Sonia Delaunay lived in – and created – a world of colour. Along with her husband, painter Robert Delaunay, she explored how pure, abstract hues and tones (‘colour rhythms’) could stimulate the senses. Whilst Robert’s work mainly focused on painting, Sonia’s scope was considerably broader and, early in her career, she translated her bold, instantly-recognisable visuals onto clothes, bags, furniture, textiles… even cars. However, it’s redundant to consider Sonia and Robert purely on the work they created, because the duo were in fact at the forefront of Parisian creativity in the early decades of the 20th century, shaping and defining a new visual language called ‘simultaneity’ – the idea that contrasting colours create movement and can have a life and meaning of their own.
Electric Prisms by Sonia Delaunay (1913)
The movement might have been born in tandem, but for a long time – as is so often the case with female artists – it was Robert the history books remembered. His paintings cast big shadows over her ‘decorative’ textile work, despite the fact they explored the same theories and ideas. But this omission isn’t solely the fault of historians. Sonia painted before she met Robert (at a party in 1907) and continued to paint for many years after his early death from cancer in 1941. There are suggestions that he was jealous of her fame and recognition, that she publicly downplayed her artistic endeavours and shifted the focus to her role as a mother. But even there she found an outlet for her creativity, cutting up her young son’s blankets and stitching them back to together in ‘improved’ ways.
Sonia Terk was born in the small village of Gradizhsk (then Russian, now Ukranian) in 1885. Her family were poor Jewish labourers, and Sonia was swiftly adopted by a wealthy uncle and transported to St Petersburg. There, she lived in a lavish home filled with books, paintings and art and spent time visiting the city’s many museums and galleries. Apparently Max Lieberman, the famous German Impressionist painter and a close family friend, gifted Sonia her first set of paints. Those early experiences surely set her on the creative path: first she studied art in Germany and then in Paris, where she would meet (and marry) Robert. After the birth of their son she turned her attention to crafts, decorating their apartments with furnishings inspired by her artistic training but also the ‘pure’ colour she remembered from her childhood in Ukraine, and the bright costumes worn at peasant weddings. Fashion design soon followed, garment versions of the new language the couple were starting to create. These clothing designs directly influenced her own painting – in fact, Bal Bullier, one of her most famous, plays on a dress she designed and wore.
History, in the shape of World War I, intervened and the Delaunay’s were forced to move to Madrid after the Russian Revolution stemmed the funding flow from Sonia’s uncle. It was a surprisingly serendipitous move however, as it was in Madrid that Sonia opened an interiors boutique and first met Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the acclaimed dance company the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev persuaded the couple to assist with his 1918 production of Cléopâtre. Robert would design the sets, Sonia the costumes. Although little evidence remains of the artistic collaboration, that which does evidences how Sonia was able to translate her art into costume. The colourful geometric quilting, emphasised with beading, mirrored inlays and pearl embellishments, could have come from the same preliminary sketches of Bal Bullier.
Whilst the Ballets Russes collaboration allowed Sonia to expand her artistic skillset, it also opened the doors to other creative partnerships, as avant-garde directors and filmmakers tapped her (and often Robert) to lend their modern visual language to their artistic endeavours. After the Delaunay’s moved back to Paris, they were approached by Marcel L’Herbier and René Le Somptier, who were keen for the couple to ‘dress’ two (separate) films. An odd move, considering that the Delaunay’s aesthetic celebrated colour and both films were due to be filmed in black and white, but a powerful reminder of how influential the couple were seen to be, and how their visual language was associated with the modern ideas of chic and (pre)‘deco’ that both directors were keen to convey.
Stills from Le Vertige (Dir: Marcel L’Herbier, 1926)
Set in Russia, Marcel L’Herbier’s film Le Vertige (released in 1926) opens with the overthrow of the Czar during the Russian Revolution. L’Herbier’s muse Jaque Catelainis was cast in a dual role as a murdered officer and a ‘living image’ who haunts the French Riviera. The dual role called for contrasting costume designs – Sonia provided sportswear and luxurious loungewear whilst Parisian tailor Yose provided sharp double-breasted jackets. Robert contributed to the sets, and some of the paintings – in fact, the glamour of Paris is represented through Robert’s famous Eiffel Tower paintings.
Stills from Le P’tit Parigot (Dir:René Le Somptier, 1926)
Similarly, René Le Somptier’s film Le P’tit Parigot (‘The Small Parisian One’, also released in 1926) utilises the Delaunay look to convey a certain flapper spirit. Shot in six parts, Sonia was responsible for the costumes, and again, Robert contributed to the sets, including several canvases that were exhibited at the 1925 Paris exhibition. Full disclaimer: I haven’t actually seen this film as it’s virtually impossible to source, but (limited) online synopsis suggests that it tells the story of ‘P’tit Parigot’, son of a professor and captain of a football team, who quarrels with his father and runs away to become a mechanic (further plot explanations very welcome!). Plenty of stills exist from the production, which is similar in look and feel to L’Herbier’s and even seems to include another of Sonia’s geometric dressing gowns. One in particular is visually arresting: Romanian dancer Lizicai Codreanu performs wearing a zig-zag patterned costumes with a large disk shaped collar (the disk was a recurring motif in both Sonia and Robert’s work).
What’s interesting about Sonia’s involvement with these avant-garde films is that, at the same time, she was also collaborating with the Amsterdam department store of Metz & Co and developing a line of furs and accessories with couturier Jacques Heim. These profitable collaborations (and the interiors store in Madrid and a later partnership with the Liberty store in London) that provided a source of income for the family, facilitated the ‘avant-garde’ partnerships and allowed Robert to keep on painting. This mix of low and high sensibilities now looks very modern, but it was probably another barrier that prevented Sonia from being viewed as a serious artist – quite simply, her multi-genre/commercial work enforced a designer-and-maker label that disregarded her early, more purely ‘artistic’ works. Ironically, it was these commercial partnerships that sold Simultaneity to the masses and extended its reach far beyond the confines of Paris through spreads in fashion and lifestyle magazines.
Although Delaunay was recognised in her later years – and was in fact the first living female artist to be honoured with a solo exhibition at the Louvre (in1964) – it’s telling that the ten-year period she spent designing clothes and textiles and fostering creative collaborations remain somewhat overlooked. The bold geometric designs she favoured resonated with women of the era (including Gloria Swanson and Nancy Cunard) and allowed them to express new, bolder aspects of femininity – but this commercial success came at a price. Choosing applied art over fine art and utilising her ideas for ‘everyday’ designs pushed her work into the domestic sphere but simultaneously broke down the barriers between art and craft. In many ways, she is one of the defining artists of the 20th century.
Further reading: Sonia Delaunay by David Seidner / Colour Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay by Matilda McQuaid / The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern (opens 15 April 2015)