Sonia Delaunay: Art and Design

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I finally saw the well deserved retrospective of Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern  just before it closed.  Much seems to be made of the rehabilitation of modernist women artists by Tate over the past year, but it seems unhelpful, almost regressive, to highlight their gender; one hopes they would have been deemed worthy of exhibition regardless.  (Indeed I don’t remember a retrospective of Robert Delaunay’s work on this scale in my lifetime, so it’s hardly as if Sonia has been badly done by).  Overlooking any curatorial bias, it is a well designed presentation of a remarkable artistic career.

La Finlandaise 1907Sonia’s early work, such as ‘Yellow Nude’ (above, 1908), shows her absorbing the profusion of modernist styles that burst forth in the early years of the 20th century.  In ‘Yellow Nude’ the angular dark outlines and acidic colours of the German Expressionist ‘Die Brucke’ artists are a clear influence; in others, the cloisonniste colouration of early Gauguin and Emile Bernard  jumps out, or the pure Fauvist hues of Matisse and his use of patterned textile backdrops in ‘Young Finnish Woman’ (above left, 1907).

Sonia’s interest in using an array of media and crossing the boundaries between art, craft, literature and performance can be seen from early on in her career.  A patchwork cradle cover of 1911 and a painted coffer are equally effective manifestations of her experimentation with colour theory and an increasing abstraction of form, while her friendship with the poet Blaise Cendrars led to illustrated prose poems in 1913.

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It is at this point, as the exhibition begins to explore her developing abstraction through an exploration of colour contrasts, that Sonia’s husband Robert should have made an appearance.  The couple met in 1907 and married in 1910, and together evolved the theory – or two man movement – known as Simultanism (or later, Orphism).  Nevertheless, the space is amply filled by Sonia’s large canvases, with standout works such as ‘Bal Bullier’ (above, 1912-13) and ‘Electric Prisms’ (below, 1914).

Sonia Delaunay, Prismes electriques 1914 (Download high resolution image 670.56 KB) Prismes electriques 1914 © Pracusa 2013057 © CNAP

The Delaunays went to Spain when war broke out in 1914, and it was in Madrid four years later after the Russian Revolution cut off support from her Russian family that Sonia opened her shop, Casa Sonia.  Here, the large gallery devoted to her textile and fashion designs is a treasure trove of original designs, fabric samples, garments, archive photographs and film.  03-sonia-delaunay-tate-700x1146The designs themselves are deceptively simple but extraordinary in repetition, and must have made a bold impact in post-war Europe.  The influence of her work with graphic design and her friendship with Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, are both evident.

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Some of the monochrome designs seem to anticipate Bridget Riley’s Op Art by several decades.  The wool-worked swimsuits however, though beautifully sewn, look rather impractical.  Back in Paris, Sonia showed her designs at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925, from which Le Corbusier coined the term ‘Art Deco’ – and she appears an ideal figurehead for this modern and urbane style.

Considering her disregard of boundaries between the art forms, it should have been no surprise to learn that Sonia was closely associated with the Dada movement at this time, collaborating with its poets to produce ‘dress-poems’, their words incorporated within her dress designs.  Costume and set design – of ‘Le Petit Parigot’ in 1926 for example – were a natural progression for an artist so allied to the performative element in art.

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In 1937 the Delaunays were given the opportunity to work on a larger scale than ever before, producing panels to decorate the ‘Pavillon des Chemins de Fer’ and the ‘Palais de l’Air’ for that year’s Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris.  For the latter, three enormous murals depicting a propeller (above), an engine and an instrument panel were created, here displayed in their own gallery where their colour still has the power to astonish.  The combination of such bold flat colour planes with mechanical forms outlined against them strongly foreshadows pop art, especially calling to mind Patrick Caulfield and Michael Craig-Martin.

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Robert died in 1941 in the South of France, and Sonia’s paintings after this blow returned to the abstract geometric forms of simultanism, though the palette alters.  First lighter pastel colours emerge, then darker and more opaque pigment from the 1950s, and new elements are introduced as the concentric circles are diminished to make way for rectilinear forms and curving lines – the last most overtly in ‘Syncopated Rhythm known as the Black Snake’ (above 1967).

Considering how well suited her work is for reproduction it is astonishing that Tate has produced not a single postcard; Sonia, with her excellent commercial sense, would surely be dismayed by this failing.

Prague Part I: The Kampa Museum

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On a sunny April morning I walked down from Vinohrady, through Charles Square and across the river to Kampa Park.  The Kampa Museum is the vision of Meda Mladek, a Czech-American art collector and historian, the building a transformation of the historical Sova’s Mills.  The project almost came to grief as the Vltava flooded shortly after the museum’s initial opening, as Mladek recalls in an interview…

‘The really important art was upstairs with the exception of three very beautifully carved big columns. Because the windows were broken, everything that was wood floated out. The glass paintings you see on the wall – the whole wall was full of them – but they were mainly destroyed’ (Radio Praha interview, 12 September 2003)

However, like many other buildings in Prague, it survived and reopened in autumn 2003, extending its ebullient ethos out into the Vltava itself – in the form of a small army of yellow penguins.  These are the work of a collective known as the Cracking Art Group, who aim to ‘change art history through a strong social and environmental commitment and the innovative use of different recycled plastic materials.’  The penguins are made from recycled water bottles rescued from landfill sites.  The statement in this case is made more complex by the proximity of the mighty river that left such devastation in its wake.  As so often, recycling has a questionable impact when considered alongside nature’s vastness and power.

One half of the L-shaped building is dedicated to a permanent exhibition of Central European art from the Communist era.  Mladek describes it as

‘…art from the period when the Communists took over power, especially when the Russians occupied the country. This was the traumatic time for everybody – when the artists could not sell and nobody had the right to write about them so that they were totally forgotten.’ (Radio Praha interview, 12 September 2003)

This is what has stimulated her collection and her desire to turn the former mills into somewhere that this art can be seen and celebrated. Mladek started collecting modern and contemporary Czech art in 1968, filling a house in Washington; but only recently have these pieces returned to their homeland, allowing these works of silent protest to finally be seen by those they were intended to speak for.

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In one of the sun-filled rooms stands a melancholy assembly of emaciated figures who have disappeared leaving just their clothes, petrified.  This is Josef Lukomski’s ‘Cum Tacent Clamant’ (Their silence is more expressive than words…) 1978-84.

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Magdalena Abakanowicz’s ‘Figures’ (late 1980s?) follows this theme with crowds of  anonymous, headless forms.  The idea of ‘the countless’ is a recurrent preoccupation in her work; she sees crowds as ‘a mysterious assemblage of variants of a certain prototype, a riddle of nature abhorrent to exact repetition or inability to produce it, just as a human hand can not repeat its own gesture’.  So each form is unique in its physical detail, but en masse the individual is transformed into a cog;  Abakanowicz likens being in a crowd to ‘fading among the anonymity of glances, movements, smells, in the common absorption of air, in the common pulsation of juices under the skin…’  In the context of Soviet-era Poland, where she worked, such figures ‘constitute a warning, a lasting anxiety.’

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In contrast is the pop art style of Zdenek Sykova’s ‘Black-White Structure’ (1964) which both abstracts form and objectifies the means of expression, denying the emotional and political sub-narrative that imbues so many of the other works displayed.

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The other half of the museum focuses on perhaps the most famous Czech modernist, Frantisek Kupka, and the sculptor Otto Gutfreund.  The collection is revelatory in documenting the evolution of Kupka’s style, from the early influence of Mucha and Klimt (as in the study for the Song of Songs, c.1905-7) to the well-known abstract works that draw on Orphic Cubism, Futurism and Russian Constructivism.  ‘Lo, La Vache’ (above, 1910), a woman’s profile adeptly sketched in oil that falls somewhere between Toulouse-Lautrec and Cocteau, hangs beyond the bronze ‘Lovers’ by Gutfreund, little Henry Moore-esque studies who have come alive and met at last.

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‘Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colours’ (1912) illustrates the pared-down abstraction that led to Kupka’s affiliation with Orphism – indeed, the term itself was coined by Apollinaire in reference to Kupka’s work at the Salon de la Section d’Or in 1912.  In Apollinaire’s terms, ‘an Orphic painter’s works should convey an untroubled aesthetic pleasure, but at the same time a meaningful structure and sublime significance.’  The use of musical terminology in the title was typical of Orphists – for instance, Kandinsky’s ‘Compositions’ – as were the colour theories outlined by Delaunay in which brilliant colour could function as both form and expression.

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But a pastel like ‘Study for the Planes by Colours’ (1909) shows that, far from rejecting the figurative, these works evolved out of life studies of the human form. And rather than working to eliminate artistic identity, Kupka always remains painterly, his brushstroke visible even in the most abstract compositions.

After admiring the view from the terrace, the majestic sight of the castle framed within a geometric structure, I descended to the courtyard – a veritable asylum of crazy contemporary sculpture – and out into the sunny streets of Prague again…