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Major Acquisition > 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
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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