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Hilla Rebay – An Artist is Rediscovered


For many years, Hilla Rebay was forgotten. Now, however, the Guggenheim Museum is finally paying tribute to this unique artist and first director of the Guggenheim with a comprehensive exhibition titled “Art of Tomorrow.” The show on the pioneer of non-objective art at New York’s Guggenheim Museum is being sponsored by Deutsche Bank. Cheryl Kaplan on the exhibition.



Collage, no date
Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Photo Courtesy of Cheryl Kaplan,
©Cheryl Kaplan 2005. All rights reserved.


Unlike her contemporaries, the painters Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky’s partner, and Sonya Delaunay, Robert Delaunay’s wife – Hilla Rebay has had little visibility as an artist until now. In Sigrid Faltin’s 2004 film The Guggenheim and the Baroness: The Story of Hilla Rebay, the contemporary artist Jack Youngerman comments that “Hilla’s name had been erased.” Rebay was supportive of both Youngerman and Ellsworth Kelly in her later years. Even Alexander Lieberman’s famous book, The Artist in His Studio, which contains images of several female and mostly well-known male artists from 1959 and earlier, didn’t include Rebay. But a major exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York titled Art of Tomorrow: Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim and sponsored by Deutsche Bank, is about to change Rebay’s history. The exhibition is curated by Karole Vail, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, and Brigitte Salmen, organized in collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum Villa Stuck, Munich, and the Schlossmuseum Murnau.


Gray in Gray, 1939
Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Photo Courtesy of Cheryl Kaplan,
©Cheryl Kaplan 2005. All rights reserved.


Between 1927, when Rebay arrived in America from Europe, and her death in 1967 at age 77, Hilla Rebay returned to Europe countless times, meeting with artists, who, like herself, were part of a small but growing group interested in non-objective art or art not linked to representation. Considering Rebay’s rather large and influential network of friends and colleagues, including both non-objective and other artists such as Vassily Kandinsky, Hans (Jean) Arp, Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, and Rudolf Bauer, it is almost hard to imagine that her own visual work hadn’t gained wider public attention.

This, despite the fact that Rebay regularly and "shamelessly" put many of her paintings in exhibitions she curated. In addition to her art, Rebay played a critical part in establishing both the early and later versions of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and was the museum’s first director and curator.


Leniency (Tarantele), 1947
Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Portico N.Y., Inc.
Photo Courtesy of Cheryl Kaplan,
©Cheryl Kaplan 2005. All rights reserved.

As an artist, Rebay began her training in 1909 at the Académie Julian in Paris, where she studied portraiture. As her work developed, and especially during her early years in New York, she faced an increasing financial pressure to support herself, despite the veneer of wealth. While she inherited the title of Baroness, Rebay was, in fact, of lesser nobility. Her parents, and specifically her father, encouraged her art even as their finances dwindled. Rebay’s highly intuitive instincts and strong-mindedness navigated her life. Her training in portraiture gave her entrance into the world of illustration as well as private commissions, allowing her to make a living in New York. Rebay soon found an apartment just above Carnegie Hall where every so often she secretly sat in the upper balconies, having access to a special back door. There, she sketched the musicians with fervor. But it was as a young woman in Paris that her spiritual side evolved as she mingled with Theosophist artists and writers and gained a nearly unshakeable devotion to non-objective art; she believed it to be a form of world salvation.


Rondo, ca. 1943
Courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Photo Courtesy of Cheryl Kaplan,
©Cheryl Kaplan 2005. All rights reserved.

Rebay’s trajectory from her early childhood in Strasbourg, Germany (now France) to her later years in America is marked by three important relationships that run parallel and sometimes explain her divergent paths in the visual world. The first occurs in 1915 when she travels to Zurich and meets Hans (Jean) Arp; the second when she meets the artist Rudolf Bauer in 1917 through Arp at the gallery Der Sturm; and the third when she meets Irene and Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York around 1927 and accepts a commission to do Solomon’s portrait in 1928.

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