PARIS — In our period of the rampant merging of art and fashion, it is refreshing to revisit where this hybridization more or less began in the modernist period with the first Paris retrospective since 1967 of Sonia Terk Delaunay (born Sophie Stern or Illinichtna Sara Stern). It is a richly colorful exhibition of applied poetic abstraction, with 400 rather stylistically consistent works that stretch from the Belle Époque to the 1970s. It includes her bold paintings and monumental murals, gouaches, prints, posters, clothing, bindings, artists’ books, household and fashion items, textiles, and three reconstructions of immersive environments.
The majority her work is based in the theory of simultanisme, a proclaiming of the constructive and dynamic power of color. The show illustrates the fertile uniqueness of Sonia Delaunay by stressing her sustained dialogue with simultanisme even as she takes on the connection of art and technology by shuffling back and forth between various art forms. Her consistency of formal research, based in the synthetic, makes this show especially pertinent to our time.
Starting with her Fauvist color inspired works — that use various degrees of abstraction — Sonia Delaunay appears to be both an inventive and prolific creator, taking inspiration from the dynamism of modern life. She is a major precursor of a color abstraction that takes textiles and fashion seriously — she went so far as to resurface a sports car so as to match a dress. I noticed, in particular, a superb dress she made for Nancy Cunard that was adorned with rhythmic, joyful colors.
The show unravels chronologically, walking us step-by-step through the artistic advancement of the artist, establishing her specific place within the European avant-garde (her role as a pioneer in color-based abstraction) by highlighting the importance of her work to the applied arts.
Born 1885 in now war-torn Odessa (Ukraine) of a foreman father and a mother who could barely read, she discovered art through her maternal uncle Henri Terk, a wealthy member of the Jewish bourgeoisie in St. Petersburg. In 1904, she attended the Fine Arts Academy in Karlsruhe, Germany before coming to Paris in 1906, where she discovered Paul Gauguin and the Fauves: dedicating herself to the beauty of pure tones and solid colors. In 1907, she met Wilhelm Uhde, an art dealer, critic, and early collector of modernist painting by Picasso and Matisse. Their friendly marriage allows her to acquire French nationality.
After finding her authentic partner, Robert Delaunay (who she married in 1910 and who died in 1941), they jointly proclaimed (in 1921) the coming of a new art of Orphism based on the constructive and dynamic power of color and the simultaneous fusing of motion-with-color.
In 1913 the Delaunays showed their works in the Salon des Indépendants and the Herbst Salon, the latter being the first Orphist Salon, which also hosted works by Picabia, Metzinger, Gleizes, Léger, and a number of Futurist painters. Unlike others associated with Orphism, the Delaunays would return to this style (what they thought of as a universal language) throughout their lives, creating works that featured the joyous dance of rhythmic color. Sonia Delaunay’s work has a tendency towards non-representation that relies heavily on the fresh sensuality of colors in smooth transitions between forms (a concept derived from Neo-Impressionist color theory).
Surprised by the outbreak of the First World War during their time in Spain, the Delaunays decided to extend their stay and settle in Vigo, where Sonia, a keen observer of flamenco music and dance, executed a series of large format paintings while also taking on theater costume and fashion projects.
The following decade marked the development of a period of semi-abstraction for her, as evidenced by “Propeller design for the Palace of the Air, International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life, Paris” (1937), which was first presented at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life) the same year it was painted.
In the post-war period, she undergoes a profound renewal that culminates in the late 1960s, often calling on the free rhythm heard in jazz.
In our time, where many contemporary power artists have disgustingly worked for luxury brands, a move that has, in effect, revealed the high-end art market itself as a luxury goods business, Sonia Delaunay’s show was particularly revealing of the importance of scale. The connection between art and fashion, in-and-of-itself, is not very problematic (nor very major). It is the exploitation of that connection, on the global corporate scale, that chafes.
Sonia Delaunay’s Les couleurs de l’abstraction continues at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris (11 Avenue du Président Wilson, Paris XVIe) until February 22, 2015.