, first with a gallery and then with a succession of museums in London, New York and Venice. The established art world around her told her that modern art was worthless, the Louvre refusing to help her shift her collection from Paris at the outbreak of WWII as her Picasso’s “weren’t worth saving.”. She was ridiculed for her plain looks – an art critic in this film rather breathtakingly asserts that she became a collector because she was too ugly to be successful at anything based on her own talent.
Peggy was unapologetic about her many affairs and dalliances, even though this made her an easy target for gossip and criticism. She admits to sleeping with Brancusi in the hope that she would get a discount when buying Bird in Space. We never find out whether she did or not.
Bechdel test – pass