Sonia Delaunay Was a Multimedia Artist Before the Term Was Invented
Sonia Delaunay designed textiles, created sets and costumes for theater shows and films, decorated cars, made furniture, and was an influential abstract painter. With her husband, Robert Delaunay, she cofounded the Orphism art movement which mixed Cubism, Fauvism, and Abstract Art techniques. Her work spanned the arc of the 20th century and still inspires modern graphic designers and artists. Her vivid colors, playful lines, and whimsical shapes have a timeless appeal.
Ukrainian Beginnings and a Move to Paris
Sonia Delaunay was born Sarah Illinitchna Stern in 1885 to a Jewish Ukrainian family. At the age of seven she went to live with her uncle Henri Terk and his wife, Anna, in St Petersburg, Russia, where she adopted the name Sonia Terk. The Terks offered her a privileged and cultured upbringing in St Petersburg. Nevertheless, she had fond memories of her more rural background and often referred to her love of the bright colors of Ukrainian peasant art. She formally trained as an artist in Russia and Germany before moving to Paris in 1905.
In 1908, Sonia entered into a “marriage of convenience” with Wilhelm Uhde, an art dealer and gallery owner. This arrangement gave her access to her dowery and gave Uhde cover for his homosexuality. The marriage helped her gain entrance into the art world via exhibitions at Uhde’s gallery. A frequent visitor to the gallery was the Comtesse de Rose, who was the mother of artist Robert Delaunay. Sonia met Robert Delaunay in early 1909 and they fell in love. After Sonia and Uhde divorced, Sonia and Robert married in 1910. Their son Charles, who became a well-known jazz expert, was born in 1911. Sonia and Robert remained married until Robert’s death from cancer in 1941.
In 1911, Sonia Delaunay made a patchwork quilt for Charles’s crib, which is now in the collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris. She created the blanket spontaneously, using a variety of geometric shapes and colors. She wrote that the blanket was “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.” She decided to apply these techniques to other objects and paintings, and together with Robert, she started working on a new art form that came to be called Orphism.
The Orphism Art Movement
Orphism is an offshoot of Cubism, the avant-garde art movement that revolutionized Western art during the early 20th century. A lot of the early Cubists, working from roughly 1909 to 1912, used simplified monochromatic color schemes. Their goal was to keep the viewer focused on the deconstruction of form, a primary concern of Cubism. The Delaunays introduced bright colors to Cubism, bringing emotion and sensation into the genre.
French poet Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term Orphism, first using it in a speech to the Salon de la Section d’Or in 1912, while referring to the work of Czech artist František Kupka. The name Orphism comes from Orpheus, the legendary Greek poet and musician. Apollinaire thought that the Delaunays and Kupka brought musical qualities to their art, so he referenced the poet and singer of ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus, when naming the movement.
The Delaunays called their branch of Orphism Simultanéisme (Simultanism in English). That name comes from the work of French scientist Michel Eugène Chevreul who identified the phenomenon of simultaneous contrast where colors look different depending on the colors around them. For example, the complementary colors orange and blue play off each other differently than orange and gold do. The Delaunays created colorful works based on the science of Simultanism and on the art of creating rhythm and harmony with lively abstract shapes.
Collaboration with Dadaism Cofounder Tristan Tzara
In the 1920s, Sonia and Robert became interested in the Dada art movement and befriended one of its cofounders, Romanian poet and performance artist, Tristan Tzara. Sonia worked on a fashion collaboration with Tristan Tzara, designing dresses that she called “dress poems” which featured the words of Tzara on them. Robert painted an oil painting of Tzara wearing an oversized scarf that looks like it could have been designed by Sonia.
Sonia’s most famous collaboration with Tzara was for his infamous Le Cœur à gaz (The Gas-Operated Heart) French-language play. She designed costumes for the second production which took place in 1923. The costumes were modern and whimsical, as was the play. The play is an absurd dialogue between characters named after human body parts: Mouth, Ear, Eye, Nose, Neck, and Eyebrow. Tzara himself played the Eyebrow in the first production. The first production was received with howls of derision and the audience began to leave while the performance was still in progress. The second production resulted in a riot!
The second production coincided with a major split in the avant-garde movement. A dissident wing of Dada, led by writer and poet André Breton, didn’t support Tzara’s views about art and Dadaism. The riot broke out just as the show was starting. According to poet Georges Hugnet, a first-hand witness, it was Breton who provoked the unrest when he “hoisted himself on the stage and started to belabor the actors.” He also punched surrealist writer René Crevel and broke writer Pierre de Massot’s arm with his walking stick. Several lamps were also broken before the Préfecture de Police intervened. Luckily, no Delaunay costumes were harmed in the fracas.
Notwithstanding the difficult history of the play, an illustrated book with twelve lithographs and a supplementary suite of seven lithographs of Delaunay’s costumes was published in 1977. Many museums and a few rare bookstores have a copy of the book and/or pages from the book. We especially like this page from the Toledo Museum of Art.
The Delaunays lived in Spain and Portugal during World War I. Sonia opened a fashion boutique that she called Casa Sonia in Madrid in 1918, with branches in Bilbao and Barcelona. The shops featured her fashions and fabric designs. She opened another shop in Paris after the family returned to Paris. The shops were a destination for artists, poets, actresses, and dancers. Sonia made embroidered coats, driving hats, knit swimwear, and other clothing for wealthy women. Duro Olowu, a current British fashion designer (duroolowu.com), wrote in a blog for the Tate Museum that he has long admired Delaunay’s work, who he says “enthusiastically applied her talents to exciting effect showcasing her clothing design, printed textiles, rugs and interior decoration.”
Delaunay’s fabric designs became so popular that she eventually started her own company with Jacques Herm in 1924. The following year, she collaborated with the Holland-based department store Metz & Co., beginning a relationship that would last more than three decades. Her fashion design skills also played a role in her costume designs for films. Sonia designed costumes for two films, Le Vertige directed by Marcel L’Herbier and Le p’tit Parigot directed by René Le Somptier, and designed furniture for the set of the 1929 film Parce que je t’aime.
According to a review of a 2015 Sonia Delaunay show at the Tate Modern museum in London, Sonia and husband Robert wore Sonia’s fashions when they visited Paris nightclubs, which were “quintessentially modern places alive not just with music but with electric light.” They danced the foxtrot and tango and socialized with the most radical cultural trendsetters of the Roaring Twenties, which were called the Années folles (crazy years) in France.
Always inventive, Sonia Delaunay often used a stenciling technique, known as pochoir, to make colorful prints of her art. This was a technique that Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Henri Matisse also used. More recent artists, including Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, also used modified versions of the technique. In 1966 she published Rythmes Couleurs (Color Rhythms), which included eleven of her gouache paintings, reproduced as pochoirs, and in 1969 she published Robes Poèmes (Poem Dresses), with 27 pochoirs. She also made a number of pochoirs in the 1930s.
Pochoir is a method for making fine limited editions of stencil prints. Unlike ordinary stencils, pochair lets the artist use multiple overlapping designs. A silk screen or a fine wire mesh permits color to pass except where the screen is coated with glue or a similar substance. In Plate 24 from her “Compositions, Colors, Ideas” portfolio, Delaunay used the pochair method to create an engaging composition by grouping lines into diamond-like shapes, adjacent to one another and forming triangles. Notice that the color patterns of the triangles match the various blues and patterns of mirrored triangles nearby in the composition.
A Return to Painting
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, Delaunay faced emotional, economic, and existential challenges. Being of Jewish heritage she was forced to move frequently during World War II, worried that she would be arrested. She earned money by selling her designs and Robert’s paintings.
After the war, Delaunay lived in Paris and worked on ensuring that Robert’s artistic legacy would receive proper recognition. When she was confident that this goal had been met, she began to focus on her own art again, concentrating primarily on painting. She used a gouache style to paint her Rythme Couleur paintings in the 1960s, (which she also reproduced as pochoirs). With these paintings, she returned to her Orphism roots, reintroducing the colors and shapes she and Robert had used in their early works. The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. has a good Rythme Couleur gouache painting from 1961 that is representative of Sonia’s work at the time.
In 1967, Delaunay was a part of an exhibition of artist-decorated cars called “Cinq voitures personnalisées par cinq artistes contemporains” (Five cars personalized by five contemporary artists) organized by the journal Réalités as a fundraiser for French medical research. She designed a colorful pattern for a Matra 530 sports car that alludes to her fashion designs. She experimented with optical effects that caused the car to rearrange the patterns on it when in motion. The blocks of color were designed to morph into a single pale blue shade when the car was being driven, to avoid distracting other drivers and possibly causing an accident.
Final Years and Legacy
Near the end of her life, Delaunay’s work continued to receive acknowledgement, both in her own country as well as internationally. In 1964, she became the first living woman artist to have a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre, joining only a handful of artists who have had their work exhibited at the Louvre while still alive. In 1967, the Musée National d’Art Moderne presented a retrospective of approximately 200 of her works, and in 1975 she was named an officer of the French Legion of Honor.
Delaunay worked into her 90s. In 1976, she developed a range of textiles, tableware, and jewelry with French company Artcurial, inspired by her work from the 1920s. Despite her age, she kept working and writing, and published her autobiography, Nous irons jusqu’au soleil (We shall go up to the sun) in 1978. She died December 5th, 1979, in Paris, at age 94. She was buried in Gambais, outside Paris, next to her husband, Robert Delaunay. 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.
According to an article in The Art Story, Sonia Delaunay and Orphism inspired artists ranging from Expressionist artist Paul Klee to Op-artist Bridget Riley. Kinetic movement artists, such as Yaacov Agam and Alexander Calder, also adopted Orphism techniques in their sculptures. Delaunay’s textile designs extended the range of her influence into fashion, home decor, and theater.
In 2014, the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris brought together 400 of her works in the first major retrospective of her art since 1967. The exhibition, which also traveled to the Tate Modern in London, displayed paintings, wall decorations, gouaches, prints, fashion items, and textiles by Delaunay. Her fashions were especially popular with viewers. The World Fashion Channel, an international TV channel about fashion and style, posted a video about the show that is entertaining and a good way to see Delaunay’s work.
Delaunay’s genius lay in her ability to work in many media. She pioneered a new aesthetic that feels modern even in the 21st century, and like so many artists today, she didn’t confine herself to a studio or to one type of art. Her creativity expanded beyond painting to include many other outlets. Her art looks beautiful whether worn as an avant-garde dress, displayed on the exterior of a car, or hanging on a wall.
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