SONIA DELAUNAY (and the missing pages)

1. INTRODUCTION

Having started to work through the (optional) Introduction to H.E. Course, I undertook some research on Sonia Delaunay. This was in response to an assignment which centred on choosing six pieces by which to introduce my chosen subject. This blog follows that form, with six pieces discussed below, in section 2. I also wanted to reflect on what I had learned about broader aspects of the art world. This is covered in the third and final section.  This introduction, however, continues below, explaining why I chose Sonia Delaunay.

1.1 Why Sonia Delaunay?

I visited the The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern during the summer of 2015. I knew nothing about her or her body of work. I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and left as an admirer.

The process of buying tickets and attending the exhibition, however, surprised me. I made a mistake in my original selection of the time I wanted to attend. When I called to change it, I was advised that the timing did not really matter and further, I could turn up anytime on the specified day. This was the first exhibition I had attended at any large London gallery in recent years where the advice was not about being punctual! Clearly, the exhibition was not particularly well attended.

Having been to the exhibition I felt surprised that I had never heard of her before. Was it because women are ignored in the history of Art? Did it indicate a pecking order in the arts and that she suffered from being active in “Applied Arts”? Did I have to accept that my ignorance was actually due to my poor knowledge of Art History?

I had, however, heard of her husband, Robert Delaunay.

2. SONIA DELAUNAY

2.1 A Quilt

Born Sophie Stern in the Ukraine in 1885, in 1910 Sonia Delaunay married her second husband, Robert Delaunay. In her first twenty five years she was adopted by her maternal uncle, spent her childhood in St Petersburg, studied art, had married and divorced and had started painting. In 1911, now living in Paris, she produced her first abstract work; a patchwork quilt for her son Charles (figure 1 below.) She described the significance of this event as follows:

“In 1911, I had the idea of making for my son, who had just been born, a blanket composed of bits of fabric like those I had seen in the houses of Russian peasants. When it was finished, the arrangement of the pieces of material seemed to me to evoke Cubist conceptions, and we then tried to apply the same process to other objects and paintings.” (Moggridge and Baumann 2011:7)

(The “we” includes her husband, Robert.)

baby-quilt

Fig. 1. Delaunay, Sonia  Baby quilt for Charles, “Couverture” (1911)

The painter, Jennifer Durrant  (Royal Academy, 2015), described the quilt as “A seminal work, it was [Sonia’s] path to abstraction and to her textile design…”

It is interesting to note the different perspective of the quilt offered by the textiles designer Kate Davies (2015). Describing Sonia’s 1964 painting Rythme Couleur, Kate writes, “The bold colours, the juxtaposition of colours which amplify each other, the geometric shapes are so full of life and compelling. I especially like when she puts two very close versions of one shade next to each other – look at the reds and greens in the painting above for example. And then, how lovely, she makes a cot quilt for her little boy, Charles. There are two shades of red next to each other in that too. The painting was partly inspired by this sort of Russian peasant quilt she had seen as a young child. Looking closely you see the tiny, but not very even stitches she put in herself.”

As a student wishing to understand Art History it is interesting to read Kate’s concluding remark where her focus is very much on the craft behind the piece.

For me the significance of the quilt is its context. From Sonia’s quote above, we can see that this is the piece which inspired her to move into abstract art.

2.2 A Theory

At the Sonia Delaunay exhibition (Tate Modern, Apr – Aug 2015), the information board in Display Room 2 explained this move into abstraction as follows:

“Following the nineteenth-century chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul, who studied how the perception of colours seems to change when they are placed alongside each other, Sonia and Robert developed a theory of simultaneous colour contrasts which they called Simultanism.”

Referring back to Kate Davies’s comments in 2.1 above, it is the juxtapositioning of colours which is central to their concepts of Simultanism.

Sonia’s painting, Electric Prisms (refer to figure 2 below), was one of my favourite pieces at the Tate exhibition. This one painting illustrated and encapsulated the explanation of Simultanism above. The combination of the colours, shapes, composition and brushstroke convey energy and movement in an entirely abstract form.

electric-prisms

Fig. 2. Delaunay, Sonia  “Electric Prisms” (1913)

It is interesting to contrast this with her painting Bal Bulier (see fig. 3 below). Although abstract, the figurative elements leave the viewer in no doubt that we are watching people dance. The colours and brushstrokes are consistent with the Delaunays’ theories of Simultanism. As above, the use of colour suggests rhythm and movement but this time very much in a tangible context; the dancing and the venue, the Bal Bulier ballroom.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

Fig. 3. Delaunay, Sonia  “Le Bal Bulier” (1912-13)

It is interesting to contrast this with her painting Bal Bulier (see fig. 3 below). Although abstract, the figurative elements leave the viewer in no doubt that we are watching people dance. The colours and brushstrokes are consistent with the Delaunays’ theories of Simultanism. As above, the use of colour suggests rhythm and movement but this time very much in a tangible context; the dancing and the venue, the Bal Bulier ballroom.

2.3 A Book

In 1913, Sonia worked with the poet, Blaise Cendrars, to interpret and illustrate his work, La prose du Transsiberien et de la petite Jehanne de France.

Matilda McQuaid (2011:10) considers this “One of Delaunay’s most important works during the 1910s…” McQuaid goes on to quote the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, “Cendrars and Madame Delaunay-Turk have realised a unique experiment in simultaneity, written in contrasts of colours in order to train the eye to read with one glance the whole of a poem, as an orchestra conductor reads with one glance the notes placed up and down the bar…”

cedrars-book

Fig. 4. Text; Cendrars, Blaise. Illustrated Delaunay, Sonia  “La prose du Transsiberien et de la petite Jehanne de France” (1913)

It is difficult to entirely appreciate the significance of this work in our era, where multimedia is taken for granted. The book featured in the Curators’ Choice in the British Library’s 2008 exhibition entitled Breaking the Rules.

Curator Chris Michaelides (2007) talks about the book in this podcast:

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/whatson/downloads/files/btrtranssiberien.mp3

This paragraph from the podcast describes the play between the words and colour.

“The impression created by Sonia Delaunay’s abstract shapes and brilliant colours – indigo blues, vivid vermilions, purples, yellows and greens – is one of light, movement, and speed. In the British Library copy, which is one of the artist’s proofs, the colours have remained remarkably vivid. And yet, the mood of the poem is rather darker. In fact, Cendrars called it ‘a sad poem printed on sunlight’.”

2.4 A Dress

As a result of the Russian revolution, Sonia was no longer receiving financial support from her family. Needing an income, Sonia designed the costumes for Sergei Diaghilev’s productions of Cleopatra and Aida. She did not, however, compromise on her art.

Matilda McQuaid (2011:10) wrote “…there was no difference between her painting and her design work. For her, working with textiles, books and other useful objects meant free expansion, a conquest of new spaces.”

By 1923 she had designed fabrics for a manufacturer in Lyon. Not long after this she had set up her own business. I have included the dress below (fig. 5) as it is from this period. I have also included it because I think it is a quite stunning piece. The use of colour reflects her artistic beliefs and gives evidence to the comment above that Delaunay saw no distinction between her art and design. It also would not appear out of place today.

Jacque Damase (1991:6) wrote”…in 1925 she was designing clothes which could be worn today without appearing old-fashioned…” He could have been writing about this dress!

dress

Fig. 5. Delaunay, Sonia Dress (1925-28) Printed silk satin with metallic embroidery

2.5 A Fabric Sample

During the 1920’s Sonia Delaunay forged a business relationship with Metz & Co, a Dutch department store, who ultimately commissioned approximately 200 designs. This was a mutually beneficial relationship which lasted into the 1960s. Fig. 6 below illustrates one of the designs. It does not, however, fit into the pattern of the other illustrations I have included above. Matilda McQuaid (2011:14) noted that some of these designs were different from her earlier simultaneity work but they “…continued to be based in the language of colour.”

fabric-sample

Fig. 6. Delaunay, Sonia Design 965 fabric sample, created for Metz & Co, 1930
Cotton muslin, 125 x 135mm

2.6 A Mural

The arrival of the Great Depression of the 1930’s effectively ended Delaunay’s business interests (with the exception of some private client work and sales through stores such as Liberty and Metz & Co.) Returning to painting, Delaunay was asked to contribute to the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life. She painted three large murals for the Palais de l’Air. These were Motor, Dashboard and Propeller. The last is illustrated below in Fig. 7.

This was another of my favourite works from the exhibition. The painting clearly has elements of an aircraft engine, as well as the propeller itself, displayed in an abstract setting. For me, the circles and, of course, the circular motion that is implied, all hark back to Simultanism. The background to the propeller itself is comprised of concentric circles of various shades of blue rather than a mix of colours. Although this possibly deprives the painting of the sense of energy displayed in the earlier paintings, the composition seems to compensate for this by placing the centre of the blades close to the centre of the picture. The concentric rings then draw the eye to the power of the engine.  The size of the piece also contributes to this notion of the power of technology in general.    

Lara Prendergast (2015) gives an interesting insight to the exhibition. “When the show opened, the French prime minister, Léon Blum, declared it a ‘triumph of the working class, the Popular Front and liberty’. His words now sound somewhat absurd: the show is best remembered for a symbolic standoff between the pavilions presented by Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, while over in the Spanish pavilion, Picasso exhibited ‘Guernica’ for the first time. “

propeller

Fig. 7. Delaunay, Sonia “Propeller”, (1937)

2.7 Reflections on these selections

Sonia continued to work until the 1970s but the six pieces (seven if Le Bal Bulier is included) were all produced before the outbreak of the Second World War. My choices were governed by what I liked and what appeared to me to be important to gaining an insight into her work. These pieces are not, therefore, representative of her career as an artist. As mentioned (in section 1) above, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and wanted to display Sonia Delaunay’s genius. Clearly, a blog such as this can only hint at the scale of her output and talent.

In the next section I wish to reflect more widely I what I discovered more generally about the art world. It is important, therefore, to note one more fact about Sonia Delaunay; in 1964 she became the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre.

3. THE MISSING PAGES

3.1 Starting to research Sonia Delaunay

Having decided to find out more about Sonia, I immediately referred to two art books I own. The first was The Story of Modern Art by Norbert Lyon. It dates back to 1980. It was a birthday present from a friend. Back in 1980 he described it as an attempt to do for modern art what E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art had done for art generally. Sonia Delaunay does not appear in the index. Robert does. The book contains a section of short biographical notes. Robert Delaunay’s notes mention that he married “…painter Sonia Terk.” Sonia Terk does not appear in the index.

The second book I referred to was Art The Whole Story, by Stephen Farthing. Published in 2010, this was a present from one of my sons. Sonia Delaunay appears in the index, but on just one page of the book. In a short profile of Nicolas De Stael it is noted that he “…spent much time in the company of artists including Robert (1885-1941) and Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979).”

I have some knowledge of statistics and so appreciate that two books doesn’t make for a large enough sample from which to draw conclusions. My immediate thought, however, was that women also suffer from discrimination in the world of art. That is a matter which requires more research which I will endeavour to do over time.

3.2 Sonia in relation to Robert Delaunay

I was not particularly interested in researching Sonia’s relationship with Robert. It was, however, raised in some of the articles I read. I consider comments from three of these to be of particular interest.  The first was from the Financial Times (online) from 7 April 2011. The author of the article, Ariella Budick, suggests that Sonia was guilty of “…selling herself short…” as a result of the early death of Robert.

The FT’s copyright policy does not permit me to quote much directly from the article, so please refer to the following link. https://www.ft.com/content/516af2d6-6137-11e0-ab25-00144feab49a

In a review of an exhibition of Gabriele Munter’s work, from 16 August 1998, Roberta Smith of the The New York Times goes further, opening her review as follows:

“The history of 20th-century art has had more than its share of female artists whose achievements have been overshadowed by the art of their better-known male companions. The list includes Sonia Delaunay, Lee Krasner, Frida Kahlo, Helen Torr, Marguerite Zorach and Anni Albers. Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the few exempted from this category, largely because her husband, the photographer Alfred Steiglitz, worked tirelessly on her behalf. “

The third and final article was Lara Prendergast’s from 17 April 2015 in Apollo (online) from which I have already quoted above (in section 2.6). Her final two paragraphs suggest that Robert’s death had a profound effect on Sonia’s art. In particular, she notes that Sonia reverted “…back to the circular works produced before her textiles. Hoping to keep Robert’s legacy alive, she tried to stay true to his theories.”

Prendergast goes on to contemplate what Sonia might have achieved had she not done this. Prendergast then concludes her article by considering how Sonia is viewed in relation to Robert.  She observes that, “Contemporary discourse may prefer to view Sonia sans Robert, wife sans husband, and she is certainly just as good, if not better, than he. But they broke boundaries together, as a married couple, as a family, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of something more nebulous… but her story is one of a man and woman working in harmony as artists, simultaneously, rather than the opposite.”

These articles raise more questions than they answer. If Prendergast’s judgement that Sonia was “…just as good, if not better than…Robert”, is a reasonable one, why is there no mention of her in The Story of Modern Art. Is this a sign of the sexism that was prevalent in the 1980s? Why is one of Robert’s pieces printed in Art The Whole Story, whilst Sonia is reduced to one sentence which mentions Robert first? Given that Delaunay was first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre, I am left to wonder what a woman has to do to get a mention in either book.

Personally, I am left with the disappointing impression that the world of art is no different from the general world it inhabits. The evidence is there in the missing pages of the books that purport to explain the history of art. They join the books from the fields of humanities, science, sport, economics and business; in fact pages are missing from every endeavour that men document.   Put simply, the achievements of women are under-represented in a world in which prejudice still abounds.

3.3 A creative response

When researching Sonia’s work, I noticed that words often combined with her art. It therefore occurred to me that it might be possible to express her life using her ideas of Simultaneity. This will follow in a later blog.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Delaunay, S. (1911) Baby quilt for Charles. Couverture  At:

https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/149322543869506273/ (Accessed on 21 January 2017)

Figure 2. Delaunay, S.  (1913) Electric Prisms. [Oil on canvas] At:

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/ey-exhibition-sonia-delaunay/ey-exhibition-sonia-delaunay-room-gui-2 (Accessed on 22 January 2017)

Figure 3. Delaunay, S. (1912-13) Le Bal Bulier [Oil on canvas] At:

http://www.artcritical.com/2015/02/19/sonia-delaunay-in-paris-and-london/

(Accessed on 20 February 2017)

Figure 4. Text; Cendrars, B. Illustrated Delaunay, S. (1913) La prose du Transsiberien et de la petite Jehanne de France  At: http://www.moderndesign.org/2012/03/color-coder.html (Accessed on 20 February 2017)

Figure 5. Delaunay, S. (1925-28)  Dress [Printed silk satin with metallic embroidery] At:

http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/a-symphony-of-colours-and-shapes-color-moves-art-and-fashion-by-sonia-delaunay (Accessed on 20 February 2017)

Figure 6. Delaunay, S. (1930) Design 965 fabric sample, created for Metz & Co,
[Cotton muslin 125 x 135mm] At: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/pure-explosions-finesse (Accessed on 20 February 2017)

Figure. 7. Delaunay, S. (1937) Propeller. At:

http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2015/04/sonia-delaunay (Accessed on 20 February 2017)

Bibiliography

Buddick, A. (2011) Colour Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay, New York. At https://www.ft.com/content/516af2d6-6137-11e0-ab25-00144feab49a (Accessed on 10 November 2016)

 Damase, J. (1991) Sonia Delaunay Fashion and Fabrics. London: Thames and Hudson

Davies, K. (2015) Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern At: http://fabrickated.com/2015/05/04/sonia-delaunay-at-tate-britain/ (Accessed on 03 September 2016)

Durrant, J. Royal Academy. (2015) Jennifer Durrant RA on the richness of Sonia Delaunay’s life and art At: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/jennifer-durrant-on-sonia-delaunay (Accessed on 08 September 2016)

Farthing, S. (2010) Art The Whole Story. London: Thames and Hudson

Lynton, N. (1980)The Story of Modern Art. Oxford: Phaidon Press Limited

McQuiad, M. (2011) “Introduction” In de Leeuw-de Monti, M. Timmer, P. and McQuiad, M. (ed) and Brown, S. (ed.) Colour Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay. London: Thames and Hudson

Michaelides, C. (2007) Cendrars/Delaunay’s Prose du Transsibérien.

29 November 2007. At:http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/whatson/downloads/files/btrtranssiberien.mp3 (Accessed on 20 February 2017)

Moggridge, B. and Baumann, C. (2011) “Foreword” In de Leeuw-de Monti, M. Timmer, P. and McQuiad, M. (ed) and Brown, S. (ed.) Colour Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay. London: Thames and Hudson

Prendergast, M. (2015) Sonia Delaunay steps out of her husband’s shadow at the Tate Modern At https://www.apollo-magazine.com/sonia-delaunay-steps-out-of-her-husbands-shadow-at-tate-modern/ (Accessed on 29 October 2016)

Smith, R. (1998) ART; Lost in the Glow of the Man at Her Side. At http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/16/arts/art-lost-in-the-glow-of-the-man-at-her-side.html?pagewanted=all (Accessed on 21 February 2017)

Tate Modern. (2015) The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay [Exhibition]. London: Tate Modern    15 April – 09 August 2015

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