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Sonia Delaunay Le Bal Bullier Descriptive Essay

Dispatch from Paris

Sonia Delaunay: Les Couleurs de l’Abstraction at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

October 17, 2014 through February 22, 2015
11 Avenue de Président Wilson
Paris, +33 1 53 67 40 00

Sonia Delaunay, Le Bal Bullier, 1912-13. Oil on canvas, 50.2 x 73 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Musée d’Art Moderne.

A blanket stitched by Sonia Delaunay for her baby Charles in 1911 is the most evocative piece in the exhibition “Les Couleurs de l’Abstraction” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (on display through the 22nd of February and then at the Tate Modern from the 15th of April through the 9th of August). That is not to say that Delaunay’s ferocious output and creativity ended there — it was only the beginning. The blanket, crafted of 70 roughly rectangular and triangular pieces of shimmery cloth, placed in relation to each other based on principles of color resonance and harmony that were an obsession of her husband Robert (he drew his theories from the French chemist and color theorist Michel Eugene Chevreul), stands as an epic transition in the history of early abstraction. It also embodies the pragmatism in her approach to her work: she soon stretched and exhibited the blanket as her first work of pure abstraction. One may surmise she did this once the baby had outgrown his blanket.

Sonia Delaunay, Couverture de Berceau, 1911. Courtesy of the artist and Musée d’Art Moderne.

Delaunay mixed the applied arts with “pure” painting throughout her career. This duality lies at the literal and metaphorical center of the exhibition where a gallery of coats and textiles, and even a promotional film she made in the 1920s, runs on an endless loop. The clothing, furniture and costume design do not have the same vibrancy or theoretical insistence as the paintings. Her striking Manteau pour Gloria Swanson (1925), with radiating rectangular bands, is a dazzling cross between a Russian soldier’s bulky overcoat and early Atari graphics — a bit of Delaunay’s Russian roots with some Aztec thrown in. It lacks the encompassing throbbing exhilaration of Le Bal Bullier of 1913, given pride of place a few rooms earlier.

Posed in counterpoint to the fashion film, which features models lounging in Delaunay fabrics in front of her paintings, is a mighty textile display machine on the opposite wall that the curators have conjured up. Beneath the word “Simultané” four bolts of fabric roll up or down constantly, contrasting the artist’s seemingly endless fountain of design ingenuity. Along the walls are swatches, sketches, kerchiefs and ties reinforcing this point. Unfortunately, it comes across as a bit crass — the same sinking feeling one got on seeing the Louis Vuitton shop placed smack in the center of the 2008 Murakami exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum.

Sonia Delaunay Manteau pour Gloria Swanson, 1923-1924. Courtesy of the collection of Svila Singer and the Musée d’Art Moderne.

But the baby blanket is not crass, and the clothing designs and the costumes for productions by Tristan Tszara and Sergei Diaghilev are full of the colorful and garish enthusiasm of post-WWI experimentation. They are wild deco colonialist interpretations of Ancient Egypt, for the ballets Cleopatra and Aida (1918). Does this interdisciplinary existence make Delaunay a feminist icon because she straddles both the at-the-time male dominated world of painting and the perceived woman’s sphere of sewing and clothing production? Perhaps her claim to icon status, beyond her talent as a painter, should be her very asexual approach to her practice, a personality trait that presaged later art/entrepreneurial giants such as Warhol, Koons and Hirst. Delaunay had a very sanguine relationship with her clothing and costume design — it was a career that only really took shape after the Russian revolution took place and the money from home (St. Petersburg) ran out. She adroitly hired Russian seamstresses to make her clothing and weave her textiles (the Delaunay sweatshop?) and felt liberated from her commercial responsibilities after the 1929 market crash for all intents and purposes put an end to her fashion business.

“Les Couleurs De l’Abstraction” shows Delaunay at her strongest at the beginning and the end. The exhibition begins with juvenilia — portraits of peasants and friends made on vacation in Finland with her aunt and uncle, then student work heavily influenced by Gauguin and the Fauves. This is followed by the strange process of mutual assimilation that was the marriage of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, one that birthed the Orphism movement (a term coined by Apollinaire), which set up a category of pure abstraction utilizing the methodological approaches of Cubism. Along with Le Bal Bullier is the illustration to accompany Blaise Cendrars’s travelogue poem “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France,” probably the most successful evocation of the Delaunay’s concept of Simultaneity — a confusing theory based around a fascination with technology, applied color theory and interdisciplinary collaboration among the arts. The series “Prismes Electriques” was started in 1913 and became the defining image of both Sonia and Robert Delaunay’s careers — beacons of light with radiating waves or shells of colors.

Sonia Delaunay, Prismes électriques, 1913-1914. Photo Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA. Courtesy of the Musée d’Art Moderne.

After the stock market crash, Delaunay returned to painting with renewed vigor. Her most successful series of applied works, though, was a cycle of illustrative murals for the 1937 aerospace pavilion for the “Exposition Internationale des Arts et des Techniques dans la Vie Moderne.” In these she isolates technological objects — the propeller, the cockpit, the dashboard, gears and sparkplugs — and renders them as symbols within a context aesthetically redolent of Orozco and Rivera’s great murals of a the early ‘30s.   The cycle achieves its goal of aggrandizing contemporary technology by injecting the Delaunays’ brand of radiating circles (now neatened up) into a well-crafted layout that has the punch, poignancy and mystique of an engineering blueprint. It is a design sensibility that wouldn’t be surprising on a website in 2015.

The exhibition is vast, as was Delaunay’s output. She remained active, painting and designing rugs and fabrics, well into the late 1970s: she died in 1979 at the age of 94.   Over that very long period she still focused on the circles that had so fascinated her and Robert in the teens — hybrid symbols of electric light-cum-wheel-cum-human head, an all-in-one beacon. Robert died in 1941, and perhaps freed from his influence, Sonia’s beacons become more introspective, as with L’Affereux Jojo (1947) which is less bright and less color-theory obsessed and overwhelmingly gray, the circle also becoming a half-circle now. Maybe the artist is blinking here and catching her breadth. Triptyque (1963) finds her even less obsessed with the ideology of the long-dusty Orphism; the forms are more distinct and freer, and again there are more blacks, ochres and slate colors, the paintings are less optimistic and more worldly. At the heart of the exhibition is the feat that Delaunay took an abstract trope that began with a baby blanket in 1911 and expanded and elaborated on it for almost seven decades, generating a visual/personal timeline that narrates the history of abstraction in the 20th century.


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"the infinite combinations of color have a poetry and a language much more expressive than the old methods"

Synopsis

Sonia Delaunay's career spanned the European continent, allowing her to reap the riches of the exciting advances by many avant-garde art groups. Born and raised in Russia, she was educated in Germany and then France, making Paris her home just as modern art was finding a new way to find meaningful subject matter not dependent on realistic depictions of the world. Sonia was one of the primary propagators of Orphism (a movement founded by her husband Robert), a theory wedding color to form in order to achieve visual intensity on the surface of the canvas. Delaunay extended the visual exploration of this theory to a range of fields beyond painting, developing an entire career in textile design.

Key Ideas

By matching primary and secondary colors (red with green, yellow with purple, and blue with orange) to create a kind of visual vibration, Robert Dulaunay developed a new type of expressive, abstract paintings. He called this exploration "Simultaneous Contrast," but the movement became officially known as Orphism and Sonia was one of its chief practitioners.

The Delaunay couple used Orphism to create non-objective imagery, the significance of which was based on the intensity of the expression that they could create with color on the surface of the canvas. They placed lines of primary color beside those of secondary color, understanding that the scientific effect on the eye of such combinations would result in art that could be just as scintillating to the viewer as those depicting a standard view of reality such as a figure reclining on a couch. Their efforts produced a body of work that forced the viewer to experience their pieces visually - yet powerfully.

Sonia Delaunay's exploration of expressive color in the field of textile design differentiates her significantly from other members of the contemporary avant-garde. Besides designing, making, and selling garments in her own fashion boutique, she was responsible for costume design in a range of the performing arts including theatre and dance. She ended up creating a line of textiles so significant that it was picked up by one of the biggest fabric manufacturers in Europe.

Most Important Art

Nu jaune (Yellow Nude) (1908)

Nu jaune or Yellow Nude exemplifies how Delaunay's earliest works were quite influenced by Fauve artists like Matisse and Post-Impressionists such as Gauguin. At this point in her career she had not yet abandoned figurative subjects. The depiction of this nude woman, propped up on one elbow, resting her head in her hand, her hips tilted slightly toward the viewer, is provocative and fits in well with the other images of prostitution by avant-garde artists. Nevertheless Sonia's version denies the viewer access, her gaze averted and her elbow forbiddingly locked. Although the colors are unrealistic, they are rich and jewel-toned, setting a standard for the rest of her career.

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Sonia Delaunay Artworks in Focus:

Sonia Delaunay Overview Continues Below

Biography

Childhood and Education

Sonia Delaunay was born Sara Élievna Stern, the youngest of three children, to impoverished Jewish parents in Odessa, Ukraine. At five, she was sent to live with her mother's well-off brother, Henri Terk, and his wife in St. Petersburg, Russia. Although her mother never allowed a legal adoption, Delaunay thought of them as her family and took the name Sofia Terk, using "Sonia" as a nickname. She received a good education, had access to great art collections, and traveled Europe spending summers in Finland. At sixteen, Delaunay's art teacher noticed her talent and encouraged her uncle and aunt to send her to Germany for further art training.

Early Training

Eighteen-year-old Sonia began her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe in 1904. After two years in Germany, Delaunay moved to Paris to study at the Academie de la Palette. On December 5, 1908 she married her friend Wilhelm Uhde, an art dealer, ensuring that her family wouldn't be able to force her to come home while also covering for Uhde's homosexual lifestyle. Uhde gave Delaunay her first one-person show in 1908 featuring numerous portrait studies that demonstrated the early influence of Fauvists like Henri Matisse and introduced her to important art and literary figures, including, in 1909, her future husband, Robert Delaunay.

Sonia married Robert on November 15, 1910 after amicably divorcing Uhde, and their son Charles was born in January 1911. The two were to become one of the art world's most important partnerships, co-founding Orphism, a variation of Cubist art composed of abstract forms of vibrant color.

Although Delaunay's early work was in the field of painting, the creation of a patchwork quilt for her son instigated an entirely different direction to her work. She assembled the quilt according to a style she'd seen years earlier in Russia, laying scraps of fabric one beside the other. She was fascinated by the effects of the colors created from these strips once removed from their original context. This interesting discovery, coupled with Robert's interest in chemist Eugéne Chevreul's theories on color, led the two to create works based on simultaneous color relationships known as Simultanism and soon enough Delaunay began to apply simultaneously contrasted colors not only to paintings, such as Bal Bullier (1912-13), but also to objects, such as cushions, boxes, and clothing.

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Delaunay's refusal to distinguish between the worlds of fine art and crafts, and her friendships with the creative people who gathered at her home on Sundays, resulted in rich a career that included exciting collaborations. Her friendship with poet Blaise Cendrars, for example, led to the creation of a series of "poem-paintings," including La Prose du Transsibérienn et de la petite Jehanne de France (1913).

Mature Period

Delaunay traveled extensively throughout her life, each location influencing her work. While in Madrid in 1917, she began to design costumes for a production of Cléopâtre. This was just the first of what would become a number of ballet and theatrical performances for which she would provide designs. The following year she opened a design and fashion shop known as Casa Sonia. Never favoring one artistic pursuit over another, she described these diverse endeavors as, "noble work, as much as a still-life or a self-portrait."

Between the years 1918 and 1935, Delaunay painted very little, devoting herself to parenting and trying to make a living in order to support Robert's artistic career. She opened a fashion shop featuring her designs in Paris in 1921 which quickly attracted glamorous customers such as Hollywood actress Gloria Swanson. Delaunay's fabric designs became so popular that she eventually started her own company with Jacques Herm in 1924 and began a relationship with the Holland-based department store Metz & Co. the following year that would last more than three decades. A growing interest in the Dada art movement led to a fashion collaboration with poet Tristan Tzara, creating "dress-poems" with designs featuring color combinations inspired by his words.

Delaunay returned to painting in 1937 when she and Robert were asked to decorate two buildings for the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne. The murals she created for this commission were well received. After Robert's death in 1941 things became very difficult and Delaunay survived by selling both her own designs and Robert's paintings. Being of Jewish heritage she was forced to move frequently during the war, worried that she would be arrested. There was an occasion, in Cannes, when she was questioned regarding her middle name, "Stern." Apparently she stood her ground and, refusing to show fear, succeeded in boarding her train and escaping capture. Delaunay was acutely aware of the war, frequently hearing gunfire and watching German troop activity from as close as just outside her hotel windows.

Later Period

At the end of the war, in 1944, Delaunay returned to Paris, intent on assuring that Robert's artistic legacy received proper recognition. When she was confident that this goal had been met she finally began to focus on her own art, concentrating primarily on painting with a series of gouaches in the 1950s called Rhythme coloré. The series explored the power of color, and the inherent rhythm in their combination on the canvas.

In 1964 Delaunay met author and poet Jacques Damase who would eventually become her partner, nurturing her late career by arranging numerous gallery exhibitions as well as the 1967 retrospective of almost 200 works at France's Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne.

Near the end of her life, Delaunay's work achieved both acknowledgement in her own country as well as global attention. As a measure of goodwill, French President Pompidou even gifted U.S. President Richard Nixon her painting Rhythme-couleur No. 1633 (1969).

In 1978, a year before she passed away, she helped design costumes for a performance of the play Six Characters in Search of an Author and finally published her autobiography. Having made an impact on both the art and fashion worlds, it was fitting that she chose to be buried in a dress that Hubert de Givenchy had designed for her to wear while attending a reception for England's Queen Elizabeth.


Legacy

Orphism inspired artists such as Paul Klee to explore the effect of non-objective colored shapes. Later, proponents of the Op art movement, such as Bridget Riley, used color and shape to create optically-charged movement and vibration in their works that have connections to Deluanay's explorations. Kinetic movement artists, such as Yaacov Agam and Alexander Calder, continued this investigation in the third dimension in their sculptural constructions as well. Delaunay's textile designs extended the range of her influence into fashion, home decor and the theater. Her ability to introduce art into regular life by creating and wearing clothing, and living in spaces that were of her own design, can be seen as an early form of performance art, inspiring contemporary artists such as Marina Abramovic.