Shallow Not Stupid

My first run-in with art was on a school trip to Venice with a pedo biology teacher who didn’t realize the Biennale isn’t every year. A gang of art-junkie thirteen-year-olds pooled our pocket money to hire a gondola and drift along the Grand Canal toward Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo to see The Angel of the Citadel, the famous bronze statue with the detachable penis. The organ had been soldered on because it kept being stolen, but we had our pictures taken with it anyway, to give our mothers heart attacks.

“Sex and art go hand-in-hand in my brain,” Peggy Guggenheim says in Art Addict, a new documentary by Diana Vreeland’s daughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, celebrating the woman who all but invented modern art.

Picasso and Giacometti and Dalí and Duchamp and Tanguy and Rothko and Pollock were practically giving away their work after the war. Peggy seduced most of the artists in her stable, making an exception for Mondrian, who was “too old, but he did get an erection when I kissed him.” She married Max Ernst, who was in love with Leonora Carrington but escaped to New York with Peg, then dumped her for Dorothea Tanning, saying, rather ungallantly, “I had a Guggenheim but it wasn’t a fellowship.”

Artists were using Peggy for her money, but she was using them, too, distracting from the tragedy lurking behind her wacky glasses, giving her a starring role in the 20th century. Collecting paintings is easier than loving people — they don’t die young. She had a sexathon with Samuel Beckett in a Paris hotel and almost started a publishing company. But on impulse she bought an art gallery because a friend said it would be cheaper.

Like quattrocento art addict Catherine de’ Medici, Guggenheim had an alarming nose. Medici was born with hers, but Guggenheim’s strikingly ugly nose was her own idea, broken by a cosmetic surgeon whom she halted halfway through the job. “It was too painful so I told him just to stop,” she says. This nose, like a squashed pug, makes her otherwise plain face stand out in a crowd. Her intuition never to have the botched job corrected was a marketing coup, branding her unique with this bold attention-grabbing detail.

Guggenheim’s voiceover narrates her own story, bringing Lisa Vreeland’s film to life, thanks to some lost tapes found in the basement of Guggenheim’s palazzo. Peg sounds like Mae West with a marble in her mouth as she delivers one-liners with comic timing, while laughing off the tragedies in her life.

Did Guggenheim’s lust for sex and art come from a compulsion to collect, filling the void left when her father went down with the Titanic dressed as a gentleman in his dinner jacket? Was it the hole left by the early death of her beloved sister and only friend? The emotional vacuum that was her mother, who did everything in threes — had three daughters, wore three coats, said everything three times. “Maybe Freud could have explained her…she bored me,” Guggenheim says.

Guggenheim’s son Sindbad couldn’t stand her, or art, but she says her artist-daughter Pegeen “wanted to be me…we were like lovers.” Pegeen was a beauty but that didn’t stop her committing suicide — the weird hybrid name probably didn’t help her identity crisis.

Guggenheim’s “lack of beauty” casually referred to in the film by critic John Richardson has caused a stir with the politically-correct police. “She didn’t have the looks to be successful as a socialite so she collected art.” Maybe she just wasn’t boring enough to exist to host dinner parties, “making a can of sardines go a very long way,” according to her bitter son Sindbad.

Beauty, a Socratic short-lived tyranny, isn’t the same as sex appeal and glamour — unless you’re Liz Taylor. Who remembers Jackie Kennedy’s more beautiful sister? And the most famous woman of all time, the Virgin Mary, is a classic beauty who has launched a million virgin-whore complexes, but lacks glamour, unless your thing is ladies in tablecloths. Diana Vreeland had enough glamour to kill the front row, but was funny-looking and probs not over-fucked.

Lady Gaga isn’t beautiful, glamorous or sexy; she’s a celebrity, a 21st-century beast. Gags probs isn’t copying Morrissey’s bestie Linder Sterling, who wore a meat dress in the 1970s, but the outfit still screams desperate old cow.

Celebrity is a greed for attention strong enough to cancel out the conflicting human desire for privacy. Guggenheim wasn’t a celebrity, she was a star, her glamour oozing from the Man Ray portrait of her. But sex is her essence, her charisma coming from the confidence to take what she wants — an artist and/or his penis; considered a masculine trait at a time when women were supposed to be seduced and not heard.

Guggenheim retired to Venice, reviving the Biennale, seducing gondoliers, serving “the worst pasta in the city,” and writing her memoir, Confessions of an Art Addict, which she describes as “a book about fucking.” Her palazzo opposite Byron’s house on the Grand Canal, which houses her art collection, is still the biggest tourist attraction in town.

She refused an invitation to be buried on the island of the dead, the coolest cemetery on the planet, and is instead buried in her Venetian garden with 14 of her dogs, watched over by Klee, Magritte, Dalí, Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Miró, Rothko, Pollock, and the gang of artists to whom she was benefactor, fairy godmother, and friend.

Listen to Vivien Lash read Venice from her book Spying on Strange Men