German Artist, Collector, Curator, and Museum Director
Greens Farms, Connecticut
Summary of Hilla Rebay
A commanding figure, the artist, curator, advisor, and collector Hilla Rebay was consequential for the dissemination and popularization of modern art in the United States. Her role as advisor for Solomon R. Guggenheim and as the curator and director for the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim Museum) resulted in one of the best collections of modern abstract art in the country. Despite her efforts in promoting abstract art, Rebay's contributions have been overshadowed, or overlooked, in comparison to those made by the Museum of Modern Art and other collectors, but scholars and curators are beginning to rectify these omissions.
A deeply spiritual woman, Rebay felt that Non-Objective Art, her preferred term for abstract art, had the ability to heal an increasingly fractured world beset by world war, and she aimed to educate the masses in its powers. Drawing from esoteric religious beliefs and philosophical ideas of intuition, Rebay's interpretation of abstract art rankled many artists and critics alike, but she carried on some of the more consequential utopian beliefs that guided early avant-garde artists into the second half of the 20th century through her own artistic practice and her championing of abstract artists.
- For Rebay, Non-objective Art was a spiritual cure for an ailing modern society mired in materialism and the growing commodification of culture. While technological innovations made modern life easier, Rebay felt that it came at the expense of cultivating a spiritual life that recognized the interconnectedness of people, nature, and the cosmos. Turning to forgotten religious ways and interior knowledge and intuition, Rebay believed that non-objective art could cultivate these areas, eventually creating a better, more peaceful world.
- Educating the layman in the ways of non-objectivity, of understanding the "eternal rhythm," was central to Rebay's project; through education, one developed the viewer's own intuition. It was only after living with the paintings that one could come to understand the beauty of them. Through a developed intuition, the viewer could vicariously experience the creation of the artist and experience the paintings as a salve for modern woes.
- Even if her spiritual ideas did not gain much traction in mid-20th century America, Rebay's patronage of European and younger American artists had enormous ripple effects for the promotion and collection of modern art. Through her work with Solomon R. Guggenheim, she turned many European artists into household names, and her artistic advice and financial support of young New York artists came at a time when many artists, such as Jackson Pollock, were struggling to make ends meet and to find their voice.
- Rebay's own artistic output of collages and paintings evince an intimate knowledge of many of the major avant-garde movements of the early 20th century, but her unique sense of balance and rhythm set her apart from her colleagues like Jean Arp and Wassily Kandinsky. Noticeably, while Rebay was devoted to and championed Non-Objective Art, many of her collages are figural in nature but still convey the spiritual essences so important to her.
Biography of Hilla Rebay
Hilla Rebay was born Baroness Hildegard Anna Augusta Elisabeth Rebay von Ehrenwiesen to an aristocratic German family that included older brother, Franz; mother Antonie von Eicken; and father, Franz Josef Rebay von Ehrenwiesen. Her father's career as a major in the Prussian army meant the family would move around a lot during her childhood, including to Freiburg when Rebay was only one and later to Cologne.
Important Art by Hilla Rebay
Rebay began creating collages around 1915 after being exposed to the medium by her then lover Jean Arp. For her, they became the perfect vehicle to express what she considered the purest form art should take: non-objectivity. This piece is one of her earliest experiments with the medium, and Rebay combines collage with watercolor drawing. Bits of colored paper and white shading create a dynamic, whimsical composition that is at once abstract and also suggestive of a rider on a horse, perhaps even the famed Don Quixote. According to art historian Brigitte Salmen, eventually her approach would mature and she would progress to creating "pure collages out of delicate strips and thick patches of colored paper. " In discussing these works, Salmen explains, "These mostly small-format works show an increasing freedom - in part owing to the technique itself. Over time Rebay developed a wholly personal collage style in which sparingly placed shapes float against empty, undelineated grounds. These carefully composed pictures present glowing colors sensitively attuned to one another. "
These early collage works also show the influence of German Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky. Having met him through Arp, she was impressed with his own dedication to non-objectivity. Kandinsky often described his paintings as visual manifestations of music, and in later pieces, she often titled her own creations with musical terminology as a nod to her mentor. According to museum director Karole Vale, Rebay was "inspired by the writings of Kandinsky, whom she described as 'a prophet of almost religious significance. '" For both Kandinsky and Rebay, art was a vehicle for spiritual enlightenment.
A celebration of duality that combines figurative and abstract aspects, Marc Chagall's painting can be read as a celebration of his new hometown of Paris while at the same time a longing for his native land of Russia. While representational images are present in this work, curator Jennifer Blessing suggests that it was Chagall's adoption of Robert Delaunay's Orphic Cubism to create the overlapping shapes of color that appealed most to Rebay and why she suggested that Guggenheim purchase it. Rebay's biographer Joan Lukach explains that Rebay reported to Guggenheim that "the Chagall was fine, Mrs. Guggenheim especially liked it" and added that she wished she could buy it for herself. Rebay encouraged Guggenheim to purchase several Chagalls over the years and became one of his great champions. He became the prominent artists in what Rebay called Guggenheim's "objective collection." According to Lukach, Rebay admitted that non-objective painting was "not at all [Chagall's] style. Still, I prefer Chagall to most of the non-objective paintings. "
The personal migration Chagall visually represented in this painting from his native Russia to France was not the only move he would make in his lifetime, and Rebay and Guggenheim played key roles in supporting him later in life. When World War II broke out, Chagall, as a Jew, felt he was no longer safe in Europe, and Guggenheim was instrumental in arranging his relocation to America in 1941. When he and his wife arrived, they stayed with Rebay at her home for a period of time, strengthening the bond between the curator and the artist.
While Hilla Rebay's collaboration with Solomon Guggenheim began with the goal of helping him acquire an impressive collection of non-objective art, sometimes they went beyond this original mandate and acquired works in other styles, including, Albert Gleizes's Cubist painting, Composition pour Jazz. Rendered in simplified, broken down geometric forms, one can make out two musicians: one in a black suit holding a banjo, and the other perhaps a singer in a red hat. The loosely applied brushstrokes and unfinished quality of the painting mirrors the improvisational style of jazz.
Rebay had been friends with Gleizes since the late 1920s, and according to author Joan Lukach, in addition to liking his "very abstract" works "the two were in the same ideological camp, sharing the mystical view that 'non-objective' painting could be equated with an expression of the divine, and as such was a universal expression of religious man. Both believed, too, that when this connection was finally understood there would be peace in the world. "
Rebay introduced Guggenheim to Gleizes's art, and he purchased several over a period of years. This painting, while providing an example of Rebay's keen curatorial eye, more importantly provides proof of her interest in supporting the artists (often her friends) whose work she collected on behalf of Guggenheim. Lukach explains that Gleizes "was satisfied to have his paintings in a collection whose fundamental tenants he shared...." Despite Gleizes's reliance on the objective world to create his compositions, their spiritual kinship he shared with Rebay insured her continued support.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Hilla Rebay
- Hilla Rebay: In Search of the Spirit in ArtOur PickBy Joan Lukach
- The Museum of Non-Objective Painting: Hilla Rebay and the Origins of Solomon R. Guggenheim MuseumBy Tracey Bashkoff
- Art of Tomorrow: Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. GuggenheimOur PickBy Vivian Barnett, Robert Rosenblum
- Guiding Spirit of the Guggenheim Was an Artist in Her Own RightOur PickBy Grace Glueck / The New York Times / May 20, 2005
- How Hilla Rebay Helped Shape The Guggenheim Into a Notable MuseumBy Elena Martinique / Widewalls / September 15, 2019
- When Hilla Rebay Became the Guiding Spirit of the Guggenheim MuseumOur PickBy Phillip Barcio / IDEELART / July 17, 2017