Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern
By Anna Leung
Surrounded in this exhibition by Sonia Delaunay’s multi-colour swirls of transparent colour I think back to the Impressionism exhibition, Inventing Impressionism and how differently she used colour, no longer atmospherically but blatantly decoratively. It reminds us that in the first decades of the twentieth century when abstraction had not yet reached its zenith, decorativeness was not yet a sin, at least not in France. Far from it: Paris, under threat from the Munich designers, was determined to keep up its reputation as the capital of luxury consumption, and it was Sonia’s skill and business acumen that were to demonstrate that it could do so, especially once she teamed up with Diaghilev, a fellow countryman – modernism was this sort of commingling of internationalism with nationalism. Orphism, with its use of simultaneous contrasts of colour, proved to be eminently adaptable. The brainchild of the poet Apollinaire, Orphism was the name given to the Delaunays’ cubist like paintings that were essentially a synthesis of Cezanne’s structural use of colour and Fauvism’s primitivism, but which given an extra populist inflection through their admiration for the outsider artist douanier Rousseau. By responding to Rousseau’s small town, artisanal provincial culture they retained a degree of independence from the dominant culture of Cubism vested in Braque and Picasso, avoiding its banning of colour, its emphasis on theory and its self-reflexive insistence on the autonomy of modernist art. Whatever Sonia may have said about her husband’s tendency to theorise, Robert insisted that he tended to regard theory as a potential danger to the artist. On the other hand, he claimed to have a high regard for the artist’s ‘metier’; furthermore, he understood this concept as manual, non-bourgeois and anti-intellectual.
When first meeting Sonia it is likely that Robert was still considering various options, one of which looked back to Seurat’s luminosity but via Cezanne’s late watercolours, characterised as they are by a strong structure and an intensification of colour passages despite the absence of contour lines. This overlapped with Chevreul’s colour theories that were to become the focus of Sonia and Robert Delaunay’s aesthetic of simultaneity, and such was their shared synergy that, in some cases, it has been difficult to tell them apart. But as we see from Sonia’s early work her portraits and nudes are marked by a strong expressionist heightening of non-naturalistic colour and form that may have influenced Robert who exhibited with Kandinsky’s Blaue Reiter in 1911, one year after his marriage to Sonia, and again in 1913. It was during this period that she stopped painting and began to concentrate on applying her simultaneous compositions to the applied arts, creating book covers, lampshades, curtains and cushions’ Notable among these was an appliqued quilt for her young son Charles which, though heralded as her first abstract work, was initially relegated to the category of craft rather than art despite her claiming equivalent creative status for these decorative items. We do not know whether her husband encouraged her in this direction which would have been in his interest since it complied with the notion that only men were possessed of the genius to produce masterpieces. The applied arts were designated as the lower arts to be cultivated by women, despite the fact that modernism’s inspirational origins were derived from Ornamentalism and primitive folk art. In short women, especially under Modernism, were not credited with the creative ability to liberate painting from its narrative signifying function and pursue pure abstraction. Both artists, however, used the word ‘craft’ to describe their respective art practices while at the same time making the study of light as a unifying force among contrasting colours the focus of their work, e.g. Sonia’s Electric Prisms based on studies of electric lighting on Boulevard Saint Michel and Robert’s Series of abstract compositions, Windows, Discs and Circular Forms.
It is partly for these reasons that for many years Mme Terk Delaunay as she is acknowledged on the title page of Blaise Cendrars’ prose poem, or rather prose picture, La Prose du Trans-siberian de la petite Jehanne de France was little more than a footnote to her husband Robert’s career. And this despite the fact that he died in 1941 whilst Mme Delaunay continued to invest her many talents in a rich and rewarding career in the fine as well as the applied arts. By the early 80’s, she had enjoyed fifty solo exhibitions. Even though for a major part of her life her artistic creativity had been channelled into to the decorative arts, Sonia Delaunay strongly believed that she shared an aesthetic vision with her husband, noting in her autobiography of 1978: ‘In my most recent research, I have had the feeling of being very close to touching what Robert had felt and what was the solar source of his work.’ Solar is an apposite choice of word given the cosmic dimensions both artists aimed to reveal or suggest.
What was it that made their respective aesthetic visions so close? Born in the same year, 1885, they came from very different backgrounds. Sarah Ilinitsh Stern was born into a working class Jewish family in the Ukraine. Her father was an overseer in a nail factory, but her maternal uncle, Henri Terk, was a wealthy lawyer in St Petersburg whose wife, unable to have children of her own, was glad to provide a comfortable and cultured home for her husband’s five year old niece – a not uncommon solution in hard times - who was from then on known as Sofia. Henri Terk ensured she had a good progressive education and introduced her to the arts. Noting a predisposition towards the visual arts he sent her to Karlsruhe’s Art Academy in Germany and then to Paris two years later in 1906. This was a pivotal year for modern art in Paris with the opening of Cezanne’s retrospective and the first Fauvist exhibition. In 1909 Sonia accepted an offer of marriage from the German gallerist and collector William Uhde. This was not a romantic attachment but a marriage of convenience on both sides, a means of masking homosexuality on his and a means of placating her adoptive family on hers. It was in his gallery that she met Robert Delaunay and discovered that they had much in common and a year later was amicably divorced and free to remarry.
In this artist’s ménage it was Robert who was the autodidact and lacked a formal art education despite his wealthy aristocratic background. He was, however, from a young age familiar with avant garde circles through his aristocratic mother, the Countess Berthe Felicie de Rose, who enjoyed an unconventional and peripatetic life style. Rather than being sent to the Beaux Arts or one of the many private studios, Robert was instead apprenticed to a studio making theatrical sets in the working class area of Belleville in the banlieu of Paris. Notwithstanding two years later he was exhibiting his canvases at the Salon des Independents. Both artists then were outsiders and eager to prove themselves as well as retain their independence. Both were well placed to celebrate the dynamic of the new urban landscape and the multi-faceted rhythms of everyday life within a cubist derived abstract style that depended on colour contrasts and was marked by strong centripetal centrifugal movements while retaining some figurative elements. Certainly this circular inclination was not exclusive to Orphism and can, as is the case of many of their contemporaries (Kupka, Duchamps), be traced back to Bergson’s philosophy which had proved itself to be so popular in Paris after the publication of his Creative Evolution in 1909 in which he imagined ‘the universe made up of centres of energy’ sending out lines of force that he likened to ‘an immense wave which starting from its centre, spreads outwards and which on almost the whole of its circumference is stopped and converted into oscillations'.
The Delaunays belonged to this futurist moment, a period of seemingly unstoppable expansion, exhilaration and aggression that was also a foreboding of the Great War but which, perhaps more than any other time, represented a coming together of avant-garde aesthetics, radical politics and popular consumer culture. Like the Italian Futurists, their paintings fully engage with the modern collective experience but minus the Italian Futurists’ misogyny and rhetorical hyperbole. Whilst concerned with chromatism and the laws of simultaneous colour as explained by the chemist Chevreul in his 1839 treatise on complimentary and contrasting colours, the paintings of both Sonia and Robert targeted two types of audiences. The smaller paintings, which were to become increasingly abstract, were exhibited at numerous small avant garde galleries around Europe, and much larger canvases that featured topical events such as Bleriot’s flight across the Channel and Sonia’s Bal Bullier were exhibited at the jury free Salon des Independents. Though sensible to the movement towards pure painting through the dynamic counterpoint of complementary colours their paintings did not reject figuration but, embracing the city as a metaphor of modernity, were part of the beginning of a movement to break down the boundaries between art and life. Sonia’s move first to the applied arts and then to the commercial sector can be viewed, not as an abdication of her creativity, but as a means to expand her entrepreneurial practice and express her enthusiasm for modernity by embracing a new collective urban consciousness that was shared by the Futurists in Russia as well as in Italy. In effect though continuing to paint she no longer exhibited publically and this suggests that she purposefully held herself back in order to further her husband’s career.
Sonia’s collaboration with Blaise Cendrars (originally Frederick Sauser) was one such example of breaking down the barriers between art and life. The prose poem La Prose du Transsiberien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, 1913, tells of a train journey from Moscow to the Sea of Japan and was to be published in an edition of one hundred and fifty copies which, if stretched up one above the other, would have reached the top of the Eiffel Tower. With the text printed on one side in different fonts and interspersed with blocks of pastel colours and Sonia’s vocabulary of arcs and circles, her ‘couleurs simultanes’ on the other, text and image were meant to be taken in simultaneously and the whole thing performed on stage as an event or as we would say, a happening. A similar bid to bring modernism to a popular or mass audience , and once again encouraged by Apollinaire who extolled the role of ads as the new poetry of everyday life, was Sonia’s series of posters for Dubonnet and Zenith watches - though commercial success was not forthcoming – and her wearable art pieces, dresses functioning as dress-poems. The elevation of craft and the decorative arts to the status of the fine arts was nothing new in France and had characterised the whole thrust of Art Nouveau at the turn of the century when France had felt threatened by the success of German design. This scenario was to be repeated in the interwar period when France was desperate to demonstrate its supremacy over the Germans through Art Deco, and Sonia’s dress designs, textiles and book covers stood at the forefront of this cultural battle.
Ironically since the elitism it represented was in direct opposition to the populism the Delaunays stood for, it was nevertheless through the Ballets Russes that Sonia found the means to reach a larger audience. The outbreak of the Great War had found the Delaunays in Northern Spain. They decided not to return to France and ended up spending seven years in the Iberian Peninsula. Their financial situation was at first tolerable but became ever more acute with the onset of the Russian Revolution which meant that the source of Sonia’s allowance came to an abrupt halt. She therefore decided to concentrate her energies on the decorative and applied arts and began to search for commercial outlets for her designs. Diaghilev, whom she met in 1917 in Madrid, commissioned her to design the sets and costumes of his production of Cléopatre in 1918 in Paris. This was followed by her designing costumes for the Barcelona Opera’s production of Aïda, which lead in turn to orders from wealthy Spanish women, and with Diaghilev’s financial help, the opening in 1919 of her own boutique in Madrid, ‘Casa Sonia’, which specialised in her own ‘simultaneous’ dresses and fashion and home accessories. The Delaunays returned to Paris in 1921, though somewhat under a cloud since Robert was accused of being a deserter, but eventually the demand for Sonia’s dresses and textile designs was so great she began to employ a team of Russian women to manufacture her products. By 1925 she had established her own fashion houses in France and the United States and her name had become synonymous with the ‘modern style’. In 1925 her ‘Boutique Simultane’ with its plate glass windows and kinetic display of Sonia’s textiles invented by Robert proved to be one of the leading attractions at the International Exhibition in a Paris transformed into la Ville Lumiere. Her designs were ubiquitous and extended to the decoration of a Citroën car as well as fabric patterns. It was only with the Wall Street Crash in 1929 that this source of income came to a halt and she was able to reveal how much being in the business world went against her creative nature, going so far as to admit: ‘all of it devoured me.’ And this surely comes as no surprise given that she was at the centre of a dadaist group of writers and artists during the twenties and had counted amongst her friends the poets André Breton, Philippe Soupault and Tristan Tzara for whom she produced dress and door poems. In 1923 she was involved in designing the costumes for Tzara’s theatrical piece The Gas Heart that featured characters such as Nose and Mouth, and in 1926 designed the costumes and sets for a film serial called Le P’tit Parigot by Rene le Somptier. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was a catalyst for change in Delaunay’s career. Though accepting some commissions she closed her business and returned to her painting practice, joining the geometric abstraction based group called Abstraction-Creation in 1931 and taking on a leading role with her husband in the organisation of the exhibition Realités Nouvelles in 1939.
Sonia’s willingness to take on the burden of supporting the family despite the personal cost to her own creativity had not resulted in helping Robert further develop his artistic practice as she might originally have thought. On the contrary he seems to have suffered from artist’s block. His career entered into decline and he was forced to resort to society portraiture where abstraction was only referred to through his use of Sonia’s geometrically patterned scarves and other garments worn by the sitters. Sadly, in the last decades of his life - he died in 1941 of cancer - he produced very little, while his wife, after taking on a retrospective of his work in 1946 and organising his catalogue raisonné, eventually returned to painting with unabated enthusiasm and in an even stronger abstract idiom. That she was also able to take on the challenge of public commissions had already been demonstrated through her contribution to the 1937 International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life and her mural for the Palais de l’Air in which her highly detailed technical drawings were enlivened with her characteristically vibrant colour.
Sonia continued to exhibit with various abstract groups, her compositions becoming harder edged and their geometric language more complicated. Yet it was Robert’s paintings that represented Orphism at the Museum of Modern Art’s major exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art and it was not till 1958 that a major retrospective of her work was held in Germany, eventually inaugurating more than fifty solo shows in the years up to the 1980’s. It was only in 1987 that a joint exhibition of the two Delaunays put on as the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. Mme Sonia Delaunay died in Paris at the age of 94 in 1979.
© Anna Leung May 2015
The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern, London, 15 April – 9 August 2015.
Anna Leung is a London-based artist and educator now semi-reitred from teaching at Birkbeck College but taking pccasional information groups to current art exhibitions.
Sonia Delaunay Yellow Nude 1908 Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes © Pracusa 2014
Sonia Delaunay Prismes electriques 1914 Centre Pompidou Collection, Mnam / Cci, Paris © Pracusa 2013057
Sonia Delaunay (right) and two friends in Robert Delaunay’s studio, rue des Grands-Augustins, Paris 1924. Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
Sonia Delaunay Propeller (Air Pavilion) 1937 Skissernas Museum, Lund, Sweden
© Pracusa 2014083 Photo: Emma Krantz
Sonia Delaunay Coat made for Gloria Swanson 1923-24 Private Collection © Pracusa 2014083
Sonia Delaunay Rhythm Colour no. 1076 1939 Centre National des Arts Plastiques/Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Paris, on loan to Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille © Pracusa 2014083
Sonia Delaunay Simultaneous Dresses (The three women) 1925
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © Pracusa 2014083
Sonia Delaunay (1885 - 1979).
Photo courtesy of thechromologist.com.