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The passions of Hilla Rebay
by Lee Hall
A review of Hilla Rebay by Joan M. Lukach.
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The Baroness Hilla von Rebay died in 1967 after years of close association with Solomon Guggenheim, his collection, and his museum. Today, mention of her name is likely to elicit a slight smirk and some clever remark about “the mistress of Solomon Guggenheim.” Only occasionally will she be given credit for her almost fanatical dedication to modernist art at a time when it was unfashionable and her important influence on the collection that came to form the Guggenheim Museum.
I began Joan M. Lukach’s Hilla Rebay: In Search of the Spirit in Art rally prepared for a biography that catalogued Rebay’s familiar eccentricities. But I hoped for one that did something more—that made some attempt to separate her life from her legend, to understand her actions, to fit her into the larger pattern of art and life in the twentieth century. I surfaced, in the end, somewhere between the two. In Lukach’s book, Hilla Rebay is an attractive, vigorous, zealous woman who, though evil-tongued and evil-tempered, though dumbly opinionated and unpredictable, if not unstable at times, contributed enormously to a great collection of modernist art. The inner recesses of her life, however, remain hidden.
Joan Lukach, the director of the Vassar College Art Gallery, was curator of the Hilla Rebay Foundation Archives of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from 1974 to 1982.. She is a careful researcher and obviously knows well the documents in that collection, which includes many letters to and from the Baroness. Unfortunately, although Lukach has talked to many people who knew Hilla Rebay, she strays only slightly beyond the boundaries of the Foundation. Thus, if Hilla Rebay is not technically an official biography, it might as well be. Lukach paints a clear, if limited, picture of the Baroness, of Germany in the fertile artistic valley between the two wars, of the United States in a more innocent and hopeful time, of the incubation and hatching of the Guggenheim collection, and of the designing of Frank Lloyd Wright’s building. But throughout the fare is slight, inadequately seasoned, and just a little too pat. Is Lukach’s admirable sense of decorum screening out the more interesting, if coarser, elements of the story?
As a young woman, Rebay describes herself in a letter: “I am unable to love—there is always something that makes me crazy .. . .” And later: “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, preferably for others, but, if not, for myself."?These letters were written to Rudolf Bauer, the artist Rebay championed and protected against his own knavery and small talent. For most of her life, she loved him and suffered (perhaps even needed to suffer) his abuse. Here, between the reference points of masochistic love, the self-perceived inability to love and be loved, and a burning ambition, might be stretched the psyche of Hilla Rebay. But Lukach rarely challenges Rebay’s self-portraits and does little to discern in Rebay’s theatricality and posturing the driving forces at the core of her life.
Hilla Rebay, born the Baroness Hildegard Anna Augusta Elisabeth Rebay von Ehrenwiesen on May 31, 1890, in Strassburg, Alsace, was the second child of Baron Franz Josef Rebay von Ehrenwiesen and his wife, Antonie. The Baron, a Bavarian, was a career officer in the Prussian army and his wife the orphaned daughter of a prominent industrial family. Both of Hilla’s parents displayed an ability with art, the father as an expert furniture carver and painter of water-color landscapes and the mother as a painter. Young Hilla’s early demonstrations of talent—in painting and drawing—elicited applause and enthusiasm from her parents, who enlisted her in formal teaching as soon as possible. From all evidence, Hilla was a loved and cherished—even spoiled and indulged—girl who grew up within a close family of sufficient wealth and social standing to permit her to do exactly as she pleased.
By her fourteenth year, and without her parents’ knowing it, Hilla began attending classes in theosophy. Over the next several years her search for mystical faith took her into explorations of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, transcendentalism, and various permutations of the occult. She was still trying to synthesize her religious and artistic drives when she arrived in Paris to study art in 1909. She had decided to commit herself to “living exclusively for art,” whatever personal anguish it might bring (“art is very difficult, despair a daily occurrence”).
In Paris, surrounded by people equally dedicated to living exclusively for art and equally eager to discuss their vision, Rebay melded her aesthetic and religious faiths: art stood for her thereafter as a form of religious expression. Under the sway of such a passion, she began her art studies in earnest, vowing to earn her living as a portrait painter. Thanks to the support of her parents, she freely explored art in classes and in her travels. On a visit to Munich she met the German Jugendstil painter Fritz Erler (1868-1940), who persuaded her to move her studio from Paris to Munich. In the years 1910 and 1911 she continued to paint with a view toward exhibiting in the traditional salons, but she also began to write home of her concerns for “our modern art.” She was in fact moving—however tentatively—into the speeding currents of European modernism. Once fully immersed, she would become a great evangelist for modernist art, which for her would prove to be the Absolute Truth, the physical manifestation of her conviction that art was religious expression.
On the verge of this epiphany, Rebay returned to Paris, where she earnesdy studied the works of Delacroix, Daubigny, Millet, Manet, Degas, and the Nabis and read the journals of Delacroix and the letters of Van Gogh. In 1913, she exhibited her work with the “Independents,” including Archipenko, Brancusi, Chagall, Delaunay, Gleizes, Rivera, and Van Rees. Writing to her parents, she confided: “... my own works are hideous. It’s sad that art is as hard as it is. The further one goes the harder it gets.”
Soon after her Paris exhibition, Rebay moved to Berlin, where the two sides of her personality emerged sharply, finding expression in her two different careers in art. While she painted portraits in a relatively traditional manner, she also practiced the role of modernist in other works. Similarly, her personal life was divided between expectations, responsibilities, and rewards associated with her privileged background and experiments in art and life stemming from her commitment to bohemian modernism.
During her twenties, too, Rebay became aware of her own allure. At one point she considered marrying a British diplomat, but the First World War ended the romance. (In Lukach’s biography we learn neither the identity of the suitor nor Rebay’s response to losing him.) Rebay seems to have turned directly from the truncated relationship to the patriotic duties appropriate to a career officer’s daughter. She even passed a nursing examination.
During this period of her life, Rebay enjoyed the affections of Arthur Storck, an American expatriate, and Hans Arp. By the end of 1918, however, she was tumultuously in love with Rudolf Bauer. For the better part of her remaining life she was never totally free of his influence and never fully immune to his manipulation, greed, and egomania. Bauer, who found himself unendingly fascinating and his work beyond mortal comprehension and peer, demanded Rebay’s financial assistance and spaniel-like love. She responded obediently by sharing money she received from her family. Rebay was fixated on Bauer and unfaltering in her belief in his greatness as an artsit. Though she was in love with him, she rejected his proposal of marriage:
To be married—that would be ridiculous, stupid .... Ties are for me unbearable and completely impossible, I would be destroyed. ... I could never get along with anyone forever.
As Rebay entered the fourth decade of her life, she continued to paint portraits and modernist works, and to grapple with her own being in ways that are not fully explored in Lukach’s biography. She wrote Bauer in 1921:
A woman of thirty without children has lived her life .... It is a weakness, a great weakness, that I need so much love. Nobody showed me any love, and that is why I am so pitifully grateful and forgiving when anyone shows me even the least consideration.
When Rebay moved to the United States in 1927, she settled in New York, which she found to be “a great wild city with myriad dimensions ... a great place, the only one in which one is not hindered.” Here, she attempted to live from the sale of collages but soon learned that “New York is terribly expensive .... I starve often enough and must work very hard when there is work. I thank God for the work when I get it, for there are 2000 artists here and many either starve or work in offices.” She met other artists and earned some money from her work as a commercial artist and as a teacher (she briefly taught the young Louise Nevelson). Slowly, her circumstances improved and, in August of 1927, she moved from a one-room flat on Riverside Drive to a studio in Carnegie Hall.
For American buyers, Rebay’s work was seen to be allied with the great European modernist movements, and fairly quickly her paintings were bought by important collectors, including, as she proudly wrote her parents, the Guggenheims. In fact, Rebay had arrived in America with a letter of introduction to Solomon Guggenheim, although she actually met him at a party in New York in 1927. “In less than a year,” Lukach observes, “Rebay had become reasonably well established as an original talent who was also an acceptable dinner companion in the upper-class art-collecting society of New York.” Solomon Guggenheim’s wife Irene in particular befriended Rebay, bought her paintings, sought her advice on the works of other artists, and advised her on her career.
In 1928, after a visit to Europe, Rebay painted a full-length portrait of Solomon Guggenheim wearing plus fours and looking directly out from the canvas. The portrait is conservative, tight, stylized, even awkward, displaying no hint of Rebay’s beloved modernist passions. Guggenheim was charmed by the artistic and vivacious young European noblewoman and encouraged Irene and Hilla to organize for the threesome a European tour, during which Hilla advised the Guggenheims on the purchase of new art.
By this time, Rebay had begun to use her Carnegie Hall studio as a place for the display of the advanced art of Europe. Over the years, guests there were introduced to new work and encouraged, in degrees of persuasion ranging from subtle innuendo to verbal bludgeoning, to collect modern art. Thus, Rebay took up the banner for a good cause. She was furthermore delighted by the interest she attracted to herself and to the art she passionately advocated. She was indeed “living exclusively for art.”
The modern art Rebay devoted herself to was “non-objective,” which she distinguished meticulously from “abstract.” Abstract art, she argued, evinces natural or biomorphic suggestions, while non-objective works derive from or refer to no subject whatsoever. In an essay entitled “Definition of Non-Objective Painting,” 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.”
Rebay’s greatest contribution to the cause of non-objective art, of course, was her influence on the Guggenheim collection. During the early years of building the collection, she often relied heavily on Rudolf Bauer’s judgment and assistance in locating and purchasing works of art. For his part, he continued to receive money, now in the form of stipends from Solomon Guggenheim. Rebay persuaded Guggenheim of Bauer’s genius and encouraged the inclusion of his work in the collection.
By 1930, Guggenheim had begun to dream, with Rebay, of the building of a “Temple of Non-Objectivity.” Rebay, bedazzled by the dream, sought ideas and approval from artists, collectors, and dealers in the United States and Europe. Along the way, she became friendly with Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian, Léger, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Kandinsky, and—even though his work did not meet the criteria of non-objectivism—Chagall.
Throughout the Depression, Rebay financially assisted many artists by purchasing their work or by giving them outright gifts. By 1937, when Solomon Guggenheim established the Guggenheim Foundation, he was as determined as Rebay to support artists, as well as to realize the “Temple of Non-Objective Art.” According to Lukach, the Foundation provided Rebay with “around $2000 a year, which she divided among a great many artists in the form of funds for art supplies.” Guggenheim, pleased with Rebay’s performance as adviser and curator of the collection, which together they planned and exhibited, rewarded her well, enabling her to live easily and elegantly. Lukach notes that by 1938 “ Hilla Rebay was no longer simply a charming artist who lived in a chic one-room studio, advising wealthy patrons about art. She had become a person of consequence, the curator of an important art collection, and the owner of a substantial suburban home.”
By 1938, too, Rebay had become outspoken in her opposition to Hitler. She remarked to Bauer that “without Jews, culture would soon go to the devil” and to everyone who knew her she vociferously attacked German politics. Indeed, through careful and diplomatic manipulation Rebay saved from destruction a body of modern art that the Nazi government had labeled decadent. Ironically, her German origins and German ways made her suspect to Americans. During the Second World War, she was subjected to considerable bureaucratic harassment, including, at one point, being forbidden to leave Connecticut until she had cleared herself of charges of hoarding.
Rebay’s interest, energy, good breeding, and spontaneous kindnesses made her an extraordinary companion, an unusually attractive woman. By this time in her life, however, she had made many enemies. Whatever her initial appeal, it was offset by her bad temper and saw-edged tongue, her overbearing opinions and black moods. As the years passed, her darker side overshadowed her devotion to art, her keen intelligence, her natural generosity. She became, in the eyes of many people in the art world, an eccentric pill. She squabbled and fussed, wrote abstruse and doctrinaire criticism about art-as-spirituality, and became increasingly strident in her insistence on the primacy of non-objective art. At the very least, Rebay built between herself and the world a wall of quirks and spikey responses. It is one of the faults of Lukach’s biography that the good works and the woman remain mostly behind that wall.
After years of anxiety and fear for the future of the collection and for non-objective art itself, Rebay’s physical and mental health began to decline, and Guggenheim noticed. When he learned early in 1949 that he had cancer, he added a letter to his will:
After Guggenheim’s death, however, the Foundation came under the influence of other members of his family. In 1952, Rebay “relinquished her position as director of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, although she continued to serve as a trustee. Late that same year, James Johnson Sweeney, whom she had known since the early 1930s, was chosen as her successor.” Nevertheless, Rebay played a crucial role in the designing of the museum building. She worked tirelessly with Frank Lloyd Wright to bring into existence a building she believed to be worthy of the Guggenheim collection and of the religion of non-objectivism. Even Wright, who possessed opinions as strong as Rebay’s own, acknowledged her contributions to the design of the museum. Lukach reports:
When the new building was completed in 1959 Rebay was disheartened and outraged, not by the building itself, which she had praised to Wright before his death, but by the museum’s Inaugural Exhibition, which she had been anticipating for three decades. True, it included artists whose work she had collected: Albers, Bonnard, Calder, Chagall, Delaunay, Feiniger, Gleizes, Gris, Herbin Kandinsky, Klee, Léger, Marc, Metzinger, Modigliani, Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian, Nicholson, Pevsner, Picasso, Rousseau, Schwitters, Seurat, and Viera da Silva. Then there were artists whom she might have at least been interested in acquiring, but did not: Cézanne, Goncharova, Larinov, Male-vich, and Vasarely. However, the rest were artists whose work she had known and rejected, or in which she could not have been at all interested, including Arp, Brancusi, Braque, Stuart Davis, Dubuffet, Ernst, Gottlieb, Kline, de Kooning, Lipchttz, Maillol, Miro, Pollock, Soulages, and Villon.
Moreover, Sweeney had arranged the works according to his sense of their dynamic interrelation, without slavish attention to chronology and its troubling suggestion of progression or destiny. In her own plans, Rebay would have installed the collection to reveal—if not preach—precisely that progression toward ultimate spirituality, toward purity and absolutism. Nonetheless, she stood honored by the selection of works: her great contribution to the museum’s permanent collection was made generously apparent by Sweeney.
Thereafter, Rebay travelled, collected art for herself, lectured, and supported artists whose views she found sympathetic. But she was far from happy. In her last years, she increasingly felt herself abandoned and betrayed on all fronts, her influence obliterated. And she felt old and alone. (Bauer had died in 1953.) She began to consider ways in which she could ensure for posterity her beliefs and achievements. She turned naturally to her collection and to thoughts of establishing her own museum at her home in Connecticut. Five years before her death, she began to plan the Hilla von Rebay Foundation, which was to “foster, promote, and encourage the interest of the public in non-objective art.”
By the time Rebay died, she was an acknowledged “eye” in the recognition of non-objective art, but in almost all else she was regarded as a spoiled and arrogant screwball. It was said that she had been first Solomon Guggenheim’s mistress and only second his adviser in collecting art. In Lukach’s summing up, she addresses this last speculation with characteristic judiciousness and circumspection:
Hilla Rebay, with all her shortcomings, was devoted to human artistic expression. She had a positive outlook and a firm belief in the improving powers of art. She dedicated her life and her considerable energy to caring not only for the art objects she collected, but for many of the artists as well. Like any evangelist she was determined that others—many others— should come to share her dedication. Her conviction could be contagious, and among her converts to the cause of non-objective art was her patron, Solomon Guggenheim. What began for the nearly retired multimillionaire as an intriguing diversion became the avocation of his last years. Was it a love affair? Many wish to know. There are no documents to suggest that it was .... Whatever the secret depth of their affection might have been, if it was expressed on paper, such letters have not been discovered. Their relationship may be considered a love affair of a different sort, an unlikely union between two very different characters who had in common their genuine devotion to the art in the collection they created together, which produced for posterity an outstanding and flourishing museum.
Like this passage, Lukach’s book is fairly if not vibrantly written, and it is appreciative without searching out hidden truths. It is a solid piece of work that puts in view some of the players and some of the issues of our century, but in the end Hilla Rebay’s cloister remains unstormed and her essence—made manifest in her drives and energies, her self centeredness, her passion for absolutes, her destructive love—is glimpsed only fleetingly rather than grasped.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 October 1984, on page 76
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