Criticism
Thursday, February 19th, 2015

Sonia Delaunay in Paris and London


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.

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.

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.

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.

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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