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Sonia Delaunay

By Dr. Charles Cramer and Dr. Kim Grant
Sonia Delaunay, Bal Bullier, 1913, oil on canvas, 97 x 336.5 cm (MNAM Centre Pompidou)
Almost eleven feet wide, Sonia Delaunay’s Bal Bullier creates an overwhelming impression of brilliant color and movement. The composition juxtaposes rectangular geometric forms and circles with more fluid curved shapes, loosely structured across the canvas in a rhythmic pattern of dark and light verticals.

A modern dance hall

The Bal Bullier was a dance hall in Paris that Delaunay frequently visited with her husband, Robert. Her painting shows a scene of modern urban life comparable to those painted by the Impressionists in the late 19th century, such as Auguste Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette.
If you look closely at the dark shapes in the center you will see the abstracted forms of couples dancing the tango. The dance, which originated in sailors’ bars in Argentina, was very popular in Paris in the early 20th century. It is renowned for its erotic intensity and requires a very tight embrace between partners, which Delaunay represents in the interlocking curves of the figures.
The Delaunays were committed to developing Simultanism as a post-Cubist style of modern painting focused on color relationships, and to the depiction of modern subjects. In addition to the dance hall, Sonia painted the new electric street lights in Paris, and Robert painted the Eiffel Tower, rugby matches, and airplanes.
Sonia Delaunay, Electrical Prisms, 1914, oil on canvas, 250 x 250 cm (MNAM Centre Pompidou)
Sonia’s Electrical Prisms is both a display of color relationships and an abstracted depiction of her first experience of electric streetlights on a Paris boulevard. The streetlights become discs of radiating color that permeate the entire canvas, but there are also suggestions of solid forms. A tall kiosk with books or magazines is on the left, and parts of some shadowy figures appear in the lower half of the painting, almost completely absorbed into the brilliant colors of the electric light.

Intuition vs. intellect

While Robert studied scientific color theory, they both described Sonia’s approach to their new style as intuitive. This is a cliché of traditional Western gender roles — the male as rational and intellectually inclined, the female as naturally gifted and intuitive — but it is a cliché that they both embraced.
Interestingly, in Western art theory color is thought to appeal directly to the senses, in contrast to drawing’s supposed appeal to the intellect; thus, Sonia’s purportedly intuitive approach to color was aligned with traditional Western conceptions of color’s role in art. It should be noted, however, that Sonia formally studied art for several years in a German academy and an art school in Paris, while Robert’s formal artistic training was limited to a two-year apprenticeship with a theatrical designer in Paris.

The influence of craft

Sonia’s use of color was also sometimes explained by another cliché of the early 20th century, the influence of peasant crafts on her work. Since the late 19th century, modern artists such as Gauguin had admired, and appropriated, the purportedly naive, untutored styles of peasant art, which were often vividly colored and non-naturalistic.
Sonia Delaunay, Blanket, 1911, fabric, 109 x 81 cm (MNAM, Centre Pompidou)
Sonia herself claimed that the patchwork blanket she made for her son in 1911 was inspired by peasant blankets she remembered seeing in Russia as a child. Its irregular grid of largely rectangular geometric forms was also similar to contemporary Cubist painting. Sonia saw her blanket as an important influence on her and Robert’s subsequent development of Simultanist paintings.

Abstraction and decoration

Sonia’s blanket and its influence raises a key issue for modern abstract art — its relationship to crafts and the decorative arts. The use of non-representational forms and patterns has a long history in Western crafts and decorative arts; it was the so-called fine arts of painting and sculpture that traditionally relied on representational subject matter. When modern painters began to use non-naturalistic colors and abstract forms in the early 20th century, one of their primary concerns was to prove that their paintings were not “mere” decoration. This is one reason why many of the first modern artists to embrace pure abstraction took so long do so and wrote extensive justifications, often claiming exalted spiritual motivations for their abstraction.

Abstraction and representation

Unlike many of their contemporaries who developed abstract painting styles that progressed from representation to pure abstraction, the Delaunays painted representational and non-representational Simultanist works at the same time. Modern objects such as the Eiffel Tower and airplanes as well as scenes of dance halls and rugby games were enveloped in the prismatic color planes of Simultanism. Like the Italian Futurists, the Delaunays created a post-Cubist style appropriate to the modern city, and Sonia expanded her art beyond the limits of the easel painting to engage with everyday life.

Going beyond painting

Sonia Delaunay wearing her Simultaneous Dress in 1913
The same year that she painted Bal Bullier Sonia made herself a Simultaneous Dress. Like her earlier blanket, it was a colorful patchwork of geometric shapes, but the dress was made to be seen in public. She wore it to the dance hall with Robert, who also wore clothes in vivid contrasting colors. By attiring themselves in the colors and forms of their painting they became living, moving artworks, Simultanist human beings.
Sonia dreamed of transforming everything around her, and she created and exhibited bookbindings, home furnishings, and posters in the Simultanist style in 1913. After World War I, she became a very successful designer of clothing and interior furnishings, and colorful contrasts of geometric forms remained characteristic of her work.

A Simultanist book

Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, 1913, 196.9 × 35.6 cm (MoMA)
One of Sonia’s most famous early creations is the Simultanist book she designed in collaboration with the poet Blaise Cendrars titled La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France.
Unfolded, the book is six feet long. Delaunay and Cendrars initially intended to publish 150 copies, which opened together in a line would have equaled the height of the Eiffel Tower. The text of Cendrars’ poem is printed in multiple colors and varied fonts on the right, while Delaunay’s largely abstract Simultanist designs parallel it on the left, with panels of lighter colors also interspersed throughout the text.
The poem combines disjointed thoughts, repeated refrains, and references to a trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad, of which there is a map at the top. Time and place shift throughout the text, with Paris as a constant presence. Sonia’s colorful abstract forms swirl down the long sheet, looping into circles that visually echo the poem’s evocation of the train’s rolling motion.
Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, 1913, detail (MoMA)
The poem ends with a Paris scene next to the only clear representational form in the design – a red Eiffel Tower accompanied by a circle reminiscent of the giant Paris Ferris wheel.
When fully unfolded, the designs on the left side seem to ascend like clouds of brightly colored smoke from the Eiffel Tower to the beginning of the poem at the top, where the viewer is led to read the poem down the right side. Thus, the open book creates a continuous circuit with the tower standing like an anchor at the bottom.
Simultanism was developed in a collaboration between Sonia and Robert Delaunay, but it extended well beyond that initial relationship. It became an approach to modern art and style that worked to bridge the distances between the visual arts and literature, the fine and decorative arts, and the art and spectacles of the modern urban world.

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