Guggenheim's Muse The German Artist Who Inspired the Museum Gets Her Due in New Show
German baroness Hilla von Rebay loved adventure, she was an obsessed patron of art, and the long-time girlfriend of one of the United States richest men. Thanks to her, New York has its famous Guggenheim Museum. Now, four decades after her death, von Rebay finally gets the recognition she deserves.
Inside the Guggenheim Museum's famous rotunda: Frank Lloyd Wright says he designed it for German baroness Hilla von Rebay, the museum's co-founder.
Hilla von Rebay's family was infatuated with her, but she was always a bit too uptight for them. The woman herself admitted to being moody now and then. "I live on the highs and lows of life," the baroness wrote in 1909, at the tender age of 19. Those who would meet her after that time would, at best, view her as an unconventional woman who did things her own way.
Von Rebay wanted to become a painter and longed to leave her parents' villa in the Alsatian town of Hagenau, where she was born in 1890. But her plans were a bit too eccentric for her parents' taste. Hilla's father, a Prussian general, was strict. "You are my virtuous daughter, go find a husband, end of story," he said, before adding, "I will not tolerate having any artists in my family."
But neither his strong words nor the fact that women weren't allowed to enroll at art academies at the time overly impressed Hilla von Rebay. She received her education at a private school in Paris, then dove head first into the bohemian lifestyles of Munich, Berlin, and sometimes Paris, before spending time with the Dadaists in Zurich. Along the way, she had numerous affairs. One was with the artist Hans Arp, who warned "dear, dear" Hilla of the plans her family had for her marriage and a mapped-out life.
Hilla had some success with her work. Among other places, she was allowed to exhibit her art at the Berlin-based avant-garde gallery Der Sturm (The Storm).
Before long, it didn't take all that much to please Hilla's father anymore. The man was happy with the little things. For example, he was quite grateful that, despite her lifestyle, Hilla didn't marry the man her father called "that Berlin painter dandy," Rudolf Bauer. The artist, who painted abstract paintings in the style of Wassily Kandinsky and who received financial backing from Hilla, was allowed to call the baroness "baby."
Taking America by storm
In late 1926, Hilla boarded a ship and headed to the United States. In her head and heart, she took along with her the belief that Bauer -- who has been largely forgotten today -- was the greatest genius of his generation and that one could make the world a better place with non-objective art. Hilla wanted "clear things, forms and thoughts ... one day, the majority will be educated in that manner, too," she believed.
Once in New York, things moved at a breathtaking speed for the baroness: Within a few years, she earned the reputation of being one of the most powerful but also most eccentric women in the art world. Before long, Hilla was more of a financial patron and missionary of art than an artist herself. At any rate, though, her advertising push for abstract art was courageous because, in those days, most Americans only got excited about pastel-colored impressionism, but not about pictures without any clear topic or theme. After a while, Hilla suspected she was "too modern for this country."
In the early 1950s, after establishing abstract painting as the most decisive form of contemporary art, Hilla, a zealous advocate of this art form, increasingly moved into the background. As a result, she was soon a forgotten woman.
This spring, however, Hilla von Rebay is being rediscovered, thanks to a biography and an exhibit at the world-famous institution that would not exist today if it hadn't been for the German baroness, New York's Guggenheim Museum. For decades, the museum refused to acknowledge the woman who conceived the idea to create the museum and who served as founding director at the time.
Despite the fan she had in architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who called her a "superwoman" and once even said he "built the museum only for her," Hilla von Rebay had become a persona non grata before the new museum, with its legendary rotunda and Central Park location, opened in 1959.
It was von Rebay who commissioned and inspired Wright when he designed a "temple of non-objectivity and meditation," whose level of quality would "dominantly survive the year 2000." The baroness objected to the building being painted red, and, sure enough, Wright obeyed Hilla. In fact, von Rebay never set foot in the building that has emerged as one of New York's main landmarks.
These days, her nephew, Roland von Rebay, who as a young man received a two-year training from Wright and who then spent some time living between all the Kandinsky, Marc and Picasso paintings his aunt had collected, talks about a "long-lasting antipathy of the Guggenheim family" toward Hilla. But there's another side, too: "My aunt was a difficult person who liked writing nasty letters." Apparently, Hilla could be just as radical as the art that she bought so eagerly in large quantities.
American architect Frank Lloyd Wright holds up a model of his design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Getting her due
In the memorial exhibit, staged in German-American partnership, museum officials finally want to show how qualified "this extremely independent women with all her impressive energy" was as a collector and how talented she was as an artist. It includes some of her abstract oil paintings as well as her figurative collages.
It may be late, but Hilla von Rebay is, at last, being rehabilitated. The New York exhibit will open May 20. In April, a book about the life of the "Queen of Art" will be published in Germany. The book's author, Sigrid Faltin, earlier produced a documentary film on von Rebay. In completing both projects, Faltin drew from sources rarely used previously, including diaries and the baroness's infamous correspondence. Faltin suspects that "only today's generation visiting the Guggenheim Museum can actually see Rebay's positive characteristics."
The German baroness owes her idiosyncratic career to her drive, a few coincidences, and the high-powered, up-tempo times she lived in. In America, all she wanted to be was an artist. She first managed to get to New York with a little bit of money. Then she met Solomon Guggenheim at a dinner. Guggenheim was one of the wealthiest men in the United States at the time. Known as the Copper King, Guggenheim was 67 when he first met Hilla. Married for ages, Guggenheim was only interested in beautiful women and golfing, but certainly not in art. Still, Hilla von Rebay, about 30 years younger than Guggenheim, was allowed to paint a rather traditional portrait of him. She called him "Guggi" and raved about progressive European art. Before long, Guggenheim joined von Rebay on her trips across the Atlantic, where the two shopped for art. Every now and then, Guggenheim's querulous looking wife, Irene, went along.
They visited Paris, Berlin, the Bauhaus in the eastern German city of Dessau, and Hilla's family, which had moved to southern Germany in the meantime. They also met up with numerous constructivists, cubists, so-called orphists, and with young and wild individuals, like Fernand Leger, Robert Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Marc Chagall, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, and Kandinsky. Over the years, they bought 150 artworks from him alone, the pioneer of abstract art, and they acquired even more pieces from the man who loved to emulate Kandinsky, Rudolf Bauer.
News of von Rebay's generosity, of course sponsored by "Guggi," made the rounds quickly in Europe and the United States. Among the young New York artists seeking money and jobs from the baroness were people such as Jackson Pollock, viewed by von Rebay as a painting "cleaning mop." A certain Robert de Niro also inquired, and von Rebay allowed him to stretch canvases for her. De Niro didn't become famous. His son of the same name, however, did, albeit in another line of work.
With each sold painting, the art world's reverence for von Rebay grew, but so did the Guggenheim family's resentment. For most members of the Guggenheim clan, von Rebay was "B," though that didn't stand for "baroness." In this case, it stood for "bitch."
Especially her more thoughtful and caring side was deemed dubious: she had a chauffeur drive her to a date with her companion, "Guggi," bringing her own food, heating it up, and then serving it herself. To this day, it's a secret whether the liaison was of an intimate nature or whether it was merely platonic. One of Guggenheim's biographers called the entrepreneur a sort of King Ludwig and his long-time girlfriend a "female Richard Wagner." A Guggenheim grandchild once said: " She was one of my grandfather's confidants -- and that's a wide field."
Founding the Guggenheim
The odd couple rented an apartment in New York's Plaza Hotel and put on art exhibits there. They also rented a town house in Manhattan in 1939, where they established the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. A few years later, the two started planning for a new building at Central Park that would become the Guggenheim Museum.
The Guggenheim family was well-capable of competing with some of the money-powered dynasties of the 20th century such as the Rockefellers, who also invested in art and had co-founded the Museum of Modern Art. Looking at it from the Guggenheim family's perspective today, that may have been the only advantage of Solomon Guggenheim's late passion for collecting art.
Meanwhile, his companion, the baroness, didn't exactly make friends with her strategic approach to things, as she repeatedly initiated some clumsy interventions in Solomon's business. When Solomon's niece, Peggy Guggenheim, opened an art gallery and wanted to sell one of the paintings to her uncle, von Rebay immediately wrote a letter: "It is extremely tasteless to use the name Guggenheim for commercial purposes at a time when the name is starting to become an ideal in the art world." They didn't want to "help some small store with useful advertising," she added.
Later, Peggy Guggenheim managed to get back at von Rebay by proposing to Solomon's wife that the paintings of "this Mr. Bauer" be burned. The response: Peggy should make sure her uncle didn't hear about that, "he has invested a fortune in them," said the wife.
Essentially, von Rebay only had Bauer on her mind. He was her favorite artist, always and forever. She demanded from everyone, including Kandinsky, that they get excited about "Bauer's wonderful art." After all, she complained, even the German poets Goethe and Schiller had helped and promoted one another. Von Rebay was even proud when Bauer's work was represented as part of the Nazi exhibit "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art) in 1937 beside many other artists she admired. She didn't mind that Bauer was only allowed to display a little drawing at the exhibit. That he was even present there, she said, was good advertising "for a foreigner, it's good that one can see: people know a little bit about you after all."
In this bizarre and twisted German-American relationship with all of its characters, Bauer was, in fact, the one who benefited the most. Guggenheim was a bit surprised, though, that no other collector seemed to be interested in Kandinsky's copy cat, Rudolf Bauer. Only marginally successful as an artist, Bauer worked as a sort of purchaser for years and acquired works by other artists for the Guggenheim collection. All of the sudden, he had tons of money at his disposal, and he spent it on diamonds, golden watches, and tie pins. Bauer then opened an art salon in Berlin and called it his "kingdom of intellect."
Every now and then, Bauer threatened to change teams and work with a new, even more generous patron. Rockefeller was an option, he said. After all, he was a collector, too, Bauer said. Referring to Guggenheim, he added that "it's better not to have to depend on a Jew." But when the Nazis went after him, it was the Jew Guggenheim, of all people, who made Bauer's emigration to the United States possible. Solomon rented a villa for Bauer in New Jersey, including private beach, and he also promised the German a life-long salary.
Bauer was reluctant to move to a country that he called "Guggenheimat," a play on words meaning "Guggenheim's home." After arriving in the United States, Bauer kept complaining and griping, for example, when he didn't receive the handmade luxury vehicle by Duesenberg that he wanted. A few weeks later, the car was ordered after all, and it included the leather interior in viola-blue that Bauer so desperately longed for. Still, he kept accusing Hilla of living it up and living big, and he also called her bigheaded, "as if you had painted all those Kandinskys and Bauers." Hilla should always show "modesty and greatness," "intellect and dignity," Bauer said.
It worked -- at least until Hilla learned about Bauer's love affair with a house employee. Hardly surprising, it was Bauer, spoiled over the years and officially celebrated as the star of the Guggenheim collection, who joined forces with one of Hilla's staffers to hatch a conspiracy against her: He passed a tip to the FBI to go after the German diva. The FBI officials alleged that von Rebay was sending light signals to hostile submarines from her house near the coast. Subsequently, von Rebay was arrested, although Guggenheim, over 80 at the time, made sure she was released soon after.
All that was even more of a reason for von Rebay to make peoples' lives difficult. Fortunately, she still had work left do: boosting Guggenheim's fame, for example, and she was also still pursuing her vision of a non-objective art era. In fact, the baroness helped the European avant-garde of the early 20th century rise to enormous popularity in America. Von Rebay was always ahead of her time, even if the rest of the world viewed her as Guggenheim's hysterical lover.
During World War II, the baroness supported countless European artists by buying their art. She helped her old Berlin friend Hans Richter get out of Europe. The former Dadaist went on to become director of the film institute at the City College New York. Could she have done more? Hilla failed to get the painter Otto Nebel to America, probably in part because the multi-millionaire at her side was suddenly quite tight-fisted and refused to extend a guarantee for the German artist. Still, Nebel was quite grateful for the frequent financial support he received; in return, he sent von Rebay his artworks. Years later, then, the baroness tried to remind her home country how exciting abstract art can be, and in 1947, she put together a moving exhibit called "Non-objective painting."
Guggenheim passed away two years later, and in 1951, many years before the new building at Central Park was unveiled, the Guggenheim heirs forced von Rebay out of her head post at the museum.
Following her death in 1967, one of von Rebay's successors displayed a small selection of her art purchases -- an all-too modest homage to the baroness. Now, some 40 years later, von Rebay and Solomon Guggenheim are even being acknowledged as a team, as the New Yorkers are openly honoring the "extraordinary partnerships" between the couple.
Maybe, at some point, Hilla's favorite all-time artist, Rudolf Bauer, will be viewed in a new light as well. After all, there's still a huge collection of his paintings at the museum's storage depot.
At any rate, Guggenheim Museum's director, Tom Krens, believes that the painter didn't get the proper recognition he deserved, and that probably had to do with the fact that "von Rebay overly praised him while he was still alive."
Translated from the German by Patrick Kessler