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Paris' Museum of Modern Art opens exhibition of the work of Sonia Delaunay
A file picture taken in March 1973 shows French artist Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) posing in her flat in Nice, southeastern France. Almost always associated, artistic couple Sonia and Robert Delaunay are among the pioneers of abstraction. Paris' Museum of Modern Art presents a retrospective of Sonia Delaunay from October 17, 2014 to February 22, 2015. AFP PHOTO / RALPH GATTI.

PARIS.- For this first major Sonia Delaunay retrospective in Paris since 1967, the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris is bringing together three remarkably recreated environments and over 400 works: paintings, wall decorations, gouaches, prints, fashion items and textiles. Tracing the artist's evolution since the beginning of the 20th century to the late 1970s, this monographic exhibition highlights her work in the applied arts, her distinctive place in Europe's avant- garde movements and her major role as a pioneering abstractionist.

A generously documented chronology illustrates the richness and singularity of an oeuvre marked by an ongoing dialogue between the arts. One feature that stands out overall is a personal approach to colour that harks back to Sonia Delaunay's childhood in Russia and her art study years in Germany.

While Robert Delaunay was busy conceptualising abstraction as a universal language, Sonia was testing it out in painting, posters, garments, bookbinding and household items, and collaborating with poet Blaise Cendrars on the artist's book Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France. Her Spanish and Portuguese years during the First World War saw her first ventures into theatre and, before her return to Paris in the 1920s, commercial fashion design in Madrid. The following decade brought a pared-down abstraction in the international style that harmonised with the architecture of the time, as in the big mural decorations for the Air Transport Pavilion at the International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life, on show here for the first time since 1937. Her role as a "go-between" for the pioneers of abstraction and the postwar generation is pointed up through her contributions to the Salons des Réalités Nouvelles, her involvement in various architecture projects and her exhibitions at the Denise René gallery in Paris: after the war her painting underwent a profound renewal, culminating in the late 1960s in an intensely poetic form of abstraction. Her formal and technical gifts found expression in monumental paintings, mosaics, carpets and tapestries, and her late work was marked by the albums of etchings she produced for Editions Artcurial.

Also including recreations of groups and arrangements of her work, together with photos and films of the period, the exhibition emphasises the paradox of an oeuvre which, while very much of its time — from the Belle Epoque to the 1970s – remains ageless in its unceasing formal explorations and its quest for a synthesis of all the arts.

As a child, Sonia Terk often went on holiday to her family’s house at Novaya-Kirka in Finland. Her paintings and drawings of the local peasants enable us to follow her development as a young artist. Their precision and realism, typical of the Germanic tradition, are evidence of the academic nature of the training she received in Karlsruhe in 1904. The realism of the paintings from 1907 and 1908 sometimes verges on caricature. The coloured shadows and her arrangements of colours, unconcerned with realism, betray the influences of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Matisse. Her Russian roots and her taste for popular art can be detected in the thick black lines separating areas of bright colour, in the hieratic poses of her characters, and in the backgrounds of precious metal paint suggestive of icon painting.

Expressive colour
When she arrived in Paris, Sonia Terk discovered the Fauves’ paintings, and the work of Gauguin. Following their example, she quickly tried using flat areas of pure colour. At that time she painted the portraits of unknown people and of close friends (her dressmaker Philomène, for example, and her friend the Russian poet Tchouiko). Their faces, although passive, are easily recognisable – Sonia intentionally exaggerated their distinctive features. Their expressiveness seems to be in the colour, the discordant contrasts of cold and warm hues. As with those of Matisse, her figures sometimes stand out against ornamented backgrounds. In 1907, Sonia met Wilhelm Udhe, a staunch defender of Picasso and Matisse at the Galerie Notre-Dame-des-Champs. The following year, Udhe organised Sonia’s first one-woman show and, in December, the two of them made a marriage of convenience.

Le simultané
In 1912, Sonia and Robert Delaunay moved towards abstraction and proclaimed the birth of a new art based on the constructive and dynamic power of colour. They called it Simultanism. In addition to painting, Sonia Delaunay experimented with a variety of supports and techniques which, along with the arts of poetry, fashion and advertising, constituted the new environment of the modern man. The Delaunay’s apartment, now an exhibition space, the dance hall, the street and, soon, the entire town were decked out in rhythmic, cheerful colours.

Modern life Fascinated by the powers of natural and electric light which underlie the theory of the simultaneous contrast of colours, the Delaunays were looking for a kind of art capable of embodying modern life and reflecting the simultaneity of the world. Paris, the modern city par excellence, inspired Sonia Delaunay to sketch studies of crowds on the Boulevard St Michel, it also inspired advertising projects taken from the facades of Parisian buildings, her series Le Bal Bullier, and the remarkable painting Les Prismes électriques, which is a kaleidoscope of light and an exalted expression of the dynamism of modern life.

The Delaunays were on holiday in Hondarribia, in the north of Spain, when war broke out. They decided to extend their stay on the Iberian Peninsula and moved to Vigo, in Portugal, where they made friends with Portuguese avant-garde artists. They joined forces with them on exhibition and publication projects; Sonia Delaunay’s ideas for the cover of Album n° 1 are from one of them. The intense pure light in Portugal and the fabulous colours in the markets were an opportunity for Sonia to return to figurative painting, which she did with a vengeance in large, dynamic compositions blending colourist still lifes and landscapes with scenes from everyday life.

Having been the privileged observer of flamingo dances during her stay in Madrid, Sonia Delaunay celebrated these scenes of Mediterranean joy in a number of large-scale paintings. In the Chanteurs flamencos and Danseuses series, the central figure radiates from the middle of thousands of concentric circles with no figurative description to trouble the stylised representation. The circular composition and the arrangement of the colours accentuate the impression of swirling movement.

19, boulevard Malesherbes
In 1921, the Delaunays returned permanently to France in order to open a fashion business in Paris. They moved to 19 Boulevard Malesherbes, where all the international artistic and literary avant-garde came to visit them. The two-storey apartment was living quarters, reception room, and at the same time a dressmaking workshop where Russian seamstresses worked, and fitting room for customers of the fashion boutique. It was also used as a photographic studio where models posed, including Sonia herself, in a totally simultanist décor.

The factory
In 1924, Sonia Delaunay set up the Simultaneous textile design workshop in the middle of her apartment. Following on from what she had done in Madrid, she employed Russian workers there to copy her fabric designs, to draw and make up her models, to knit things in wool, and to embroider woollen scarves and coats. In March 1925, she created her own shop, named Sonia or Sonia Delaunay, to sell the items made in the workshop. The samples of fabric and the few clothes that remain from this commercial venture, along with the fashion designs, a colour film, photographs and the way they were published in the press, are evidence of the extraordinary diversity of the items presented at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts, 1925, that were described as ‘art models’.

Simultané Theatre
While they were in Spain, the Delaunays were in contact with Tristan Tzara and the principal figures of the Dada movement. When they returned to Paris, they took part in Dada events such as the famous Evening Of The Bearded Heart. Sonia Delaunay designed two of the costumes for Tzara’s play The Gas-Operated Heart, and the yellow dancer’s costume for La Danseuse Jaune, which was to be danced by Lizica Codreano. Delaunay took part in the great Montparnasse balls that Ilia Zdanevich organised for the Cherez group of emigre Russians. The costumes she designed for the theatre, for ballets and the cinema were a wonderful outcome of her research into the scenic possibilities of Simultanisme.

The Palais de l’Air
The dome of the Palais de l’Air (the Air Transport Pavilion) was designed by Félix Aublet. It was completely transparent, enabling visitors to see from outside, by day or night, the coloured, Rhodoïd plastic globes and the gangway inside, spiralling around a hanging aeroplane. Two other planes stood on plinths above the ground, along with several engines and moving aeroplane propellers. The walls supporting the dome were decorated with colossal paintings. Three panels to depict ‘motors, searchlights, the instrument panel, rev counters, speedometers, precision, test machinery, etc.’ were commissioned from Sonia Delaunay. The mechanical subjects she chose to depict were The Propeller, The Aeroplane Engine, and The Instrument Panel. The pavilion was a perfect illustration of synthesis in the arts. It was a homogeneous creation in which architecture, painting, decoration and sculpture combined in one single statement.

On 9 June 1940, the Delaunays left Paris for Châtel-Guyon. They took with them as many of their artworks as possible, storing the rest at their farm in Gambais. They did not stay long in Mougins. Robert Delaunay became seriously ill there and had to be transferred to hospital in Montpellier, where he died on 25 October 1941. Sonia Delaunay then joined Jean Arp, Sophie Taueber-Arp, and Alberto and Suzi Magnelli, who had taken refuge in Grasse. They formed a small artistic community and continued with work on abstract painting that they had begun before the war. They realised a joint album of lithographs which, after various adventures, was finally published by Nourritures Terrestres in 1950. The Arps went to Switzerland in 1942, and then the Magnellis returned secretly to Paris in 1944, leaving Sonia on her own in Grasse to look after their artworks. During the summer, she went to Toulouse where she met up again with Wilhelm Udhe, who was staying with Jean Cassou and Tristan Tzara. She stayed with them for three months and worked on her interior decoration projects for the headquarters of the International Red Cross.

Reinventing abstraction
After the war, Sonia Delaunay took up painting again and contributed towards recognition of her husband’s work, most notably by helping organise his first retrospective exhibition at the Galerie Louis Carré, in 1946. She was seen as the indispensable link between the generation of pioneers of abstract art and the rising stars alongside whom she exhibited at the Galerie Denise René. Her painting underwent a profound change. Her repertoire of geometric forms was enriched by her textile projects. Once again, black took up much of her palette, which she simplified in favour of bright, strongly contrasting colours.

Although most of the exhibitions in which she took part were devoted to the Delaunays as a couple, her first successful solo exhibitions were abroad. She had an important retrospective at the Städtisches Kunsthaus in Bielefeld, in 1958.

The Gouaches
Sonia Delaunay thought of her large-scale gouaches as works in their own right and frequently displayed them in galleries on an equal footing with her paintings. She used them to experiment with combinations of shapes and colours, which she later used on other supports. The most accomplished drawings, however, must not be confused with her preparatory sketches. In fact some of them pick up on patterns used in previous paintings in order to try out different ways of using theem. At the end of Sonia Delaunay’s life, the aesthetics of her gouaches influenced the whole of her work: her last oil paintings had the mattness and the opacity of watercolours, and her tapestries imitated the effect of a pencil rubbed on a sheet of paper.

In 1963, with the agreement of her son Charles, Sonia Delaunay donated 114 works signed by herself and Robert Delaunay to the Musée National d’Art Moderne. Fourteen years later the Bibliothèque Nationale received a second donation of a large batch of drawings, prints, books and textiles, as well as numerous documents (photographs, newspapers, etc.). The Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the Musée de l’Impression sur Étoffes in Mulhouse were also the recipients of generous donations by the artist. The Musée National d’Art Moderne organised the first large Sonia Delaunay retrospective in 1967. But although recognition of her work was slow in coming, in the late 1960s she was elevated to the highest ranks. From then on she was highly esteemed both for her original contribution to the beginnings of abstraction and for the originality and freedom of her more recent creations. Sonia Delaunay’s later work was marked by an oscillation between reinterpretations of old motifs and the creation of new forms – a costume project from the 1920s, for example, might become the subject of a painting, while a gouache might be turned into a large-scale tapestry. In 1977, at the age of ninety-two, Sonia was still pursuing her dream of bringing art into day-to-day life and she collaborated with Artcurial in the creation of limited editions of everyday objects.

The exhibition will be on show at Tate Modern in London between 15 April and 9 August 2015.

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