Sonia Delaunay – Compositions, Colours, Ideas. 1930
28 April 2022
Sonia Delaunay and her husband Robert Delaunay created one of the most important concepts of the early 20th century development of abstract art in Europe. Breaking away from the way that colour juxtapositions had been used by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, such as Signac with Pointillism or Matisse with Fauvism, they focused on the way that colours placed side by side in rhythmic shapes created not a visual evocation, or evocation of what the eye sees, but an optical modelling of space and movement. They called their ideas 'Simultaneous art' - 'Simultanéisme'.
Sonia was born in Ukraine near Odessa in 1885. Her father was a factory foreman but he recognised the earliest elements of her natural artistic talent and at the age of five he sent her to live with her mother’s well-off brother in St Petersburg. Precocious and wilful she did not want to follow traditional and academic artistic ideas at her art college. She wanted to be at the forefront of the new.
In her teens Sonia’s art professor, seeing her talent, persuaded her father to allow her to travel first to Germany and then to Paris. Hearing about her mixing with the young non-conformist avant-garde Paris generation of artists her father tried to force her to come back to the ‘safety’ of St. Petersburg. To escape his control in 1908 she had a marriage of convenience with an art dealer friend Wilhelm Uhde. A year later, through Uhde’s gallery, she met Robert Delaunay. Following a totally amicable divorce she and Robert were married. Together they were to prove to be one of the most influential art couples in the development of the concepts of European early 20th century abstract art.
In 1922 Sonia wrote of how she could paint a work which suggested calm, or a work which was full of febrile emotion, entirely through the way that the colours were juxtaposed and on the arrangement of the shapes and linking of the forms. This was the central tenet of her art. Hers was a full focus on colour expressed in rhythmic patterns.
Robert, on the other hand, was primarily inspired by using the shapes of buildings, especially the new Paris monuments such as the Tour Eiffel, as a source for a version of Cubism. It was a rhythmic language of architectural angularity linked to colour. By the mid 1920’s their joint large scale ideas were famous and very influential.
Sonia was also interested in a very wide range of media through which to express her ideas, not only through 'high art'. Through the years from 1918 up to the 1939 war, alongside her pictures she also became one of the leading figures in the world of couture, and fabric design in all forms, as well as in the circles of avant-garde writing and poetry. Just before the war Sonia and Robert both exhibited in major group exhibitions. Significantly Robert, whose health was already failing, called his works 'Rhythmes sans Fin' - 'Rhythms without End' whilst Sonia called hers 'Rhythmes Simultanées' - 'Simultaneous Rhythms'.
In 1941 Robert died, declaring that Sonia had been the inspiration of his art. Sonia’s interest in fashion and fabrics was also a prime influence on one of the most important elements in her art - the creation of colour compositions through the use of printing. In the post war years print-making was to be one her most important art media. The prints that she made using cut stencils to control the shapes of the areas of printed gouache colour - pochoir as it was then called - are amongst the greatest and most expressive in her graphic oeuvre.
The series 'Compositions Couleurs Idées'
The very earliest examples of the synergy between colour and rhythmic arrangements of shape in Sonia Delaunay’s graphic art and design were in this series of stencil-pochoir prints. Using gouache-type inks with brilliant tones and a dense matt surface, they were created starting in 1928 and then issued in 1930. As noted in the 1977 Paris Bibliothèque Nationale exhibition catalogue 'Sonia et Robert Delaunay' these were the first ‘colour-abstract’ prints in her oeuvre. Her other stencil prints all date from the post-war era of the 1950’s and 1960’s. This exhibition includes all the compositions in this first series.