Robert and Sonia Delaunay

For thirty years, until Robert Delaunay’s death, in 1941, he and his wife, Sonia, collaborated on a common body of work while maintaining their individuality as artists. For almost another forty years Sonia Delaunay continued alone, working to communicate and deepen their initial vision. For the 100th anniversary of their birth (Sonia was born in 1885, in Russia; Robert the same year, in Paris), the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris organized the first comprehensive exhibit of their work in the city where they conducted their artistic experiments.

The exhibition presented the work of the two artists in separate rooms; only preparatory drawings and models for large-scale projects—like Robert’s plans for a Palais des Chemins de Fer, 1937, and Sonia’s sketches for a Palais de l’Air, 1936—were shown together. Isolation of their work made it difficult to determine which elements of their styles were shared, which individual. This was especially true of the paintings and drawings—and, in Sonia’s case, of the furniture, clothing, and book designs—that aspired to a specifically spiritual vision: had these works been shown side by side and in greater number, their evaluation would have been made easier. The exhibition succeeded best in tracing the developments of the two artists; in delineating important stepping stones in their careers; and in suggesting differences in their temperaments, which emerge early on.

Sonia moved to Paris in 1905, following a brief enrollment at the Staatliche Akademie in Karlsruhe. In 1909 she married the German collector and critic Wilhelm Uhde, in London; she separated from him a year later to marry Aid mit Geige Delaunay. By this time she had concluded the preparatory phase of her artistic development, influenced primarily by Gauguin and Van Gogh. Portraits, and one nude, document her involvement with Fauvism: the use of color as plane and the clarity of contour already point to her later abstract compositions, with their polarized planar tensions. Her first abstract work, a blanket for the cradle of her son, Charles (born 1911), established her interest in applying artistic concepts to the objects of everyday life. She worked with serene sureness until the end of her life to express spirituality through tensions of color, form, and plane in a union of fine and applied arts.

Robert’s work, on the other hand, was characterized by his avidly experimental spirit. Using harmonic rhythms of color and light, he tried to create an art that could stand up to the modern world, and, simultaneously, that could approach the wholeness and boundlessness of the cosmos. All the artistic offerings of his time—from Fauvism and Expressionism to Futurism and Cubism—contributed to the results of this effort. Much of Delaunay’s work drew its inspiration from the city of Paris: here he found an artistic gold mine, where the static power of architecture collided head-on with the explosive dynamism of life. He searched fervently for an image through which he could evoke Paris’ spirit and modernism. The Eiffel Tower became that emblem, appearing in a number of paintings that hover between abstraction and representation. These now-trivial images of the modcrn urban world appear to anticipate a later mode of artistic appropriation of reality. Les Amoureux de Paris: Le Baiser (Paris lovers: the kiss, 1922–23)—a portrait of a kiss that floats on the picture plane in transparent, glowing colors—affords us a deeper insight into the nature of Delaunay’s endeavor to spiritualize the modern world. The exhibition was brought to a close with selected pieces from the “Rythme sans fin” (Endless rhythm) series, 1933, completed near the end of his life, which represent the artist’s testament—a testament that Sonia developed on her own after his death.

Despite widespread art-historical recognition of the importance of the Delaunays’ work in the development of early-20th-century art, their work still needs more serious study. The task remains to evaluate their specific contribution to the intellectual discourse of this century, an evaluation that this exhibit did not propose.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.