The life of Hilla Rebay was devoted to creating and promoting "Non-Objective" art (read pure abstraction). Born in Alsace to patrician parents Rebay went on to be an art student in Paris and Munich where she encountered Modern art for the first time. She also studied anthroposophy with Rudolf Steiner who encouraged her creativity. Rebay's next mentor and admirer was Hans (Jean) Arp who was instrumental in introducing her to the Paris art scene and to Herwarth Walden in Berlin in 1917. Walden had been mounting exhibitions of the most avante garde forms of art from Der Blaue Reiter to the French Cubists and Italian Futurists at his Der Sturm (The Storm) Gallery.
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After the First World War, Rebay's family suffered serious financial reverses (because Alsace was returned to France) and eventually the young artist settled in Berlin and shared a studio with her new beau Rudolf Bauer. She immediately became obesessed with both the man and his art. It was during these lean postwar years in Berlin that Rebay became convinced that art, especially non-objective art, should make spiritually inspired statements and that when exhibited properly the combination of inspiring architecture, art and music could induct the viewer into heightened states of consciousness. Together Bauer and Rebay refined this dream of creating “Das Geistreich” a realm of the spirit-a gallery devoted to the work of Kandinsky and Bauer.
Meanwhile, Rebay's family was adamant about keeping her away from Bauer. In their eyes the young artist was just a freeloader taking advantage of the young Baroness who was probably bankrolling the studio. Rebay spent much time traveling in Europe. She supported herself by doing portrait commissions which she disliked and finally settled in Rome in 1925. There she met Thorold Croasdale, a young American singer from mainline Philadelphia society. Rebay's new friend invited her to visit the United States and Rebay gladly accepted. After some struggles in the New York artworld Rebay landed two exhibitions of her collages: one athe Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, the second at the Marie Sterner Galleries on 57th street in NYC. Although she received favorable reviews in the local papers, it was the sale of her work to high society collectors including Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the Guggenheims which dramatically changed her fortune.
Through these contacts Hilla began to build a reputation and eventually succeded in getting a portrait commission from Solomon Guggenheim. Hilla took the opportunity to use these sessions, with Guggenheim as a captive audience, to promote the cause of Non-Objective art. Her enthusiasm for this work succeded in interesting Guggenheim. Hilla brilliantly used her studio at Carnegie Hall as a showcase for not only her collages which she called "paperplastics" but also abstract works by Bauer, Kandinsky and Klee.....Those portrait sessions were the genesis of the Guggenheim Museum. Before long Rebay had persuaded Guggenheim to build a collection of non-objective art. They began with the work of Kandinsky and Bauer. Bauer, residing in Berlin, arranged for shipment of these works to the United States. There was always a risk that her patron would not agree with Bauer's choices and Rebay feared that Guggenheim would grow weary of the project, so she suggested that they make a European tour to visit the artists' studios so that Mr. Guggenheim could choose the works himself. The tour coincided with some Rebay exhibitions in Paris and the Guggenheims visited the studios of Kandinsky, Delaunay, Leger, Braque and Mondrian.
The European trips were very successful and Rebay found herself the art advisor to one of the wealthiest men in America. As the collection grew so did her responsibilities and she spent less time painting amd more time promting Non-Objectivity. Also the dream she shared with Bauer of a "Temple of Non-objectivity" was soon to become a reality. The Solomon Guggenheim Collection of Non-Objective Art evolved to become the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation and finally the Solomon Guggenheim Museum.
Rebay continued to paint her oils and paste her collages. However, she no longer had to live off her work. The demands on her time required to run the Foundation made her own art career a lesser priority. Nothing was more important to her that the advancement of the cause of Non-Objectivity in America and the construction of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed museum. It is ironic that her hard work helped elevate names like Kandinsky, Klee and Chagall to star status while her own name grew more obscure.
Hilla Rebay was an eccentric and tyrannical personality. Many of her peers were jealous of her influence and many of her successors called into question the quality of her work both in the studio and at the Museum because of her close relationships with Solomon Guggenheim and Rudolf Bauer. The reputations of both Bauer and Rebay have suffered historically because of this triangle. Most of the work of these two artists was stored away from public view from the late 1940s until the 1970s and never exhibited. In the early 1970s the Guggenheim began a bold program of selling off much of their holdings. One of the benefits of this benign neglect is that the work is in excellent condition and highly undervalued.
BARONESS HILLA REBAY VON EHRENWIESEN (1890-1967)
by STEVEN LOWY
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