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The Hilla Rebay Collection

Hilla Rebay (Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen, 1890–1967) was born in Strassburg, Germany (now Strasbourg, France), into a minor aristocratic family. Artistically gifted from an early age, she also became interested in theosophy and diverse religious and spiritual ideas. Rebay studied art and exhibited in Cologne, Paris, Munich, and Berlin. Although she had obtained solid academic training as a portrait and figurative painter, she would later devote herself to nonobjective painting, art without representational links to the empirical world. Rebay was dedicated to the infinite possibilities of pure color, line, and space within a spiritual cosmos. She also believed in the educational powers of nonobjective art, which she thought to be essential for the improvement of mankind.

Thanks especially to the artists Hans Richter and Jean Arp, she began to explore radical directions in painting in the 1910s and early 1920s. Arp gave Rebay a copy of Kandinsky’s seminal treatise On the Spiritual in Art and the almanac Der Blaue Reiter (both first published in 1912). He also introduced her to the Dada movement in Zurich and to Herwarth Walden, who had founded the influential gallery Der Sturm in Berlin. Rebay became an active participant in the European avant-garde and took part in several group exhibitions.

At Galerie Der Sturm, Rebay also met the artist Rudolf Bauer, whom she considered to be the foremost exponent of nonobjective painting and with whom she entered into a long and complex relationship. Through Arp, Rebay discovered paper collage, which enabled her to experiment more freely with line and the balance of forms. Her mastery of collage resulted in dynamic and sophisticated compositions comprising constellations of organic shapes. Rebay believed that her nonobjective works on paper, and paintings alike were manifestations of the pursuit of spiritual fulfillment and social progress.

Not long after her arrival in 1927 to the United States, where she hoped to secure a better future, Rebay met Solomon R. Guggenheim (1861–1949), an event that would turn out to be historically and culturally significant. They forged a friendship and professional relationship that would change the history of modern art in America. At the time she painted his portrait, she began her mission to encourage him to collect nonobjective art, and in particular the work of Bauer and Kandinsky, both artists for whom Rebay had great esteem. While continuing her own artistic and collecting endeavors, Rebay served as the first director and curator of Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which opened in 1939 and which would be renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1952. In 1943 her vision of a “museum-temple” led her to choose Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), a kindred spirit in matters of art and spirituality, to design a permanent museum for the collection on Fifth Avenue.

In 1952 Rebay resigned as director of the museum but continued her relationship with the institution in the role of director emeritus. Through her perpetual contact with artists over the course of her lifetime, Hilla Rebay amassed her own significant art collection. Part of her estate, which included works by Bauer, Alexander Calder, Albert Gleizes, Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, and Kurt Schwitters, was given to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum after her death in 1967 to form the dedicated Hilla Rebay Collection.

 

 

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