Jennifer Durrant RA on the richness of Sonia Delaunay’s life and art

Published 25 February 2015

As Sonia Delaunay’s paintings, textiles and murals come to London, painter Jennifer Durrant RA explores her vibrant work.

  • From the Spring 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    ‘Wow, what an artist!’ That was my reaction upon seeing the works – most of which are new to me – that will be on show in an engrossing exhibition at Tate Modern this spring. Sonia Delaunay was, undoubtedly, a major artist: bold, expressive, open-hearted, highly motivated, a totally modern, networking woman and designer of international renown. Did her multifaceted career hinder her from being seen as a significant force in painting until late in her very long and creative life?

    Sofia/Sara Ilinitchna Stern was born into a poor family in Ukraine in 1885. She was ‘adopted’, aged five, by her wealthy uncle Henri Terk and moved to St Petersburg, becoming Sonia Terk. One can only imagine the trauma it must have been for one so young. Did this determine her obsessiveness, her need to achieve in order to confirm her worthiness? She never saw her mother again, never spoke of the first 20 years of her life.

    During her cultured, privileged upbringing, a family friend, the German Expressionist Max Liebermann, gave her her first box of paints. When she studied in Karlsruhe, Arnold Schoenberg was a classmate, and fascinated by music and dance, Delaunay surely sensed their equivalent in painting in the rhythm, interval, complementarity and dissonance in colour.

    She arrived in 1905 in Paris, the City of Light, to take part in the great modernist movement.

    Having studied Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin’s surfaces of flat interlocking areas of colour, she began painting in a Fauvist manner. One sees in her powerful portraits of this early period, her lyricism and the noise of colour countered by the self-contained/distracted countenances of her sitters. I find the Munch-like Young Finnish Girl (1907) haunting – taut arms, nervous, clasped hands revealing discomfort.

    Through a brief marriage with the collector and gallery owner Wilhelm Uhde, she absorbed Cubism. Uhde owned 13 Braques and exhibited her work. Then there was her second marriage to the painter Robert Delaunay in 1910 – “different souls with a shared passion”. For their son Charles, she made a coverlet from fragments of fabric and fur, evoking Cubist ideas (Paul Klee would have seen it when he visited). A seminal work, it was her path to abstraction and to her textile design, which she considered “exercises in colour that inform my true passion, painting”.

    In collaboration with her husband and painter Frantisšek Kupka, Delaunay worked on early Cubist researches that Apollinaire named Orphic Cubism, or Orphism. This focused on a pure lyrical abšstraction and bright colour to communicate meaning. For Orphists, the symbol of life was light itself, into which one could be absorbed. She experimented with the scientist Michel-Eugène Chevreul’s notion of simultaneity, the sensation of concurrent movement by juxtaposing contrasting colours, creating unity from elements conventionally regarded as disharmonious – and, importantly, to me, creating the existence of an infinitude of interrelated states of being.

  • Sonia Delaunay , Electric Prisms

    Sonia Delaunay, Electric Prisms, 1913-14.

    Centre National des Arts Plastiques, Paris, France. © Pracusa 2014083.

  • 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.”


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