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June 2024

Vol. 166 / No. 1455

Sonia Delaunay: Living Art

Reviewed by Lynne Cooke

Bard Graduate Center, New York, 23rd February–7th July

Visionaries are fundamental to the avant-gardes that appeared in Europe in the inter-war years. Few, however, were as prescient, pragmatic and tactical as Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979). Over the past decade, the artistic achievements of the Ukrainian-born, Russian-educated and German-trained pioneer have been radically reappraised. Long celebrated for her contributions to histories of modernist textile and fashion, today, the ambitious entrepreneurial vision that steered her multifaceted practice is also being recognised. Taking Delaunay’s strategic self-fashioning as its lens, Living Art, at the Bard Graduate Center explores the roles that branding, marketing and the mass media played in the dissemination of her vast output, which comprises painting, embroidery, textile design, interior design, couture, tapestry, rug-making, limited edition print portfolios, graphic design, murals, mosaics and costumes and decor for theatre, film and dance. Transmuted across her oeuvre without distinction, her signature Simultanist style gave coherence and cogency to such a dazzling effusion of mediums and materials. For Delaunay, the spare Constructivist idiom in a bold palette of primary colours, plus black, symbolised modernity: dynamism, light, speed, change and mobility. 

Building on the game-changing retrospective at Tate Modern, London, and the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, in 2014, which took as its credo Delaunay’s claim that there was ‘no gap’ between her work in the fine arts and the applied arts, Living Art also benefits from subsequent exhibitions in 2022 at the Louisiana Museum, Humlebæk, and at the Kunstmuseen Krefeld.[1] These influential exhibitions generated a wealth of new scholarship, much of which is indebted to meticulous records and material archives that the artist maintained, with characteristic foresight, over the course of her long career and bequeathed to the French state. Some five years in the making, Living Art is manifestly a researchdriven project. The wall texts and object labels, brimming with incisive detail, reveal the crucial contribution of each carefully selected exhibit to the show’s textually driven narrative. The hefty catalogue, replete with twentyfour scholarly essays, suggests that this subject is far from exhausted.[2] 

The exhibition opens with a collection of watercolour studies, dated from 1913 to 1979, in which Delaunay tried out designs for sundry promotional materials and book covers. With their spare layouts – a vibrant distillation of typography and geometric forms in her trademark palette – they establish the foundations of her design language. The earliest of the group, Stationery for the Delaunay workshop (1913; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; cat. no.8), limns an abstract graphic identity for Ateliers Simultané, the brand name under which works by Sonia and her husband, the painter Robert Delaunay (1885–1941), were marketed. Beginning with Paris, their homebase, the headed paper goes on to list cities across the globe – Petrograd, Tokyo, Berlin, London and New York – a testament to the reach of their commercial ambitions. That same year she worked with Blaise Cendrars on La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France; no.20; Fig.21). A two-metre-long leporello that fused her illustrations with the text of his poem, it became a landmark in her burgeoning career. 

Following her marriage and the birth of her son, Charles, Sonia became responsible for her family’s financial well-being. With the onset of the First World War, the Delaunays decamped to the Iberian Peninsula, where Sonia, ever resourceful, established the first of what would become a series of businesses that spanned her professional life. When her redecoration of the interior of the Teatro Benavente and her designs for performance costumes for its star entertainer, the French dancer Gaby, brought her wide-ranging talents to Madrid’s cultural elite, it became a model for future ventures. 

In 1923 she received a commission from the Lyons-based high-end fabric manufacturer J.B. Martin for fifty designs to be printed on silk and velvet. This invitation spurred some of her most remarkable textile designs: large-scale motifs such as chevrons and diamonds in a non-repeating pattern. In 1925 Delaunay established her maison, Sonia, a bespoke couture business. Available by appointment, its headquarters were in the couple’s stylish apartment in a well-appointed Parisian neighbourhood. Her fledgling enterprise was transformed that year, when she collaborated with the highly regarded furrier Jacques Heim and leather goods company Girau Gilbert to present their wares in a dedicated pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industrial Modernes. Profiting from an unprecedented visibility in that prestigious Parisian forum for designers from across Europe, she forged lucrative contracts for the sale of her textiles in North America. 

Delaunay’s most memorable couture designs do not depend on the creation of novel styles of dress. Rather, she deployed trending typologies – above all, the flapper dress and the slim knee-length sheath – as vehicles to foreground her singular designs. Free from the kind of seaming, such as darts, that tailors the garment to fit the wearer’s body, such styles of dress promoted ease of movement, comfort and contemporary elegance. Delaunay supervised all aspects of fabric production – from colour matching to overseeing the translation of her gestural draftsmanship into carved woodblocks for manual printing, often in several colourways, by skilled artisans. She also closely monitored the sources through which her sumptuous cloth was dispersed: select boutiques, manufacturers and fashion houses. At the same time, she targeted a broader audience, including future clients, through the publication of limited edition portfolios of pochoir prints that featured the range of her attire. 

Restrictions of space, probably compounded by the difficulty of securing loans of rare and fragile materials, limit the range and quality of the examples of fabric and apparel on view in this exhibition. Missing are lengths of her boldest, groundbreaking textile designs, which sometimes also doubled as shawls and wraps. Despite the absence of the most memorable of her fashion statements, such as Gloria Swanson’s remarkable embroidered coat, the small selection of attire feels unduly modest, notwithstanding the inclusion of an exquisite felted-wool cloche (no.91; Fig.22) and a vest with a folkish applique design created in 1924 for Madame Paul Guillaume (1924; Musée des arts decoratifs, Paris; no.85). A section devoted to interior design comprises sketches for decor, furniture and a memorable rug titled in homage to her long-time friend and collaborator, the Romanian-born Dadaist Tristan Tzara. 

Dubbed ‘a second golden age’, the final section of the exhibition highlights Delaunay’s return to oil painting in the post-war decades: Rythme couleur (no.1633) (Colour rhythm, no.1633; 1970; Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda; no.141), a diplomatic gift from Georges Pompidou to President Richard Nixon in 1970, signals the acclaim her canvases garnered at the highest levels. In parallel, a younger generation enthusiastically embraced her textiles and fashion from the 1920s – the acme of her career, critically and financially – as forerunners of Pop and Op art. Welcoming what she considered a belated recognition, Delaunay acknowledged wryly that she had been born ‘forty years too early’ (p.17). Rythmes couleurs ou Panneau F 1898 (Colour rhythms or Panel F 1898; no.165; Fig.23), woven by the state-run Manufacture de Beauvais, is a fitting finale to this show. Belying its considerable age, the wool tapestry would be at home today in the most prestigious of cultural spaces across the globe. Such is Delaunay’s relevance for twenty-first century artists and audiences. 

[1] The retrospective in Paris was reviewed by Chris Michaelides in this Magazine, 157 (2015), pp.120–21; see also L.R. Jørgensen and T. Colstrup, eds: exh. cat. Sonia Delaunay, Humblebæk (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art) 2022; and W. Dorogova and K. Baudin, eds: exh. cat. Maison Sonia: Sonia Delaunay and the Atelier Simultané, Krefeld (Kunstmuseen) 2022. 

[2] Catalogue: Sonia Delaunay: Living Art. Edited by Waleria Dorogova and Laura Microulis. 540 pp. incl. numerous col. ills. (Bard Graduate Center, New York, 2024), $75. ISBN 978–0–30027–576–6.