Peggy Guggenheim, Art Addict

Peggy Guggenheim & Janis Joplin in “Art Addict” & “Little Girl Blue”

Shipwrecked: Degenerate Damsels in Distress
or
Gotta Gotta Gotta

Peggy Guggenheim, "Art Addict"
Peggy Guggenheim, “Art Addict”
Surrealism is to Peggy Guggenheim as Heroin is to Janis Joplin?

I happened to see “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict,” a documentary about famed art-collector Peggy Guggenheim, directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, back-to-back with “Janis: Little Girl Blue,” a documentary about rock-and-roll star Janis Joplin, directed by Amy Berg. I never would have put the two together in my mind, but seeing their stories so close together, I was amazed at how many unlikely similarities there are. One film makes the case that Peggy Guggenheim was addicted to art itself, and I think the same can be said about Janis Joplin. And the parallels continue, adding up to a sort of double-wide (and double-deep) insight.

Janis Joplin, "Little Girl Blue"
Janis Joplin, “Little Girl Blue”

Initially, I had planned to compare Peggy to Diana Vreeland, whose daughter, Lisa Immordino Vreeland made an excellent documentary about her mother, called “The Eye Has to Travel.” And now Lisa Vreeland has made this documentary about Peggy Guggenheim, using never-before-heard interview tapes of Peggy – with her classy, haut monde dialect (and this is reason enough to see the film). Given their shared filmmaker, it seems impossible not to compare the two female, trailblazing, cultural tastemakers from the same era – Guggenheim and Vreeland.

But the comparison between Peggy and Janis is more surprisingly and offers a different type of angle.

{For those who want a simple thumbs up or down: Yes, both films are worth seeing. “The Hollywood Reporter” writes that the film is “so stuffed with connections and allusions to fabled eras that it’s hard to imagine any [arthouse enthusiast] being bored.” Which film are they referring to? That enticing statement easily applies to both equally. These are both important and fascinating women who lived in legendary times. And both women could fairly be called “feminist pioneers,” although the films about them have a tone that is less historical and more gossip-column.

Neither film will win a Best Documentary award, because they cannot escape being dressed-up bio-picts, but if you care about art or artists, you will want to look into the lives of these women. And if you already have looked at these lives – through previous films or books, this is an opportunity to refresh your amazement. And both of these films do an excellent job and add new perspectives, or at least new interviews (or newly collected personal letters).

The Guggenheim film is a bit more studied and the Joplin film is a bit more sexy. Neither is as comprehensive or complex as it could be, but… still. Whether you are a fan of modern art or music, or just someone who couldn’t get in to whatever else is playing, Helen Highly suggests you see either or both films. You will be highly entertained and hardly even notice that you are also being educated.}

Now, let’s get to what is interesting:

The fundamental concept in both films is that “art is a drug” – whether making it or collecting it.

Janis Joplin, on stage
Janis Joplin, on stage

The Peggy Guggenheim documentary is actually titled “Art Addict,” and in it Peggy herself says “I became an addict and couldn’t help it” (and she’s maybe 1/3 joking).

Peggy Guggenheim, Touching her Calder
Peggy Guggenheim, touching her Calder

A friend of hers says, “She had an intense hunger for life, and an undertone of unbeatable sadness.” Then Peggy explains how she literally is “most happy when connected, physically, with art,” and demonstrates by actually clutching a sculpture. Similarly, in the Joplin documentary, it is repeated again and again that Janis was happy only when on stage. The stage was a tangible touchstone for Janis, the way a thing of beauty was for Peggy. Nina Simone, whom Joplin highly admired, said that “Janis became an addict because she got hooked into a thing, and it wasn’t drugs. She got hooked into a feeling.” So, both these women felt a bodily attachment to their experience of art. (It was under their skin.) They reveled in these attachments; they lived in them.

But here’s where the plot thickens:

It was widely known in her day (and since then has been extensively written about and discussed) that Peggy Guggenheim had sex with many of the artists she patronized, as well as others in her literati circle – all the more scandalous because of her homeliness.

Peggy Guggenheim was homely.,
Peggy Guggenheim was homely.

“Peggy was in bed with Samuel Beckett for four days!” we are told. “She had an affair with Brancusi!” And Ms. Guggenheim made no effort to hide her sexual escapades. In the film, she calls herself “a nymphomaniac.” She claims (not entirely convincingly) to be proud of her immoral exploits, counted at roughly 400 in her own memoirs, and she doesn’t care that her friend Mary McCarthy wrote a very thinly veiled story that essentially called her a slut. The film provides torrid details such as “Peggy Guggenheim lost her virginity at age 23” (printed in text on the screen) and “Peggy had seven abortions.”

Peggy Guggenheim, Sex Addict
Peggy Guggenheim, Sex Addict

But Peggy explains in an interview that she loved these men because they were artists; for her, sex and art went hand in hand. (She collected both art and artists.) So: she was an art addict and a sex addict. And all these sensational details of Peggy’s sexual compulsions are relevant because…? Well, bed-hopping with artists + sexist backlash = damaged reputation. And this brings us to one of the central messages of this film:

Peggy Guggenheim’s addictive lust for art (and artists) cut into her credibility and ultimately obscured her accomplishments.

Janis Joplin, Junkie Singer
Janis Joplin, Junkie Singer

And the same is true of Janis Joplin, who is perhaps best known for being a drug addict.

Janis drinking on stage
Janis drinking on stage

Her heroin-and-amphetamine-and-bourbon fueled performances were the signature style that made her famous. And that drug use may have made her great. She was great, but certainly her reputation and legacy as an addict obscured her accomplishments, same as with Peggy. She’ll always have the word “junkie” attached in front of the word “singer.”  And finally, her addiction killed her; she died from an overdose in 1970.

In a way, both these women sacrificed their lives to their addictions … to art.

Both documentaries tells us that these women were defined in their youth by their unattractiveness and lack of desirability, and each is described as “insecure,” “vulnerable,” “self-conscious,” and “full of suffering” as a result. (The identical words are used in both films.) In both cases, the women’s indelicate and unconventional looks pushed them to explore new ways of defining themselves and gaining acceptance.

Janis Joplin was profoundly hurt, over and over.
Janis Joplin was profoundly hurt, over and over.

Janis Joplin was teased mercilessly by the boys in grade school, and as a cruel joke in college, the student newspaper named her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” She is described in the film as being “profoundly hurt, over and over.”

Peggy Guggenheim said, “My childhood was excessively unhappy. I have no pleasant memories.” In a classic Peggy story,  we are told that she hated, and when she finally tried to have it fixed, the plastic surgery was botched and she was left even more unpleasant-looking than before.

Peggy Guggenheim "gutsed out" her bad nose.
Peggy Guggenheim “gutsed out” her bad nose.

She decided not to fix the failed repair and just “guts it out.” She ignored her lack of beauty from then on and focused on her work – her work as a champion and collector of beautiful things. Even then, the documentary explicitly states that she was “the subject of ridicule and disparagement,” due to her perceived desperate attempts at recognition. She was called a narcissist, a pushy rich girl, etc.

Early on, both Peggy and Janis sought to escape their bourgeois lives. Janis called herself “a misfit.” She moved from Texas to San Francisco as a way of breaking out and being free. Peggy moved from the U.S. to Paris and became a bohemian as a way of finding herself. Peggy found herself in art, and Janis in music. Both dropped out of college in pursuit of an alternative life. Both were self-educated and self-made.

In the film, Peggy calls herself a “lost girl,” looking for something to fill her life. She was “the wayward Guggenheim.” She tells us that she used modern art to express her inner world and her emotions (and, we assume, to escape the outer world of social expectations and judgment). Peggy is described as “always a rebel,” so it makes sense that in Paris she started her art addiction with Dadaism – the language of disillusionment. Dadaism rejected logic and reason and prized the abstract and psychological. Dadaism was Peggy’s gateway drug into surrealism, which was similar in what it stood against, but was more a language of freedom. (Surrealism is to Peggy as Heroin is to Janis?) It is said that Peggy sought art that was “strange and outrageous.” She wanted to feel “the cutting edge.” (The same edge that appealed to Janis.)

Kandinsky
Kandinsky

Yet, there was no precedence for women working in the art world; this was Peggy’s own liberation. She created this new identity and purpose for herself. And she didn’t just follow movements; she followed her own intuitions and tastes. The film does make much of the fact that Peggy was advised by some very savvy artists – such as Marcel Duchamp, but Helen Highly suggests that being given advice is a very different thing from selecting which advice to accept (and then implementing it), as Peggy had already proved when she rejected her docile, dignified upbringing. Whoever first had the notion that a certain genre might have potential, is mostly irrelevant; history belongs to the one who Highly Devoted herself to it, who pursued the outlandish, developed the bizarre, and brought them to fruition.While some critics are questioning this film’s gossipy chatter about Peggy’s sex life, Helen is Highly concerned about the film’s continuous insinuation that Peggy was “perhaps” a dilettante who was molded by the men around her rather than a true guiding force in defining what we now call Modern Art. (The fact that Peggy suggests this herself is not valid evidence; self-report is never a credible source, especially when we know that Peggy was quick to tarnish her own reputation.)

Let’s just take three examples from the many artists that Peggy helped introduce to the world, who are now recognized as modern art’s greatest talents (a list very swiftly breezed over in the film):
1) Peggy gave Kandinsky his first show at her gallery. When she tried to persuade her uncle, a prestigious art collector, to purchase a Kandinsky, he foolishly refused and called it “trash.”
2) Peggy also presented the first Rothko exhibition.
3) Peggy is credited with discovering and essentially inventing Jackson Pollock.
Right there alone… (okay, let’s add in Mondrian, Dali, Calder, Miro, Magritte, and more), it’s almost as if without Peggy Guggenheim, there would be no modern art.

Peggy Guggenheim with Jackson Pollock paintings
Peggy Guggenheim with Jackson Pollock paintings

And that statement is not entirely far-fetched, because one chapter in the loose and lascivious life of this Jewish-American princess is the tale (which is told in the film all too briefly) of Peggy remaining in war-time Paris as others fled, and assembling a collection of 125 modern masterpieces that Hitler officially deemed “Degenerate” and sought to destroy, and then narrowly escaping Paris two days before the Nazis marched into the city, and getting the art out too. Note: Ms. Guggenheim had first asked the Louvre to help her by storing the paintings and sculptures (which included Picasso paintings, btw), but they declined, saying that these pieces were not worth saving.

Brancusi "Bird in Space"
Brancusi “Bird in Space”

(Brancusi’s “Bird in Space” sculpture was among the pieces Peggy saved, and I personally would like to thank her for that one. Rumor has it that Peggy had to sleep with Brancusi in order to negotiate a price she could afford, and again I say: Thank You for Your Service.)

Peggy didn’t just devote her heart and soul to modern art; she put her life on the line for it. In addition, Peggy saved her lover, Max Ernst, who “didn’t give a damn for her,” by marrying him to get him out of Europe and into America. This makes her a noble figure – a savior of art and artists, even if she was a lonely lady with a disastrous romantic life.

Yes, in her day, she ruined her reputation by reckless fucking (a word Peggy used herself). But in today’s day, I would expect the documentarian to challenge the legitimacy of those judgements. (She liked to get it on with brilliant and talented men. That doesn’t make her stupid, or inept.) Lisa Immorino Vreeland tries to stand neutral at a place where Helen Highly believes she should assert her opinion. But I digress.

Peggy and Max Ernest
Peggy and Max Ernest

Let’s go back to: Peggy made a trailblazing transition in her collection and patronage – from surrealist painting, anchored in WWI, to abstract expressionist painting, anchored in WWII – bridging the divide between Europe and America, and she took the art world with her. She discovered new artists who were thinking and working in new ways, and she funded them and encouraged them and presented them to the world. She was a kind of collector that never existed before.

Peggy and Max at her gallery
Peggy and Max at her gallery

In “Little Girl Blue,” we learn that Janis Joplin made a similarly significant transition from folk to blues to rock. She started singing folk songs like Joan Baez and Judy Collins, but their gentle sound did not suit Joplin. In San Francisco, Joplin hooked up with Big Brother and the Holding Company, and it wasn’t long before she assumed a leadership role in the band, where she became a pioneer of psychedelic rock. Big Brother and the Holding Company’s appearance at the now-legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 received immense acclaim – particularly for their version (Joplin’s) of “Ball and Chain.” Janis’ wild style and raw, gutsy sound blew the collective mind of the audience. But all of the attention on Janis caused tension between her and her bandmates. Janis Joplin finally went out on her own and has been labeled “the first lady of rock and roll.” She was a kind of singer that never existed before.

Janis Joplin, Raw and Gutsy
Janis Joplin, Raw and Gutsy

Ottis Redding also appeared at the Monterey Festival, and Janis has said that she was strongly influenced by him and his “gotta gotta gotta … try a little tenderness” when she later sang “try try try … a little bit harder.” Both songs share a sense of urgent emotion, but Janis takes it to a whole new level.

Richard Goldstein wrote for the May 1968 issue of “Vogue” magazine that Joplin was “the most staggering leading woman in rock… she slinks like tar, scowls like war… clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave… Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.”

Stevie Nicks considers Joplin one of her idols, and says, “She sang in the great tradition of the rhythm and blues singers that were her heroes, but she brought her own dangerous, sexy rock and roll edge to every single song. She really gave you a piece of her heart.”

Janis Rocks Hard.
Janis Rocks Hard.

It’s worth noting that this documentary does not include a lot of Janis Joplin music. Unlike the recent movie about the Beach Boys, “Love and Mercy,” which had an inspiring and extensive soundtrack of true Beach Boy tunes, this film relies more on commentary and quotes, such as those above. And at its core is a collection of letters that Janis wrote to her family and friends, which do indeed provide a candid view of the troubled and tender person behind the famous name.

According to the two movies, Peggy had a lot more sex than Janis did (surprisingly). But both women were haunted by the same distressed efforts to find love and affection. Both suffered many romantic disappointments and are said to have lived very sad lives. Janis is seen onscreen saying:

“I want to be happy so fucking bad.”

And at another point in the film she explains that her career ambition is all about her “need to be loved.” One widely quoted critic wrote that Joplin had “desperate mating calls from every song.”

One more thing united these two unique women – their honest individuality. Janis said that her artistic ambition was to be true to herself. She sang raw because that was how she felt, and she wouldn’t pretend anything prettier. The film makes a point of insisting that Janis refused to “lie” in her music, or follow anyone else’s rules.

Of Peggy Guggenheim, her film stated that for all her eccentricities, she was a woman “without guile.” Her yearning and her passion were sincere, and she held herself to a high standard of honesty, especially because her mentor, Marcel Duchamp, preached the merit of being a self-actualized individual without artifice. The film quotes Duchamp as defining his code of “individualism” as “everyone for oneself – like a shipwreck.” It’s ironic that Peggy’s father died in a shipwreck; he went down on the Titanic, when the ship sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912. Peggy was barely a teenager, and she was forever traumatized by the event. (Just an interesting detail.)

So, where does this leave us?

  • Both women were sad and lonely and desperate for attention.
  • Both women were addicts.
  • But their insecurities and addictions propelled them to greatness.
  • They each accomplished something never-before done.
  • In response to their own addictions, each changed the world of art (otherwise known as “the world”).
  • And then their addictions ruined them.

And Helen Highly suggests that the least we can do, as recipients of their greatness and inheritors of their legacies – Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and all the soul-searching music that has been inspired by it since, and the war-and-peace-making avant garde art that Peggy Guggenheim nurtured and saved and promoted and shared, and all that came after and was inspired by those works…  the least we can do is remember them with appropriate respect and appreciation, and without judging with our traditional conventions and morality.

They suffered and we reaped the rewards. When we think of them, we should try a little tenderness.

When she is not writing about film and art on her blog, HelenHighly.com, Helen Kapow is busy being a culture vulture in her adopted home of New York City.

(Visited 760 times, 1 visits today)