The brink of the First World War saw, among other great things, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring performed, Futurists in Italy, Malevich’s Suprematism, the Blue Rider Group, Scriabin’s Eighth and Ninth Piano Sonatas, and Delaunay beginning her series of paintings inspired by Le Bal Bullier,
a Parisian night spot. Here, rhythmically entwined figures dance, punctuated by earthy tones and, significantly, arcs of new electric lights appear. Nothing is stationary. Encouraged by her husband, Delaunay started to draw directly onto canvas with colour, without preliminary drawing, and her brushmarks constructed colour areas with ‘furry-like’ edges, as in her pastels (and recalling the early stitched work, Foliage, 1909).
In the series ‘Electric Prisms’, some works are non-figurative, their surfaces fluctuating with the manner of their making. Blaise Cendrars was described by Delaunay as “the greatest poet of our time”, and their meeting led to her joyous pictorial interpretation of his poem, The Prose of the Trans- Siberian…, in an innovative, scroll-like work – known as a ‘simultaneous book’, for the way
it unified painting and text. Embedded, surprisingly, in the left-hand side of Electric Prisms (1914, pictured) is a poster for this famous poem.
In this painting, I sense figures with haloes, auras perhaps, colour bands of sound, radiant light and vibration. I am reminded of Buddhist cave paintings I have visited in north-west China, but here there is no calm or peace, nor the ‘activity in tranquility’ I seek in my own work. As friends, Kupka, Kandinsky, Schoenberg and the Delaunays were exposed to Theosophy, which incorporates aspects of Buddhism and Brahmanism, especially a belief in spiritual evolution. They shared an interest in mysticism, Kupka being a practising medium.
With the loss of financial support from her family after the Russian Revolution, Delaunay concentrated on textile design, and their bewitching Rousseau, The Snake Charmer (1907) – commissioned by Robert’s mother – was sold. Delaunay saw “no gap between painting and my ‘decorative’ work”. She became a wealthy designer.
On her return to painting, a troubled Europe, again, and the early death of Robert in 1941 are reflected in the dark calling in her work. Gone is the joie de vivre, replaced by an angry, painful, painterly experience. One finds opaque colour, crisp edges; my eye moves, yet I am anchored. Black, with its own sensuosity, dominates – is it a void or closed surface? Burnt reds are overtaken by the jangle of white and black, citrus greens that are a result of over-painting, and impenetrable greys (the muted Coloured Rhythm, 1952). In the late works the pitch is constant, the palette similar. Triptych (1963) is a remarkable cacophony of gongs or solemn, chiming bells. Harshened vermilion, and richly darkened – and also lightened – viridian, make sonorous tones against the blacks.
Do not these grand works vibrate, shout and cry out with the clamour of sound? And
are there echoes? Kandinsky believed every work must announce, “Here I am”. Yes, this is elegiac painting. I sense a meshed veil closing as loosely assembled, vigorously painted blocks move across from the right in Coloured Rhythm (1968). Delaunay was in her 70s and 80s when she made these revelatory works. She continued working until her death, aged 94, in 1979. This remarkable woman was able to say: “…I have done everything, I have lived my art.”