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Hilla Rebay Photo

Hilla Rebay

German Artist, Collector, Curator, and Museum Director

Born: May 31, 1890 - Strasbourg, France
Died: September 27, 1967 - Greens Farms, Connecticut
Movements and Styles:
Dada
,
Expressionism
,
Orphism
,
Collage
"Because it is our destiny to be creative and our fate to become spiritual, humanity will come to develop and enjoy greater intuitive power through creations of great art, the glorious masterpieces of non-objectivity."
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Hilla Rebay
"Pictures of non-objectivity are the key to a world of unmaterialistic elevation. Educating humanity to respect and appreciate spiritual worth will unite nations more firmly than any league of nations.... New contacts and new values, established by the rhythm of the spirit rather than by the intellect, will aid the progress of culture."
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Hilla Rebay
"Non-objectivity will be the religion of the future. Very soon the nations on earth will turn to it in thought and feeling an develop such intuitive powers which lead them to harmony. Non-objective paintings are prophets of spiritual life. Those who have experienced the joy they can give possess such inner wealth as can never be lost. This is what these masterpieces in their quiet absolute purity can bring to all those who learn to feel their unearthly donation of rest, elevation, rhythm, balance and beauty."
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Hilla Rebay
"Non-objective painting represents no object or subject known to us on earth. It is simply a beautiful organization of colors and forms to be enjoyed for beauty's sake and arranged in rhythmic order."
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Hilla Rebay
"The eye of the non-objective artist has to become sensitive to the beauty of the space itself, to be able to invent new worlds with this space and so bring endless animation or reset and uplift for those in need of it."
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Hilla Rebay
"It's sad that art is as hard as it is. The further one goes the harder it gets."
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Hilla Rebay
"Beauty does not lie in novelty but in the value of the material, in taste."
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Hilla Rebay
"I have too much in me not to achieve something great even if I am only a stupid woman, whether anyone believes it or not.... I will achieve something anyway for others, but if not, then for myself."
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Hilla Rebay

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.

Accomplishments

  • 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 Photo

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

Progression of Art
Date Unknown

Untitled (14H)

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.

Collage and watercolor on paper, mounted on paper - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York

1913

Paris through the Window

Artist: Marc Chagall

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.

Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York

Albert Gleizes: Composition pour Jazz (1915)
1915

Composition pour Jazz

Artist: Albert Gleizes

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.

Gouache on cardboard, mounted on Masonite - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York

Wassily Kandinsky: Composition 8 (1923)
1923

Composition 8

Artist: Wassily Kandinsky

Hilla Rebay was drawn to the strong, non-objective compositions of Wassily Kandinsky's paintings. In Composition 8, circles and triangles, grids and lines, mosaics and squiggles pulse on the surface of the canvas. The dynamic composition is frenzied, but the repeating and familiar geometric shapes work to tone down the chaos. The generic title Composition calls attention to the abstract nature of the work but also has musical connotations as well. Many describe music as the most abstract of the arts, and Kandinsky often played with the connections and overlaps between music and painiting.

Rebay encouraged Guggenheim to begin purchasing works by Kandinsky, and his art became one of the cornerstones of the future museum's collection. The facilitation of the purchase of this work is just one small example of a myriad of actions she undertook to help nurture Kandinsky's career. She arranged the first meeting between him and Guggenheim in July of 1930 that would lead to Guggenheim also becoming one of the artist's biggest champions. Eventually, Rebay and Kandinsky had a falling out that lasted for several years, because she felt that he did not sufficiently support fellow artist (and Rebay's sometime lover) Rudolf Bauer. Despite her feelings, she continued to oversee the purchases of many of his paintings for several decades. Her final act on Kandinsky's behalf occurred less than a year after his death, when she planned a retrospective of his work at the Museum of Non-Objective Art in March of 1945 as a memorial tribute.

Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York

1926

T1

Artist: László Moholy-Nagy

László Moholy-Nagy's T1 is a celebration of non-objectivity. In this complex work, Moholy-Nagy combines industrial materials (a kind of new, shiny black plastic) and techniques (airbrush), with avant-garde tactics (abstraction and collage). The airbrushed circles at the top and bottom of the work seem to float in front of the surface, while the smaller, central orb - made of silver paper - is collaged onto the plastic. Moholy-Nagy incised the straight line that connects two of the circles and then carefully painted it white. While non-objective art is sometimes considered disconnected from the concrete world we inhabit, Moholy-Nagy turns that assumption upside down by using non-traditional, industrial materials that firmly connect the non-objective and the objective.

Rebay was a strong advocate for Moholy-Nagy's art, and according to author Joan Lukach, he in turn "became one of Hilla Rebay's staunchest supporters and a true friend...[and] Rebay often sought his advice on a variety of topics. " Having first met in Berlin in the late 1920s, it is likely that Kandinsky alerted Rebay to Moholy-Nagy. After first seeing his work, Rebay was immediately impressed, and she directed Rudolph Bauer to purchase T1 for Guggenheim's collection. In time, Rebay and Guggenheim became avid collectors of Moholy-Nagy's work and exhibited them regularly at the museum.

Oil, sprayed paint, incised lines, and paper on Trolit - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York

1928

Solomon R. Guggenheim

Despite her championing of non-objective art, Hilla Rebay studied and displayed a skill in portrait painting, and she took on many commissions to support herself in the early years of her career. Her portrait of Solomon Guggenheim was without doubt her most important commission. It was arranged through his wife, Irene, who had seen an exhibition of Rebay's work and purchased two pieces. An impressive portrait, Rebay rendered her subject as a distinguished gentleman in a variety of shades of brown.

More importantly however, this painting captures a key moment in both the painter's and the sitter's life. It is likely that during this session, Rebay spoke at length with Guggenheim about non-objective art, and by the time the painting was finished, she had convinced him to start his own collection with her help. Shortly after, the pair would begin a series of trips to Europe to purchase paintings. More than a simple portrait, we see a visual manifestation of the start of a lifelong friendship and mutually beneficial partnership that would help to shape and promote modern art in the mid-twentieth century.

Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York

Robert Delaunay: Circular Forms (1930)
1930

Circular Forms

Artist: Robert Delaunay

Robert Delaunay's painting, which is comprised of circles in a celebration of vivid colors, is an important example of the Orphism style which he developed. Hilla Rebay and Delaunay were kindred spirits and, as author Joan Lukach describes, theirs was "a meeting of like minds.... The friendship was cemented by a jointly held belief that abstract art was misunderstood and neglected, and by the common goal of forging an international alliance of non-objective artists.... " Rebay for her part helped achieve this goal by advocating that Solomon Guggenheim collect key artists of this style, including Delaunay.

Interestingly, in the beginning of their relationship, while she respected Delaunay, she considered him, according to Lukach, "primarily as a precursor of non-objective art." Later, however, as his works became more abstract, in part through his development of Orphism, he became a leader of non-objectivity. Circular Forms was among Delaunay's important paintings that Rebay advocated for to be added to Guggenheim's collection. Paintings like this support Rebay's belief that "non-objectivity will be the religion of the future.... Non-objective paintings are prophets of spiritual life. Those who have experienced the joy they can give possess such inner wealth as can never be lost. This is what these masterpieces in their quiet absolute purity can bring to all those who learn to feel their unearthly donation of rest, elevation, rhythm, balance, and beauty. " For Rebay and many of the artists she championed, abstract, or non-objective, art had the ability to heal the spiritual malaise that many blamed on modernity and industrialization.

Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York

1933

Invention (Composition 31)

Artist: Rudolf Bauer

A brightly colored non-objective painting, Rudolf Bauer's Invention (Composition 31) demonstrates how, according to art historian Karole Vail, "in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Bauer's work became more geometric and may have been influenced by the modernist and functional rigor of the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism. " The sharply delineated forms stacked atop one another seem to float above the surface of the canvas and call to mind the Suprematist compositions of Kasimir Malevich.

For many artists and friends, Rebay's and Guggenheim's support of Bauer was incomprehensible for an otherwise astute collecting pair, as many saw his works as derivative and not very innovative. Rebay's support, in part, stemmed from her complicated romantic involvement with the cantankerous artist, but he also served as a prime example of what she could do with a Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Rebay's practice of turning to Bauer to facilitate purchases of paintings for Guggenheim when she could not be in Europe led to Guggenheim's strong support of Bauer as well. Most specifically, according to Vail, "In 1930, thanks in part to the purchase of his paintings by Guggenheim, Bauer opened his museum gallery Das Gestreich as a private salon where he exhibited his own and Kandinsky's works and which was inspirational for Rebay when she began to formulate her thoughts for a museum for Guggenheim's collection. " Despite their volatile relationship, Rebay's support was unwavering, and she chose this painting as the catalogue cover for the Museum of Non-Objective Painting's first exhibition which opened to the public on June 1, 1939.

Oil on canvas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York

1950-56

Rhythmic Delight

Hilla Rebay's painting Rhythmic Delight is a good example of her non-objective approach. In describing the work, museum director Karole Vail states, "Here she seems to have found the perfect balance, or 'interrelation of rhythm, line, balance, and measure' and 'cosmic inner order.'" The central orange circle, loosely painted, frames the intersecting horizontal and diagonal lines. The rhythmic squiggles emanating from the center have a musical and harmonic feeling. The colorful triangles along the outer edges of the canvas resemble elements of Rebay's earlier collages but also encircle the central shapes as if dancing in step around them, creating a pulsing dynamism.

For Vail, this painting, "one of Rebay's major paintings, executed when she was in her sixties, best conveys the 'diagram of the soul,' as Rebay described non-objective painting.... Rebay's paintings radiate masterly individuality.... She created her cosmos, her own ethereal world in them, blending geometric and organic elements in a single, integrated space and providing a vital sensation of energy. " For Rebay, the artist was a conduit for the divine, conveying the spiritual and the cosmic through their painting, and the dynamic and balanced composition of Rhythmic Delight speaks to her desire to express the interrelation at the heart of the world as she understood it. After her stint at the Museum of Non-Objective Art came to an end, Rebay devoted herself to painting again and to bettering the world.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Hilla Rebay
Influenced by Artist
Artists
Friends & Personal Connections
  • Charles Atlas
    Charles Atlas
  • No image available
    Karl Nierendorf
  • No image available
    Henri-Pierre Roché
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Hilla Rebay Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
Available from:
First published on 15 Oct 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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