The Forgotten Baroness. The co-founder of the Guggenheim Museum is being rediscovered. By Eric T. Hansen
Of all the artists and art-lovers responsible for bringing modern art to America in the first half of the last century, one of the most important is also one of the least known: Hilla Rebay.
In New York they made fun of her.
"She wore these big ridiculous hats and she talked to everyone as if she were a general and they were foot soldiers," said German documentary filmmaker Sigrid Faltin. "She was a woman and a German and she stood for non-objective art and she was eccentric. Those were a lot of minuses in New York in her day."
Not a very flattering description of Rebay, who will be the focus of a major exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum from May 20 to August 10. Some 140 of Rebay's paintings, drawings and collages will be displayed. But all that pales in comparison to her most important contribution to modern art: She was the inspiration, the artistic intellect and the motor behind the founding of the Guggenheim Museum.
Hildegard Anna Augusta Elisabeth Rebay von Ehrenwiesen was born in Strasbourg, then a part of Germany, in 1890. The family was aristocratic and she was officially a baroness, but in name only. Her father was a career officer in the Prussian army. Perhaps that is where she got the lifelong habit of treating people as if she were their commanding officer.
Her love of modern art took a long time coming. She studied classical painting at the Académie Julian in Paris, and for the first part of her life, she earned her living as a portrait painter. Modern art was exploding all around her, but she didn't seem to notice.
She even lived in Munich when Vasily Kandinsky founded his "Blaue Reiter" group shortly before World War I, but was oblivious to it. After the war broke out, she moved to Zurich, where she met and fell in love with Dadaist Hans (Jean) Arp. That changed everything. Arp introduced her to Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Franz Marc and others. She discovered a whole different world.
Soon she was painting non-objective art and living the Bohemian life. "She had two faces, like a Picasso head," said Faltin, whose documentary on Rebay's life, "The Guggenheim and the Baroness," will be shown during the exhibition.
On the one hand, she was a general's daughter; on the other, she was a "superwoman," as Frank Lloyd Wright later called her, and tended towards the Bohemian lifestyle and the avant-garde. In World War I, she went through a metamorphosis. In the beginning she was a nationalist like her father, but in Zurich, she came into contact with pacifists and became critical of the war. That shocked her parents. They accused her of becoming a communist.
After the war, Rebay was still struggling as an artist when someone told her there was good money to be made as a portrait painter in New York. "When she got there, she was bitterly disappointed," said Rebay. "America was no modern art Mecca. But she quickly got over that. She always said she arrived in New York with $5 in her pocket."
One reason she got over it was because she serendipitously met Solomon R. Guggenheim, one of the four surviving sons of the copper magnate, only a year later in 1928. Everything about Guggenheim's relationship to Rebay is odd. He knew little about art and, according to Faltin, didn't like German women. But something about Hilla attracted him. After flirting with her at a dinner party, he paid her $9000 to paint his portrait, and a slightly mysterious lifelong relationship began.
"Everyone asks if they were lovers," admitted Faltin. "The only thing we really know is what a Guggenheim grandson said: 'She was his confidante.' "
Guggenheim was 67, retired and bored. Rebay was young and eccentric. And she had a mission: art.
She talked Guggenheim into buying art from all her European friends: Kandinsky, Arp, Klee and others, especially the non-objective painters like László Moholy-Nagy and Albert Gleizes. Under her direction, Guggenheim bought more than 150 works from Kandinsky.
"Hilla was very important for introducing Kandinsky to America and she was very important for introducing non-objective art to America," said Faltin. "She always said she didn't stand for abstraction, she stood for non-objective art. Abstraction has an object, but it's abstracted. Non-objective art doesn't have an object at all."
Standing in front of Rebay's paintings is like standing in front of an open door leading to a jungle of shifting shapes and vibrating colors, or staring into a swirling vortex of slightly twisted geometric forms. A lot of art - and a few artists - of the period would have been lost if not for Rebay.
"In the '20s, German museums were in the forefront of modern art," said Faltin. "But when the Nazis took power, all those paintings went into the cellars or were sold cheap to New York, which is what saved them. During World War II, Hilla helped a lot of people. She invited Hans Richter to New York, and that saved him. She saved other artists, too. She got Guggenheim to buy their paintings to keep them above water."
As the collection grew, Guggenheim put her in charge of creating a museum to house it. Their Museum of Non-Objective Painting, as it was first named, was housed in various showrooms until Rebay hired architect Frank Lloyd Wright to create the then-controversial building now known as the Guggenheim Museum.
With Guggenheim at her side, things were going well for her, perhaps too well. She couldn't resist importing her biggest problem from Europe. His name was Rudolf Bauer. Bauer was a non-objective painter who Rebay had fallen in love with in Berlin, and with whom she maintained a difficult, on and off again relationship ever since. "She felt that he was the Johann Sebastian Bach of painting," said Faltin. "She was the only one who felt that way. She marketed him. When she found Guggenheim, she told him Bauer was the biggest genius ever, and got him to buy his work. The original Guggenheim collection was about 60 percent Bauer. The other 40 percent were the paintings that made Guggenheim famous."
Guggenheim and Rebay spoiled Bauer, who lived large in Berlin while many of his fellow artists were barely surviving in exile. When he ran amuck of the Gestapo at the height of the Third Reich, Rebay bought his freedom and took him to New York. "They were completely dependent on each other now," said Faltin, "though they no longer had a relationship." He thought he could do everything better than her, but in fact he was dependent on her. Guggenheim created a trust for him and bought him a villa and three cars and whatever else he needed, and Bauer still thought he needed more. At some point, Guggenheim said, 'That's enough,' and Bauer began intriguing against her."
Bauer wanted to become director of the new museum. With his housekeeper, with whom he had a romance, he began spreading rumors that Rebay was a Nazi spy and an anti-Semite. The FBI searched her house in Connecticut and found piles of coffee, tea and sugar, in blatant violation of wartime anti-hoarding laws. She rather feebly explained that it was important for her to be able to entertain guests, but that convinced no one, and she was placed under house arrest.
It didn't end there.
"Hilla had a bad habit," said Faltin. "She liked sending around insulting letters." After the war, she sent a particularly nasty one - in German - to Bauer's housekeeper. The housekeeper, Luise, sued Rebay for slander, claiming she had been called a "whore" in the letter and in public.
"It was in all the newspapers," said Faltin. "Fortunately, she had the best lawyers Guggenheim could buy."
It all came down to whether certain German words translated into "whore" or not. Guggenheim's lawyers saw to it that the difficult linguistic problem was solved to Hilla's advantage. Rebay won the trial, but lost the war.
"When Bauer married Luise, Hilla never saw him again. He kept getting money from Guggenheim's trust, but he stopped painting. He was destroyed too."
When Guggenheim died, Rebay found out just how unloved she was. The New York art community hated her because she had sent so much money to their European competitors. "American artists called abstract art 'Ellis Island' art," said Faltin. "They were a lot like some Europeans are now, who complain that everything is being Americanized. Back then, the American artists said, 'We're being Europeanized.' They wanted to be recognized too, they wanted to sell their art, too, but the big collectors were sending their money to Europe. Hilla was a symbol of that, and they went against her, and the press went after her too."
Guggenheim's family didn't like her either. A few years after his death in 1949, long before the Frank Lloyd Wright building was completed, the family got rid of Rebay. "For them, she was just taking money out of his pockets," said Faltin. "She was quickly a persona non grata. And to be honest, she never made it easy for people. She was hard on people. Guggenheim took it. She must have had an incredibly tight personal relationship with him. It was incredible, the way he supported her."
When the Frank Lloyd Wright building finally opened in 1959, Rebay was not invited to the event. But years before that, when it was still a model, Wright had already written her a letter that is still the best homage to the difficult art visionary:
"Dear Hilla, Mr. Guggenheim can never find a better or more faithful Curator than you are. This whole building has been built for you and around you whether you know it or not. Or whether he knows it or not."
- Eric T. Hansen is an American journalist living in Berlin.