09. November 2015

Canvases, objects and clothing were all mediums for her clashing color compositions, which to this day have lost nothing of their Modernist feel. A portrait of avant-garde artist Sonia Delaunay.

By Marie Beckmann

“Her colors strike right in the eye: a yellow like the sun over Lisbon, a blue without regret, remorseless lilac, infinite black.” Diana Vreeland, New York-based fashion designer and Editor-in-Chief of Vogue, loved the interplay of colors in Sonia Delaunay’s creations and lauded the artist, who was thoroughly modern for her time: “Everything she did was as modern as jazz.”

Sonia Delaunay, who grew up in St. Petersburg and married French painter Robert Delaunay, was a creative pioneer with good business sense, and an uncompromising free spirit. She believed that the experience of art should not remain bound up with places like the studio or the gallery, but should be integrated into all phases and areas of life. She flitted between the disciplines, bringing forth her vision in painting, fashion, textile design, film sets and theatre costumes, but she also designed motifs for cars, playing cards and swimming costumes. She even created a neon sculpture, quite possibly the first of its kind. In order to express the rhythm of the modern world, dictated as it is by speed and mechanization, she referred time and again to the dynamic interplay of dissonance and harmony, of form and color. And again and again, color.

Sonia Delaunay, Bathing suit (tunic), 1924–25 via designmilk

In 1913 Sonia and Robert Delaunay travelled to Berlin, where Herwarth Walden was exhibiting Robert Delaunay’s “simultaneous paintings” in his STURM Gallery. The couple were accompanied by their friend Guillaume Apollinaire, avant-garde poet and employee of STURM Magazine, who gave the opening address and introduced Delaunay to simultanism initially. Having read Michel Eugène Chevreul’s essay “De la Loi du contraste simultané des couleurs” on the relativity of color and complementary relationships, Robert and Sonia began to research the dynamics and interplay of color contrasts. Simultanism permits an experience of concurrency or parallelism: Several individual elements are perceived as a whole, or various aspects of a single thing present themselves.

Simultanism permits an experience of concurrency or parallelism.

Sonia’s cover design for STURM Magazine (1912/13) is an example of her early experimentation with color, material qualities and form. She also applied the simultanism principle to present the poem “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France” by her friend and poet, Blaise Cendrar. The “painting poem” was exhibited the same year at the “First German Autumn Salon”, organized by Herwarth Walden. The Delaunays exhibited some of their “simultaneous objects” here. In a total of 364 works by 83 artists, however, it was Sonia who was most notably represented with 26 exhibits.

When World War I broke out in 1914, the Delaunays headed south, taking up residence in Spain and Portugal. The couple were fascinated by the strong colors and shimmering light effects that were so different to the gray haze over Paris and Berlin. “The light in Portugal is not violent,” Sonia stated, “it glorifies each and every color.” The Delaunay’s villa at Vilo de Conde became known as “La Simultané” and was a magnet for the Portuguese avant-garde. During that time they produced images inspired by the vibrancy of the small town: Sonia painted colorful market scenes, Portuguese toys and still lifes. In Madrid, however, Sonia also got the opportunity to combine her long-held interest in dance, movement and the body with her color theory.

She met Serge Diaghilev, a curator, critic and theater producer, who was in charge of the “Ballet Russes” company at the time. Diaghilev, who had already worked with avant-garde artists in previous productions, invited the Delaunays to take charge of both the costumes and the stage design for the company’s production “Cléopâtre”. Sonia created a beaded costume for the prima ballerina with radiant colors, and integrated circular shapes to emphasize the curves of the body and evoke movement. At the same time she opened her first shop with “Casa Sonia” in Madrid, in which she sold items of clothing, bags, jewelry and fabric she had designed herself. The interior was simple and modern: white walls, raffia carpet, plain room dividers, small round tables. It wasn’t long before the success of “Cléopâtre” and the radical modernity of her fashion and furnishings secured her further commissions as a costume and interior designer.

It was my life and I’ve worked the whole time. But I haven’t worked, I’ve lived. And that’s the difference.

Sonia Delaunay

The Delaunays spent the 1920s back in Paris, where they befriended Dadaists and Surrealists such as André Breton, Louis Aragon, Jean Cocteau and Tristan Tzara. It was with poems by Aragon and Tzara that Sonia developed her first “dress poems”, whereby words are combined with geometric shapes and colors and woven onto the fabric of a piece of clothing to create an interplay of body, shape, color and word. In 1924 Delaunay branched out on her own with a textile print works and began to create her own designs once again in her “L’atelier simultané”. Her simultaneous fashion suited the new freedom of the 1920s: few details or seams, no tapered fits, but instead simplicity and freedom to move. The perfectly positioned prints on the dresses initially created the impression of a two-dimensional tableau, but once worn the forms and colors seemed to be set in motion.

Sonia Delaunay, 1923 via Penccil

From the canvas to the world and back, color frenzy, movement, dancing bodies – it was not without reason that Sonia Delaunay’s work has been ascribed an obsessive character. Yet perhaps it is more fitting to talk about a never-ending passion. After all, she herself said: “It was my life and I’ve worked the whole time. But I haven’t worked, I’ve lived. And that’s the difference.”