“beneficial to business men”

“The non-objective picture is far superior to all others in its influential potentiality, educational power, and spiritual value to humanity… It stimulates intuition and trains the acquisition of spiritual balance and order… The contemplation of a non-objective picture offers a complete rest to the mind. It is particularly beneficial to business men, as it carries them away from the tiresome rush of the earth and strengthens their nerves, once they are familiar with this real art. If they lift their eyes to these pictures in a tired moment, their attention will be absorbed in a joyful way, resting their minds from earthly troubles and thoughts.”

—H. Rebay in The Third Enlarged Catalogue of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Collection of Non-objective Paintings (New York, 1938).

Hilla Rebay
Komposition I (1915)
Oil on Canvas

Today, Most Perfect World visited the Berlin Guggenheim’s “Visions of Modernity: Impressionist and Modern Collections from the Guggenheim Foundation.” We were curious to see if we could find a work by Hilla Rebay, the author of the above quote, a painter herself, and the first director and curator of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (opened by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1939 and renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1952).

At the exhibit, we found one of Rebay’s “non-objective” paintings on display—“Komposition I,” a vigorous painting, composed in what struck us as almost garish colors: dark, lustrous greens highlighted by light cadmium yellow and dominated by whirling bands of incandescent reds. The twisting bands of color seemed to originate from an explosion two-thirds of the way down the canvas’s left-hand side. Like wide ribbons-turned-projectile, the strokes of color jettison to the corners where, running up against the edge of the picture frame, they plummet downwards or wrap around and inside the frame following unlikely trajectories whose physical laws are unknown to us. The painting is pocked with mysterious, thick, blueblack ‘O’s or rings, one of which stands out just right-of-center. (Note: Though Rebay in her curatorial activities notably made use of the term “non-objective” art, this painting appears incompletely so, and we find the suggestion of botanical forms and motifs present throughout.)

From a wall text we learned that the partnership between Guggenheim and Rebay began in 1927 when “Guggenheim’s wife Irene Rothschilde commissioned Rebay to paint the retired mining industrialist’s portrait.” According to the story, the sitting quickly opened onto “an impassioned discussion on avant-garde art” and a partnership that re-directed Guggenheim’s collecting patterns “away from old master paintings, the French Barbizon school, and American landscapes” to “‘the art of tomorrow’ and especially nonobjectivity, an art form that aspired to spiritual or utopian goals” (notably, Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Franz Marc, Robert Delaunay).

Today, Rebay’s statement from the Guggenheim Catalogue of Non-objective Paintings sounds either naïve or pandering. We all understand that someone had to promote this art, to sell it, and to a class of people who could afford to invest in it, support it, buy it. And so, too, would Solomon Guggenheim, the “retired mining industrialist,” fall neatly into the category of “business men” for whom the non-objective artwork was “particularly beneficial.” Admittedly, Rebay’s statement strikes us as quaint, but neither do we want to ridicule a woman who was clearly an effective supporter of the arts with pioneering judgement, and perhaps, some very visionary dreams of the future.

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