The Baroness and the Guggenheim
Without her, there would be no Guggenheim Museum as we know it. Along with
the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the artist and curator Baroness Hilla
von Rebay planned the building for the Guggenheim collection in New York.
She was passionate and contentious, an iridescent figure who indefatigably
fought for non-objective art. Long forgotten, the first director of the
Guggenheim Museum is now being honored with a comprehensive exhibition.
Sponsort by Deutsche Bank the show has been organized in collaboration
with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Museum Villa Stuck, Munich and
the Schlossmuseum Murnau. Cheryl Kaplan met two of the curators in
Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker and Karole Vail, Curators of
"Art of Tomorrow: Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim"
By the time
Hilla Rebay set sail for America in 1927 on the President Wilson,
she had already been painting seriously for 18 years. Born in 1890 in
Strasbourg, Rebay, known as Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen, actually
came from a family of lesser nobility. Nonetheless, what she brings with
her from Europe, and more specifically from
Hans Arp and
Vasily Kandinsky, is an unwavering belief in
non-objective art, that is art without representational links to the
material world. This belief is soon to be transferred to
Solomon R. Guggenheim, whom Rebay meets shortly after her arrival, along
with Guggenheim’s wife Irene. It is Irene Guggenheim who first acquires
Rebay’s work, a painting and collage seen at the Galleries of Marie
Sterner in New York. It is during this time that Rebay gives painting
lessons to a very young
Louise Nevelson and meets
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
Hilla von Rebay, ca. 1928, in front of one of her Collages,
Rebay-Archiv Wessling, © 2005 The Hilla von Rebay Foundation
Seemingly assimilated into the New World, Rebay however, has far from
abandoned the Old World, where the artist
Rudolf Bauer, introduced to her by Arp in 1917 at Galerie
Der Sturm, will remain a haunting and elusive romantic figure through
much of her life. Rebay’s earlier emotional ties to Arp are, however,
quickly discarded by her, though Arp is genuinely supportive and uniquely
instructive to her as an artist. Despite Bauer’s continued and often harsh
disregard for her, Hilla manages to not only hang onto him, but
relentlessly promotes his work to Solomon. It is through Solomon’s
generosity that Bauer gains a consulting contract, buying works of art for
him in Europe as well as advising the patron’s growing collection. Bauer,
turns out to have a keen eye and important access to works Hilla would
otherwise did not have. It is thanks to her that Bauer’s work is soon
unabashedly acquired into the Guggenheim collection, often en masse.
Summer of 1945: Solomon R. Guggenheim
and Frank Lloyd Wright
with Hilla Rebay in front
of the model for the new Museum (AP Photo), © 2005 The Hilla von Rebay
The timeline between 1929, when Bauer establishes his
private gallery-museum, Das Geistreich, in Berlin, again thanks to
the support from Solomon, and 1930 when Rebay talks to Bauer about her own
ideas for a museum to house Guggenheim’s collection, is useful to note. It
sets the stage for Hilla’s bold and determined plan that finally emerges
full force in 1939 when along with Solomon Guggenheim’s vision, the
Museum of Non-Objective Painting opens in a former automobile showroom at
24 East Fifty-fourth Street in Manhattan. Rebay becomes the museum’s first
curator. The process of transforming this early version into the
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum was inimitably engineered by artist and
instigator Hilla Rebay who was nearly unstoppable. (Read an detailed
interview, conducted in 1966, with Hilla Rebay
Art of Tomorrow: Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim is curated by
Karole Vail, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, and Brigitte Salmen. The exhibition
has been organized in collaboration with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum,
the Museum Villa Stuck
, Munich and the
Schlossmuseum Murnau. After the premiere in New York and subsequent
showings in Munich and Murnau, the exhibition will also be seen at the
Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin.
Hilla Rebay, Collage on Paper,
How did Hilla Rebay get caught in the cross-fire of being a painter, a
curator, an entrepreneur and a champion of non-objective art?
KAROLE VAIL: She certainly wore many hats. She trained as an artist, which is
quite unusual for a director and curator of a museum.
BIRNIE DANZKER: She brought her experience from Europe to America as part
of an avant-garde that took roles beyond the production of art.
Did her desire to be an artist and curator start early?
don't think it started early because there weren’t many models for it.
Looking at Munich in 1910, where she was, there was also the
Blue Rider and later Der Sturm — the first groups where artists
publish and curate. The artist Rudolf Bauer set up his own gallery. Hilla
is unique, acquiring art and later working with Solomon R. Guggenheim for
the collection. She came to the museum with an artist’s eye.