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Hilla Rebay Photo

Hilla Rebay - Biography and Legacy

German Artist, Collector, Curator, and Museum Director

Born: May 31, 1890 - Strasbourg, France
Died: September 27, 1967 - Greens Farms, Connecticut
Movements and Styles:

Biography of Hilla Rebay

Childhood and Education

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.

Unlike the fate of many young girls at the time, Rebay's progressive parents encouraged her early interest in art, as both were also fond of painting. They paid for her to have a private tutor, allowed her to study art during secondary school, and supported her attendance at the Cologne Kunstgewerbeschule.

Early Training

Photograph (gelatin silver print) of Hilla Rebay taken in 1924 by her friend, artist László Moholy-Nagy.

Committed to pursuing a career as an artist, Rebay moved to Paris in 1909 where she enrolled in the Académie Julian where she honed her portraiture skills, which helped support her before she moved to more abstract work. She also took evening classes at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, where, importantly, she began associating with other students who followed Theosophy, a belief system that attempted to fuse together aspects of several world religions. While Rebay had first been exposed to the mystical religion as early as age fourteen, it was here in Paris with fellow students that she became serious about the study. Just as avant-garde artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian connected their abstract compositions to spiritual goals, Rebay saw a deep connection between the two. She wrote to her mother, "The deeper I delve into it, the happier it makes me; everything becomes clear, especially that spiritual sensitivity necessary for an artist to experience nature and to feel one with it. " Rebay began to link her art to religion and according to art historian Joan Lukach, "[H]er religious conviction became entwined with her aesthetic credo, art constituting for her a form of religious expression."

A year in Munich in 1910 for more study followed by a return to Paris in 1911 brought Rebay into contact with modern art and artists. In the fall of 1913, she moved to Berlin, where she began to focus seriously on her art, only taking a brief hiatus during the start of the first world war when she returned home to her parent's house in Hagenau and took a job as a nurse.

Mature Period

Photograph of Jean Arp, Hilla Rebay's lover and mentor, that appeared in the January 1926 issue of <i>De Stijl</i> magazine.

A key figure in Rebay's progression into modern art was the Dadaist Jean (Hans) Arp, with whom she began a romantic relationship in 1915. He introduced her to the work of artists, including Marc Chagall and Wassily Kandinsky, and importantly, his work with collage would inspire Rebay's own works in the medium as well as her start in non-objective paintings, which she began creating around 1917. Rebay explained his impact on her, writing, "He made a deep impression on me. I first took it for love - because it was so new and pure and wonderful to be with him - but I am unable to love - there is always something that makes me crazy. "

Rebay's relationship with Arp ended in the spring of 1917, but not before he introduced her to artist Rudolf Bauer. Sharing similar ideas for the future direction of art, the two began a relationship. While it would last on and off for several decades, it would be a difficult one for Rebay. She would ardently defend him and his art despite his often mentally and verbally abusive attitude towards her, his jealousy over her work and any success she might receive, and the fervent pleas from friends and family to abandon him.

Rebay quickly began to establish a name for herself, exhibiting her collage works and paintings in key gallery exhibitions throughout Europe. In 1920, she, along with Bauer and Otto Nebel founded the Die Krater art group. The group's aim, according to author Brigitte Salmen, was to "construct the absolute church as a spatial concept combining the museum, the music hall, and the gallery that automatically does away with nuisance of exhibitions, art dealers, and agents. Die Krater's activities continued for only a few years and had little public impact, but it was the first artist group to propose a museum of non-objective art. "

Between 1922 and 1925, Rebay fell ill, suffering from issues with her nerves that were in large part due to her difficult relationship with Bauer. In these years, she had little work shown and is believed to have spent time in a sanatorium.

Photograph of Solomon R. Guggenheim.

Looking for a change, she decided to leave Europe in January 1927 and start a new life for herself in America. Settling in Manhattan, she quickly ingratiated herself into the art scene and supported herself through portrait commissions, designing posters, and giving art lessons. Her most notable student was a young Louise Nevelson. Rebay also began exhibiting her work, including in a show at New York's Galleries of Marie Sterner, where socialite Irene Guggenheim purchased two of Rebay's works. Irene also commissioned Rebay to create a portrait of her husband Solomon R. Guggenheim, an enormously wealthy businessman who made his fortune in mining and who was the uncle of Peggy Guggenheim, who was also beginning his education in modern art.

This one portrait commission would fundamentally alter the direction of Rebay's career, as it is believed that it was while working on his portrait that she first acquainted Guggenheim with non-objective art. By the time Rebay completed the painting, she had convinced him to start his own collection with her help. While some have tried to imply a romantic relationship existed between the two, there is no evidence of such a relationship. Instead, this meeting was the start of a professional partnership and friendship between Rebay and Guggenheim that would last the rest of their lives.

Portrait photograph of Wassily Kandinsky; taken by Hugo Erfurth in 1923. Inspired by Kandinsky's art, Hilla Rebay supported the artist in numerous ways throughout his life.

In May of 1929, Rebay made her first trip to Europe with Guggenheim and his wife to begin purchasing works of modern art. It is also at this time that she engaged the help of Bauer to make purchases on her behalf for Guggenheim when she was back in the states. Rebay's keen understanding of modern art and shrewd eye led to Guggenheim acquiring a vast and important collection of works by artists, including Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, László Moholy-Nagy, often after studio visits with the artists themselves. While a large portion of the works Guggenheim purchased could be seen in his apartment at the Plaza Hotel in 1930, Rebay craved a more public space, and by 1933, she convinced Guggenheim to build a museum which would provide a permanent home for his art. To draw attention to this plan and gather support for their endeavor, the pair begin mounting exhibitions of the collection in venues across the United States. For the first exhibition at the Gibbes Memorial Art Gallery in Charleston, South Carolina, Rebay wrote the essay, "Definition of Non-objective Painting," for the exhibition catalogue. Helping to promote the importance of this art, she wrote, "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. "

In 1937, Guggenheim created The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation which Rebay's biographer Joan Lukach explains was "for the 'promotion and encouragement of art and education in art and the enlightenment of the public.' One of the foundation's principal objectives would be to establish a museum, the nucleus of which would be Guggenheim's collection of modern paintings. " He publicly announced Rebay's partnership in this endeavor by naming her curator of the collection. According to Lukach, from this point forward "Rebay devoted the greater part of her life to The Guggenheim Foundation, of which she was also made a trustee in 1938. "

On June 1, 1939, Guggenheim's museum opened in a location on East Fifty-fourth Street, which was once a showroom for automobiles; its name, a joint decision by Rebay and Guggenheim, had a compound title: "Art of Tomorrow," the Museum of Non-objective Painting. Rebay was named director and considered a large part of her job to educate the public on the importance of non-objective art. Artists started sending her their works for her review and critique. Lukach explains that "if the effort, no matter how halting, were sincerely non-objective in intent, Rebay maintained a personal interest in the painter's development. " Through the foundation she also granted artist scholarships and supported others by sending them supplies from a line in the museum's budget created by her specifically for this purpose. Others were offered part-time jobs at the museum, which helped provide funds for them to continue their work. Most notably Jackson Pollock began working there in May 1943 as a maintenance man. Ultimately Rebay did not get on with him, most likely in large part because she never truly embraced Abstract Expressionism, and he left the museum after receiving a contract to show his work with Peggy Guggenheim at her Art of This Century Gallery; but Rebay still played a part in nurturing his career.

This was not the first time Rebay and Peggy Guggenheim had found themselves disagreeing with each other. Rebay and some of her colleagues had, for a period, considered establishing a non-objective art center in Paris; however, in 1940, friends warned her of Peggy Guggenheim's efforts to open her own art gallery there. Rebay felt that Peggy was trying to build off the "Guggenheim" name, which had considerable power in the art world due to her uncle's and Rebay's efforts; according to Lukach, many artists that Rebay supported feared that Peggy's more Surrealist inclinations would derail the progress of non-objective art and would confuse the public. Ultimately World War II altered the focus of both parties and neither opened a European space. Instead, they turned their attention to the states, with Peggy founding Art of This Century gallery in October 1942 and Rebay and Solomon continuing their own New York pursuits, ultimately leading to their own grand museum.

Photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1954. Hilla Rebay and Wright became friends after she approached him to be the architect to design a new museum to house Solomon R. Guggenheim's art collection.

Soon, Rebay began to formalize plans to create a permanent building to house Guggenheim's collection. Believing strongly that an American architect should be given the commission, she wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright to determine his interest. According to Lukach, "In her first letter she explained exactly what she wanted: a building in which to present the paintings - a temple and a monument. " After Wright agreed, the pair began what would be a lifelong friendship, and Wright later praised her "continuous expenditure of energy" and called her "a super-woman. " While both knew their minds and could be described by some as having difficult personalities, they shared an excitement and passion for modernity and the potential greatness of their future museum. Rebay, for instance, was the one to suggest a circular building, which Wright supported, but Lukach explains how there were also some disagreements to which Rebay held strong and got her way, rejecting Wright's idea for a red marble exterior and a roof garden. It would take fifteen years from the start of their collaboration until the new building opened to the public, and in the interim, the collection was moved to a temporary building, a townhouse on Fifth Avenue, in November 1948.

Rebay's support of artists was not deterred by the outbreak of World War II. Many of her and Guggenheim's friends, the artists that formed the core works in their museum, were in danger during the war. They offered some like Marc Chagall and Rudolf Bauer aid in leaving Europe. Both even stayed for a period at Rebay's newly purchased Connecticut home when they first reached America. Unfortunately, Rebay also suffered during the war. Denied American citizenship in 1938, Rebay felt the discrimination resulting from the rising fears and distrust of Germans during this time despite the fact that she had long spoken out against Hitler and no longer felt safe visiting family in Germany.

On October 12, 1942, the federal government named her an enemy alien and took her into custody. According to Lukach, "For eight weeks she was held for investigation with other German citizens.... The government's investigation centered on charges that she was hoarding since she kept large quantities of food at her house in the country. Her explanation was that from the time she moved into the house, before rationing had begun, she had kept a full larder.... Not only did she provide for her staff, but in her position as head of a museum she was often required to entertain.... The Connecticut Office of Price Administration found her explanation reasonable. She gave her coffee and sugar to the Red Cross, and the case against her was dropped. "

During this difficult time, the attack she felt most personally was from Bauer, who tried to take over her role in the museum during her confinement and who may well have been responsible for some of the most vicious rumors about her. She would later have to defend herself in front of the foundation's trustees and answer to charges that she was against the United States and against groups including Catholics, Jews, and African Americans. While she succeeded in defending herself against these claims, her relationship was never the same with Bauer and ended completely when he married his housekeeper in 1944, permanently breaking Rebay's heart. She was not without support at this time, and throughout this entire ordeal, Guggenheim fiercely defended her as did Frank Lloyd Wright. Cleared of all charges and her job intact, Rebay received the greatest prize she could have hoped for when she was awarded United States citizenship on January 9, 1947.

Later Period

With the war over, Rebay threw herself back into her work including a return to a focus on the new building design. She also led an effort to restore the growth of modern art in her native Germany, which Hitler had tried to destroy during the war. To this end, according to Lukach, "[S]he developed a sense of urgency about the need to aid surviving or prospective non-objective artists, and through The Guggenheim Foundation began to send parcels to anyone who qualified for either of these categories. "

Guggenheim Museum, New York City. While Hilla Rebay selected and worked with famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design the permanent new home of the Guggenheim Museum, when it finally opened in 1959, Rebay was no longer affiliated with the museum and Wright had died.

Knowing he was ill, Guggenheim had written a letter, praising Rebay and expressing his hope for her future at the museum, including "It is my further wish that during the lifetime of Miss Rebay the Foundation accept no gifts and make no purchases of paintings without her approval.... " However, as he did not make the letter a formal legally binding part of his will, her future was not guaranteed. After Guggenheim died, on November 3, 1949, his first successor, his son-in-law Earl Castle-Stewart honored his wishes and Rebay maintained her control. However some of the trustees did not trust Rebay and according to Lukach, her "operating budget was tightly reined, and her purchase funds were substantially reduced. " A critic, Aline Bernstein Saarinen wrote a column in the New York Times in 1951 calling for Rebay's firing and that the works be given to the Museum of Modern Art instead of finalizing a new museum building. After Castle-Stewart's death in 1952, Guggenheim's son Harry came into control, and Rebay lost all of her support. Growing dissent among critics and artists about Rebay's spiritual interpretation of non-objective art as well as her increasing anxiety and mental state all contributed to her ouster from the museum. Using her poor health as the reason, Rebay stepped down as the museum's director in March 1952, although she continued on as a trustee. A further insult was forced on Rebay when the name of the museum was changed to the "Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum" removing all mention of her beloved legacy of non-objective art. Sadly when the new museum opened in October 1959, Rebay was not invited. Shortly after, she was removed from her posts as trustee and director emeritus and some affiliated with the museum would work for years to downplay her role in its history.

The last decade of Rebay's life, spent without any connection to her beloved museum, pushed her towards new pursuits. She spent a lot of time traveling, including a trip around the world in 1955. She also returned to her studio, where she created more works and participated in exhibitions. In addition, her personal art collection, amassed over the decades spent helping Guggenheim build his, had become quite impressive and a selection of German museums hoped she would make a significant gift to them in honor of her heritage. This never happened, however, and instead, in 1967, she made the decision to establish the Hilla von Rebay Foundation which had a guiding mission to, in her words, "foster, promote, and encourage the interest of the public in non-objective art. " It was her hope that upon her death her Connecticut home would be used as an art gallery, education center, and home to her collection.

Detail of the gravestone of Hilla Rebay. She is buried in Teningen, Germany.

Suffering from heart and circulatory issues, Rebay died at the age of seventy-seven. Sadly after her death, her final wishes were not honored and according to Lukach, "[T]he trustees of her foundation agreed that The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum should care for the paintings, the library, and the more than ten thousand letters and other documents from four thousand individuals.... " Ironically, the museum administration that had recently forced her out of their employ ended up benefitting from her impressive collection of non-objective art.

The Legacy of Hilla Rebay

Hilla Rebay left a profound legacy on the art world. Playing a key role in shaping modern art of the twentieth century, she was among the first artists to use the term "non-objective" to describe the abstract art that she and her colleagues were creating. She made it her life's mission to further the importance of non-objective art and to educate others about this movement. Her greatest achievement in this effort was her success in convincing Solomon R. Guggenheim to collect non-objective art. In doing so, she helped support the career of many artists and set in motion the building of a collection that would become the foundation of one of the world's greatest modern art institutions. Her promotion of non-objective art filtered through all she did - her mentorship of young artists, her distribution of scholarships, and finally her own foundation.

Any discussion of Rebay's legacy on the art world, however, would be underserved if a mention of her own work as an artist was not included.. According to museum director Karole Vail, "Rebay's reputation as a committed proponent of non-objective art, an advisor to Solomon R. Guggenheim, and the founding director of the Guggenheim Museum, has overshadowed her accomplishments as an artist, but her elaborate and adventurous work provides clear evidence that she was an original artist with a singular voice and an unusual freedom of expression.... " Her influence can even be felt on contemporary artists, including Carter J. Thomas and Laurie Fendrich, who according to art historian, Robert Rosenblum, "are revisiting the style of the 'art of tomorrow' in its postmodern guise of 'neo' and 'retro. "

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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
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First published on 15 Oct 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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