Joyful Dissonance

With her husband Robert, Sonia Delaunay was a pioneer of early 20th-century abstraction

Art Eastern Europe
Modernity and movement: “Prismes électriques”, 1914, by Sonia Delaunay (image: Pracusa 2013057/CNAP)

If there is a figure who perfectly exemplifies the creative urge at large in Paris in the first part of the 20th century it is not one of the usual line-up—Picasso, Josephine Baker, Coco Chanel or Scott Fitzgerald—but Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979). Not only was she was an international figure who was by turns an artist, fabric designer, advertising pioneer, interior designer, costume designer, and helpmeet to her painter husband Robert, but she was a work of art herself.

With Robert she can claim to have overruled the browns and greys of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism and given it colour. She was a pioneer and lifelong adherent of abstraction. She was also a leading light in the artistic and social avant-garde and in 1964 she became the first living female painter to have a retrospective at the Louvre. Despite all this she is often a difficult figure to disentangle from her husband. Although she outlived him by 38 years their work was so close stylistically that there remain numerous pictures that have open attributions—they could be his, they could be hers, or they could be by both. The exhibition devoted to her work at Tate Modern (opening April 15) should help reassert her individuality.

Sonia was born Sarah Stern in Gradizhsk, Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire), and brought up largely by her affluent uncle and aunt; she took the name Sonia Terk (their surname). With them she travelled around Europe and they financed her art tuition in Germany and Paris. Once settled in Paris she had a short-lived marriage of convenience with a homosexual German gallerist called Wilhelm Uhde: she brought him social acceptance and he gave her an entrée into the city’s art world. It was at his gallery that Sonia first met Robert Delaunay and there followed in quick succession an affair, her divorce from Uhde, a pregnancy and her marriage to Robert.

For all her training she was essentially a self-taught artist who initially was heavily under the influence of first Gauguin and the Post-Impressionists and then Matisse and the Fauves. What remained consistent in her tastes and output was the use of bright, non-representational colour. It was when she became involved with Robert that she began to play with the fractured planes of Cubism.

The results were launched in 1912 as Simultanism (what the poet Guillaume Apollinaire called Orphism), another of the plethora of isms that marked the first 20 years of the century. It is a term that describes the Delaunays’ pictures (they worked, in their phrase, “roped together”) in which often geometrical patches of contrasting colours are placed next to one another so that together they enhance the intensity of each. Sonia believed that “he who knows how to appreciate colour relationships, the influence of one colour on another, their contrasts and dissonances, is promised an infinitely diverse imagery.”

Sonia’s most meaningful exercise in the style was Le Bal Bullier of 1913 (her version of Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère) which shows a well-known dance hall packed with couples dancing the tango under electric light. The picture encapsulates her fascination with modernity, movement and the life of the city. It is a patchwork of colours that teeters on pure abstraction with only a leg, a hat or the curve of a back suggesting the tightly entwined figures. She designed a dress and waistcoat in the same style for herself and Robert when they went dancing at such places.

Her interest in fabrics and the applied side of geometrical abstraction rapidly became as important to her as painting. She decorated her home with her designs, covering book bindings, furniture and cushions with shards of colour as a way of promoting the Delaunay brand. Trapped in Spain during the First World War she opened a shop, Casa Sonia, selling clothes made from her fabrics. She repeated the exercise in 1925 back in Paris, using models and even film to promote her work: Gloria Swanson was a customer. She also designed costumes for the theatre (including for the Dadaist impresario Tristan Tzara’s The Gas Heart) and ballet. The transition was logical for her: “For me there is no gap between my painting and my so-called ‘decorative’ work. I never considered the ‘minor arts’ to be artistically frustrating; on the contrary, it was an extension of my art.”

She returned to “flat art” for a series of large panels designed for the Palais de l’Air at the International Exhibition of 1937. In her pictures of airplane propellers and cockpits she repeated her favourite motif of the circle with a new delicacy, using it for dials and engine parts and fusing high art with mechanical drawing to bring out the beauty of industrial design. The style was short-lived though and after Robert’s death in 1941 she spent much of her time proselytising for his legacy and reusing the bold patterns of their earlier work on a larger, simplified scale in works she called simply “rhythms”.

Delaunay explained her inability to develop stylistically by a return to her past: “I am attracted by pure colours. Colours from my childhood, from the Ukraine. Memories of peasant weddings in my country in which the red and green dresses decorated with many ribbons, billowed in dance.” It was enough for admiring abstract painters of the younger generation such as Ellsworth Kelly and Victor Vasarely. There is, though, also something sad about the way she took her fabric designs from 30 years before and recast them as art. It was as if she had used up her pattern variations and run out of ideas.

Despite failing to deliver on her promise of “infinitely diverse imagery”, Sonia Delaunay is nevertheless an important figure in the history of Modernism, not least in that she imparted a sense of joy to what was all too frequently an austere aesthetic.