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A Conversation With Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Director, 'Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict'

17 November 2015 7:37 PM, PST | Sydney's Buzz | See recent Sydney's Buzz news »

Totally and tragically unconventional, Peggy Guggenheim moved through the cultural upheaval of the 20th century collecting not only not only art, but artists. Her sexual life was -- and still today is -- more discussed than the art itself which she collected, not for her own consumption but for the world to enjoy.

Her colorful personal history included such figures as Samuel Beckett, Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder, Marcel Duchamp and countless others. Guggenheim helped introduce the world to Pollock, Motherwell, Rothko and scores of others now recognized as key masters of modernism.

In 1921 she moved to Paris and mingled with Picasso, Dali, Joyce, Pound, Stein, Leger, Kandinsky. In 1938 she opened a gallery in London and began showing Cocteau, Tanguy, Magritte, Miro, Brancusi, etc., and then back to Paris and New York after the Nazi invasion, followed by the opening of her NYC gallery Art of This Century, which became one of the premiere avant-garde spaces in the U.S. While fighting through personal tragedy, she maintained her vision to build one of the most important collections of modern art, now enshrined in her Venetian palazzo where she moved in 1947. Since 1951, her collection has become one of the world’s most visited art spaces.

Featuring: Jean Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Alberto Giacometti, Arshile Gorky, Vasil Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Willem de Kooning, Fernand Leger, Rene Magritte, Man Ray, Jean Miro, Piet Mondrian, Henry Moore, Robert Motherwell, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Kurt Schwitters, Gino Severini, Clyfford Still and Yves Tanguy.

Lisa Immordino Vreeland (Director and Producer)

Lisa Immordino Vreeland has been immersed in the world of fashion and art for the past 25 years. She started her career in fashion as the Director of Public Relations for Polo Ralph Lauren in Italy and quickly moved on to launch two fashion companies, Pratico, a sportswear line for women, and Mago, a cashmere knitwear collection of her own design. Her first book was accompanied by her directorial debut of the documentary of the same name, "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel" (2012). The film about the editor of Harper's Bazaar had its European premiere at the Venice Film Festival and its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, going on to win the Silver Hugo at the Chicago Film Festival and the fashion category for the Design of the Year awards, otherwise known as “The Oscars” of design—at the Design Museum in London.

"Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict" is Lisa Immordino Vreeland's followup to her acclaimed debut, "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel". She is now working on her third doc on Cecil Beaton who Lisa says, "has been circling around all these stories. What's great about him is the creativity: fashion photography, war photography, "My Fair Lady" winning an Oscar."

Sydney Levine: I have read numerous accounts and interviews with you about this film and rather than repeat all that has been said, I refer my readers to Indiewire's Women and Hollywood interview at Tribeca this year, and your Indiewire interview with Aubrey Page, November 6, 2015 .

Let's try to cover new territory here.

First of all, what about you? What is your relationship to Diana Vreeland?

Liv: I am married to her grandson, Alexander Vreeland. (I'm also proud of my name Immordino) I never met Diana but hearing so many family stories about her made me start to wonder about all the talk about her. I worked in fashion and lived in New York like she did.

Sl: In one of your interviews you said that Peggy was not only ahead of her time but she helped to define it. Can you tell me how?

Liv: Peggy grew up in a very traditional family of German Bavarian Jews who had moved to New York City in the 19th century. Already at a young age Peggy felt like there were too many rules around her and she wanted to break out. That alone was something attractive to me — the notion that she knew that she didn't fit in to her family or her times. She lived on her own terms, a very modern approach to life. She decided to abandon her family in New York. Though she always stayed connected to them, she rarely visited New York. Instead she lived in a world without borders. She did not live by "the rules". She believed in creating art and created herself, living on her own terms and not on those of her family.

Sl: Is there a link between her and your previous doc on Diana Vreeland?

Liv: The link between Vreeland and Guggenheim is their mutual sense of reinvention and transformation. That made something click inside of me as I too reinvented myself when I began writing the book on Diana Vreeland .

Can you talk about the process of putting this one together and how it differed from its predecessor?

Liv: The most challenging thing about this one was the vast amount of material we had at our disposal. We had a lot of media to go through — instead of fashion spreads, which informed The Eye Has To Travel, we had art, which was fantastic. I was spoiled by the access we had to these incredible archives and footage. I'm still new to this, but it's the storytelling aspect that I loved in both projects. One thing about Peggy that Mrs. Vreeland didn't have was a very tragic personal life. There was so much that happened in Peggy's life before you even got to what she actually accomplished. And so we had to tell a very dense story about her childhood, her father dying on the Titanic, her beloved sister dying — the tragic events that fundamentally shaped her in a way. It was about making sure we had enough of the personal story to go along with her later accomplishments.

World War II alone was such a huge part of her story, opening an important art gallery in London, where she showed Kandinsky and other important artists for the first time. The amount of material to distill was a tremendous challenge and I hope we made the right choices.

Sl: How did you learn make a documentary?

Liv: I learned how to make a documentary by having a good team around me. My editors (and co-writers)Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frédéric Tcheng were very helpful.

Research is fundamental; finding as much as you can and never giving up. I love the research. It is my "precise time". Not just for interviews but of footage, photographs never seen before. It is a painstaking process that satisfies me. The research never ends. I was still researching while I was promoting the Diana Vreeland book. I love reading books and going to original sources.

The archives in film museums in the last ten years has changed and given museums a new role. I found unique footage at Moma with the Elizabeth Chapman Films. Chapman went to Paris in the 30s and 40s with a handheld camera and took moving pictures of Brancusi and Duchamps joking around in a studio, Gertrude Stein, Leger walking down the street. This footage is owned by Robert Storr, Dean of Yale School of Art. In fact he is taking a sabbatical this year to go through the boxes and boxes of Chapman's films. We also used " Entre'acte" by René Clair cowritten with Dadaist Francis Picabia, "Le Sang du poet" of Cocteau, Hans Richter "8x8","Gagascope" and " Dreams That Money Can Buy" produced by Peggy Guggenheim, written by Man Ray in 1947.

Sl: How long did it take to research and make the film?

Liv: It took three years for both the Vreeland and the Guggenheim documentary.

It was more difficult with the Guggenheim story because there was so much material and so much to tell of her life. And she was not so giving of her own self. Diana could inspire you about a bandaid; she was so giving. But Peggy didn't talk much about why she loved an artist or a painting. She acted more. And using historical material could become "over-teaching" though it was fascinating.

So much had to be eliminated. It was hard to eliminate the Degenerate Art Show, a subject which is newly discussed. Stephanie Barron of Lacma is an expert on Degenerate Art and was so generous.

Once we decided upon which aspects to focus on, then we could give focus to the interviews.

There were so many of her important shows we could not include. For instance there was a show on collages featuring William Baziotes , Jackson Pollack and Robert Motherwell which started a more modern collage trend in art. The 31 Women Art Show which we did include pushed forward another message which I think is important.

And so many different things have been written about Peggy — there were hundreds of articles written about her during her lifetime. She also kept beautiful scrapbooks of articles written about her, which are now in the archives of the Guggenheim Museum.

The Guggenheim foundation did not commission this documentary but they were very supportive and the film premiered there in New York in a wonderful celebration. They wanted to represent Peggy and her paintings properly. The paintings were secondary characters and all were carefully placed historically in a correct fashion.

Sl: You said in one interview Guggenheim became a central figure in the modern art movement?

Liv: Yes and she did it without ego. Sharing was always her purpose in collecting art. She was not out for herself. Before Peggy, the art world was very different. And today it is part of wealth management.

Other collectors had a different way with art. Isabelle Stewart Gardner bought art for her own personal consumption. The Gardner Museum came later. Gertrude Stein was sharing the vision of her brother when she began collecting art. The Coen sisters were not sharing.

Her benevolence ranged from giving Berenice Abbott the money to buy her first camera to keeping Pollock afloat during lean times.

Djuana Barnes, who had a 'Love Love Love Hate Hate Hate' relationship with Peggy wrote Nightwood in Peggy's country house in England.

She was in Paris to the last minute. She planned how to safeguard artwork from the Nazis during World War II. She was storing gasoline so she could escape. She lived on the Ile St. Louis with her art and moved the paintings out first to a children's boarding school and then to Marseilles where it was shipped out to New York City.

Her role in art was not taken seriously because of her very public love life which was described in very derogatory terms. There was more talk about her love life than about her collection of art.

Her autobiography, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict (1960) , was scandalous when it came out — and she didn't even use real names, she used pseudonyms for her numerous partners. Only after publication did she reveal the names of the men she slept with.

The fact that she spoke about her sexual life at all was the most outrageous aspect. She was opening herself up to ridicule, but she didn't care. Peggy was her own person and she felt good in her own skin. But it was definitely unconventional behavior. I think her sexual appetites revealed a lot about finding her own identity.

A lot of it was tied to the loss of her father, I think, in addition to her wanting to feel accepted. She was also very adventurous — look at the men she slept with. I mean, come on, they are amazing! Samuel Beckett, Yves Tanguy, Marcel Duchamp, and she married Max Ernst. I think it was really ballsy of her to have been so open about her sexuality; this was not something people did back then. So many people are bound by conventional rules but Peggy said no. She grabbed hold of life and she lived it on her own terms.

Sl: You also give Peggy credit for changing the way art was exhibited. Can you explain that?

Liv: One of her greatest achievements was her gallery space in New York City, Art of This Century, which was unlike anything the art world has seen before or since in the way that it shattered the boundaries of the gallery space that we've come to know today — the sterile white cube. She came to be a genius at displaying her collections...

She was smart with Art of the Century because she hired Frederick Kiesler as a designer of the gallery and once again surrounded herself with the right people, including Howard Putzler, who was already involved with her at Guggenheim Jeune in London. And she was hanging out with all the exiled Surrealists who were living in New York at the time, including her future husband, Max Ernst, who was the real star of that group of artists. With the help of these people, she started showing art in a completely different way that was both informal and approachable. In conventional museums and galleries, art was untouchable on the wall and inside frames. In Peggy's gallery, art stuck out from the walls; works weren't confined to frames. Kiesler designed special chairs you could sit in and browse canvases as you would texts in a library. Nothing like this had ever existed in New York before — even today there is nothing like it.

She made the gallery into an exciting place where the whole concept of space was transformed. In Venice, the gallery space was also her home. Today, for a variety of reasons, the home aspect of the collection is less emphasized, though you still get a strong sense of Peggy's home life there. She was bringing art to the public in a bold new way, which I think is a great idea. It's art for everybody, which is very much a part of today's dialogue except that fewer people can afford the outlandish museum entry fees.

Sl: What do you think made her so prescient and attuned ?

Liv: She was smart enough to ask Marcel Duchamp to be her advisor — so she was in tune, and very well connected. She was on the cutting edge of what was going on and I think a lot of this had to do with Peggy being open to the idea of what was new and outrageous. You have to have a certain personality for this; what her childhood had dictated was totally opposite from what she became in life, and being in the right place at the right time helped her maintain a cutting edge throughout her life.

Sl: The movie is framed around a lost interview with Peggy conducted late in her life. How did you acquire these tapes?

Liv: We optioned Jacqueline Bogard Weld’s book, Peggy : The Wayward Guggenheim, the only authorized biography of Peggy, which was published after she died. Jackie had spent two summers interviewing Peggy but at a certain point lost the tapes somewhere in her Park Avenue apartment. Jackie had so much access to Peggy, which was incredible, but it was also the access that she had to other people who had known Peggy — she interviewed over 200 people for her book. Jackie was incredibly generous, letting me go through all her original research except for the lost tapes.

We'd walk into different rooms in her apartment and I'd suggestively open a closet door and ask “Where do you think those tapes might be?" Then one day I asked if she had a basement, and she did. So I went through all these boxes down there, organizing her affairs. Then bingo, the tapes showed up in this shoebox.

It was the longest interview Peggy had ever done and it became the framework for our movie. There's nothing more powerful than when you have someone's real voice telling the story, and Jackie was especially good at asking provoking questions. You can tell it was hard for Peggy to answer a lot of them, because she wasn't someone who was especially expressive; she didn't have a lot of emotion. And this comes across in the movie, in the tone of her voice.

Sl: Larry Gagosian has one of the best descriptions of Peggy in the movie — "she was her own creation." Would you agree, and if so why?

Liv: She was very much her own creation. When he said that in the interview I had a huge smile on my face. In Peggy's case it stemmed from a real need to identify and understand herself. I'm not sure she achieved it but she completely recreated herself — she knew that she did not want to be what she was brought up to be. She tried being a mother, but that was not one of her strengths, so art became that place where she could find herself, and then transform herself.

Nobody believed in the artists she cultivated and supported — they were outsiders and she was an outsider in the world she was brought up in. So it's in this way that she became her own great invention. I hope that her humor comes across in the film because she was extremely amusing — this aspect really comes across in her autobiography.

Sl: Finally, what do you think is Peggy Guggenheim's most lasting legacy, beyond her incredible art collection?

Liv: Her courage, and the way she used it to find herself. She had this ballsiness that not many people had, especially women. In her own way she was a feminist and it's good for women and young girls today to see women who stepped outside the confines of a very traditional family and made something of her life. Peggy's life did not seem that dreamy until she attached herself to these artists. It was her ability to redefine herself in the end that truly summed her up.

About the Filmmakers

Stanley Buchtal is a producer and entrepreneur. His movies credits include "Hairspray", "Spanking the Monkey", "Up at the Villa", "Lou Reed Berlin", "Love Marilyn", "LennoNYC", "Bobby Fischer Against the World", "Herb & Dorothy", "Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present"," Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child", "Sketches of Frank Gehry", "Black White + Gray: a Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe", among numerous others.

David Koh is an independent producer, distributor, sales agent, programmer and curator. He has been involved in the distribution, sale, production, and financing of over 200 films. He is currently a partner in the boutique label Submarine Entertainment with Josh and Dan Braun and is also partners with Stanley Buchthal and his Dakota Group Ltd where he co-manages a portfolio of over 50 projects a year (75% docs and 25% fiction). Previously he was a partner and founder of Arthouse Films a boutique distribution imprint and ran Chris Blackwell's (founder of Island Records & Island Pictures) film label, Palm Pictures. He has worked as a Producer for artist Nam June Paik and worked in the curatorial departments of Anthology Film Archives, MoMA, Mfa Boston, and the Guggenheim Museum. David has recently served as a Curator for Microsoft and has curated an ongoing film series and salon with Andre Balazs Properties and serves as a Curator for the exclusive Core Club in NYC.

David recently launched with his partners Submarine Deluxe, a distribution imprint; Torpedo Pictures, a low budget high concept label; and Nfp Submarine Doks, a German distribution imprint with Nfp Films. Recently and upcoming projects include "Yayoi Kusama: a Life in Polka Dots", "Burden: a Portrait of Artist Chris Burden", "Dior and I", "20 Feet From Stardom", "Muscle Shoals", "Marina Abramovic the Artist is Present", "Rats NYC", "Nas: Time Is Illmatic", "Blackfish", "Love Marilyn", "Chasing Ice", "Searching for Sugar Man", "Cutie and the Boxer"," Jean-Michel Basquiat: the Radiant Child", "Finding Vivian Maier", "The Wolfpack, "Meru", and "Station to Station".

Dan Braun is a producer, writer, art director and musician/composer based in NYC. He is the Co-President of and Co-Founder of Submarine, a NYC film sales and production company specializing in independent feature and documentary films. Titles include "Blackfish", "Finding Vivian Maier", "Muscle Shoals", "The Case Against 8", "Keep On Keepin’ On", "Winter’s Bone", "Nas: Time is Illmatic", "Dior and I" and Oscar winning docs "Man on Wire", "Searching for Sugarman", "20 Ft From Stardom" and "Citizenfour". He was Executive Producer on documentaries "Kill Your Idols", (which won Best NY Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival 2004), "Blank City", "Sunshine Superman", the upcoming feature adaptations of "Batkid Begins" and "The Battered Bastards of Baseball" and the upcoming horror TV anthology "Creepy" to be directed by Chris Columbus.

He is a producer of the free jazz documentary "Fire Music", and the upcoming documentaries, "Burden" on artist Chris Burden and "Kusama: a Life in Polka Dots" on artist Yayoi Kusama. He is also a writer and consulting editor on Dark Horse Comic’s "Creepy" and "Eerie 9" comic book and archival series for which he won an Eisner Award for best archival comic book series in 2009.

He is a musician/composer whose compositions were featured in the films "I Melt With You" and "Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Radiant Child and is an award winning art director/creative director when he worked at Tbwa/Chiat/Day on the famous Absolut Vodka campaign.

John Northrup (Co-Producer) began his career in documentaries as a French translator for National Geographic: Explorer. He quickly moved into editing and producing, serving as the Associate Producer on "Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel" (2012), and editing and co-producing "Wilson In Situ" (2014), which tells the story of theatre legend Robert Wilson and his Watermill Center. Most recently, he oversaw the post-production of Jim Chambers’ "Onward Christian Soldier", a documentary about Olympic Bomber Eric Rudolph, and is shooting on Susanne Rostock’s "Another Night in the Free World", the follow-up to her award-winning "Sing Your Song" (2011).

Submarine Entertainment (Production Company) Submarine Entertainment is a hybrid sales, production, and distribution company based in N.Y. Recent and upcoming titles include "Citizenfour", "Finding Vivian Maier", "The Dog", "Visitors", "20 Feet from Stardom", "Searching for Sugar Man", "Muscle Shoals", "Blackfish", "Cutie and the Boxer", "The Summit", "The Unknown Known", "Love Marilyn", "Marina Abramovic the Artist is Present", "Chasing Ice", "Downtown 81 30th Anniversary Remastered", "Wild Style 30th Anniversary Remastered", "Good Ol Freda", "Some Velvet Morning", among numerous others. Submarine principals also represent Creepy and Eerie comic book library and are developing properties across film & TV platforms.

Submarine has also recently launched a domestic distribution imprint and label called Submarine Deluxe; a genre label called Torpedo Pictures; and a German imprint and label called Nfp Submarine Doks.

Bernadine Colish has edited a number of award-winning documentaries. "Herb and Dorothy" (2008), won Audience Awards at Silverdocs, Philadelphia and Hamptons Film Festivals, and "Body of War" (2007), was named Best Documentary by the National Board of Review. "A Touch of Greatness" (2004) aired on PBS Independent Lens and was nominated for an Emmy Award. Her career began at Maysles Films, where she worked with Charlotte Zwerin on such projects as "Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser", "Toru Takemitsu: Music for the Movies" and the PBS American Masters documentary, "Ella Fitzgerald: Something To Live For". Additional credits include "Bringing Tibet Home", "Band of Sisters", "Rise and Dream", "The Tiger Next Door", "The Buffalo War" and "Absolute Wilson".

Jed Parker (Editor) Jed Parker began his career in feature films before moving into documentaries through his work with the award-winning American Masters series. Credits include "Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart", "Annie Liebovitz: Life Through a Lens", and most recently "Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides".

Other work includes two episodes of the PBS series "Make ‘Em Laugh", hosted by Billy Crystal, as well as a documentary on Met Curator Henry Geldzahler entitled "Who Gets to Call it Art"?

Credits 

Director, Writer, Producer: Lisa Immordino Vreeland

Produced by Stanley Buchthal, David Koh and Dan Braun Stanley Buchthal (producer)

Maja Hoffmann (executive producer)

Josh Braun (executive producer)

Bob Benton (executive producer)

John Northrup (co-producer)

Bernadine Colish (editor)

Jed Parker (editor)

Peter Trilling (director of photography)

Bonnie Greenberg (executive music producer)

Music by J. Ralph

Original Song "Once Again" Written and Performed By J. Ralph

Interviews Featuring Artist  Marina Abramović Jean Arp Dore Ashton Samuel Beckett Stephanie Barron Constantin Brâncuși Diego Cortez Alexander Calder Susan Davidson Joseph Cornell Robert De Niro Salvador Dalí Simon de Pury Willem de Kooning Jeffrey Deitch Marcel Duchamp Polly Devlin Max Ernst Larry Gagosian Alberto Giacometti Arne Glimcher Vasily Kandinsky Michael Govan Fernand Léger Nicky Haslam Joan Miró Pepe Karmel Piet Mondrian Donald Kuspit Robert Motherwell Dominique Lévy Jackson Pollock Carlo McCormick Mark Rothko Hans Ulrich Obrist Yves Tanguy Lisa Phillips Lindsay Pollock Francine Prose John Richardson Sandy Rower Mercedes Ruehl Jane Rylands Philip Rylands Calvin Tomkins Karole Vail Jacqueline Bograd Weld Edmund White

Running time:  97 minutes

U.S. distribution by Submarine Deluxe

International sales by Hanway »

- Sydney Levine

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