Lisa Vreeland released her second documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, last week. In her second film, Vreeland – director of Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel – dives into the complex world of an heiress living in genteel poverty trying to make a name for herself in the topsy-turvy world of modern-art. At the time, no one knew whether to take take Dada, surrealism or abstract expressionism seriously, but Peggy went with her gut and came out on top. In her documentary, Vreeland helps us understand this complex lady– her flaws, her strengths and her contentious legacy.
Vreeland sat down with me in a conference room with her coat perched neatly on her shoulders and began asking about me. Where was I from? Was the Big Apple kind of rough for me after Seattle? Where did I go to school? What did I major in? Turns out we both majored in Art History, which reminded me that I was supposed to be learning about her. Se was easy to talk to and a person can easily understand how she gets big names in the art world to chat with her on a regular basis. She’s interested in the world but knows what makes her passionate and follows those projects outside her comfort zone, learning as she goes.
We started talking about her college experience and how she transitioned into the film world.
“Art history is a fun major, depending…” she said. “I had the great fortune of having an amazing advisor. I just totally hit it off with him. I was allowed into senior seminars and to do all these things and it was… he was my great relationship in my school years, someone who influenced me of the way he looked at things, he explained things. He was not into the memorization, he was like what motivated all this? Social, political, literature– everything that was going on! He’d look at this well rounded aspect. It was a really important moment in my learning, my limited learning.
“I worked in fashion, for years,” she added. “You know, I just wanted to do a book on my husband’s grandmother– Diana Vreeland. I worked fashion and I was doing my own thing. I even had my own collections. I have always done my own thing. I’ve done the corporate stuff and I was always so anti-corporate…I just don’t fit in! I’m in my own crazy free spirit sphere!
“I said, I don’t quite understand all this stuff about Diana Vreeland and I never met her. I just decided to do this book, and as I did the book I started to think I should do a film, and as I did the film I liked the process. I liked it because I liked the nerdy part of it. I like the research. I like being in the archives. I like reading, I like all the academic aspects, and I love the interviews. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve gotten very good people. I’m not sure I’m good at interviews, perhaps people are just relaxed with me, I don’t know — but I get a lot out of them.”
Vreeland spoke about approaching film as a non-filmmaker.
“I’m always kind of like” – tilts head, squints, shrugs shoulders – “when people say what do you do? You know, that’s what I do — I’m a filmmaker, I take on these subjects, I just delve into it a hundred percent and I’m trying to find the best way to tell that story to an audience. I guess… yes! I am a filmmaker! But my approach is very different. I didn’t study film and it’s always a learning process with each film. I want this story to be told in an entertaining way so their true being can come out instead of something with a veneer.
“I’m not in the film thing, I don’t hang out with filmmakers …I’m a mom and a wife and a total nerd at home with a dog and my books. I tell the story through the real ways she (Peggy) talks about someone, you show that person. It’s really interesting because a lot of these art historian or museum people, they’re like, I’ve never seen this footage before. It exists! It’s a matter of just showing it! That’s what’s great with a film like this, and you know there’s footage there [in Art Addict] of Picasso and of Gertrude Stein and Brancusi and Duchamp that has never been shown before.
“Maybe it’s too pedantic, maybe it’s too precise and the credits become this crazy amount of credits but I like that, I like the precision of doing that and there are people who really like to see these things. I’m not trying to appeal to the hippest crowd out there, I’m trying to do something that’s authentic and we can all look back if we put in a little jar in the bottom of the sea and we find it 20 years from now it still stands as being authentic work.”
We then started talking about how she picks her topics.
“I’m picking topics that I’m comfortable with,” she said. “I’m not doing world hunger or something, it’s just not me. The things that interest me and the ability to be able to give these messages onto new generations and attract people to these ideas and really iconic figures. Peggy was very much like that. She was such a misunderstood character, in so many ways. Because art historically she’s always been, not challenged, but her legacy has not been taken as seriously and I don’t know why.
“I think that, especially now, there are a lot of these characters–people mention them but don’t really know the backstory about them. Of course, I’ve read her autobiography, maybe during school and maybe even after, but then I read it again and there were many surprising things about her! There are not that many people who had the kind of impact on different cities and different artists in the way that Peggy did. She played a real role in London the beginning of modern art and then in Paris when she was collecting, and New York City at the very beginnings of the rumblings of abstract expressionism, and then in Venice she played a huge role–these artists had never seen Pollocks before and had never seen Kandinskys in color! So you don’t have any historical figures who play a role like that in so many places over so many years and yet her legacy has always been well she just had a lot of sex and that’s not what the story is! It’s about this brave woman– who also found this belief and passion for what she wanted to do later in life and she was kinda full of personal insecurities and deaths but she overcame all that to achieve her dream! I like that sense of a dream. I’m a total romantic like that.”
On loving and hating her protagonist, she said, “I think it’s great to show her in all her insecurities. You can see that she wasn’t comfortable in her own skin but then it’s kind of this celebration of her and her belief in the artists. I mean she was ultimately victorious and the museum today the way it is is a total embodiment of who she is… and I hope that people do walk away with that.
“She’s a person, people say she was such a feminist and no, she wasn’t. She didn’t believe in it. But I like the idea that she had a dream and for me she did and there’s no age attached to that. I don’t think there’s a huge sense of ego attached to it, I really don’t think that there was. She became kind of this minor celebrity and of course she loved all of that, but that’s not what it’s about. I didn’t get that sense, you can see it in her response to the art in the tapes and her interviews. Do I wish she was more inspirational? Yes. It was hard, it was really hard– because there were times when I was like god, just give us more, give us something dreamy!
“Especially after, first film, she [Diana Vreeland] would talk about a sock or a shoe and it would be dreamy. She used fashion to really talk about life. She was inspiring and Peggy? Peggy was hard. I looked everywhere for little inspiring messages even about her favorite paintings or why…Sometimes I didn’t like her! No, no, no… but really you just let go at that point. But her perseverance! Her perseverance I liked! And I liked her honesty and the fact that she had the guts or balls to say things she thought. I like people who break the rules!”
Images via Cinetic Media
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