Lynne Cooke on the art of Sonia Delaunay
ABSENT FROM THE FIRST RANK in modernist art histories, Sonia Delaunay occupies a prime place in narratives of twentieth-century textile design and fashion.1 A current retrospective calls that long-standing evaluation into question. Boldly redefining its subject as an “avant-gardist, entrepreneur and commercially minded businesswoman”—descriptors that reverberate richly today—the show at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebæk, Denmark, foregrounds its revisionist goals. From the outset, deep-rooted hierarchies segregating the fine and applied arts—hierarchies that Delaunay herself never accepted—are preemptively erased.2
In the entrance gallery, 1960s paintings in her Simultané style offer a dynamic vision of modernity grounded in notions of luminosity, change, and speed. Densely hung, the gridded compositions, interwoven with concentric circles, are charged by the rhythmic play of vibrant matte hues in her preferred palette: red, blue, green, white, black, and gray. A 1967 Matra 530 sports car customized in this signature idiom takes center stage. Beginning with the artist’s late works, the show reminds viewers that at the time of her death in 1979, at the age of ninety-four, Delaunay was not simply the grande dame of French art; she was a major figure on the international stage and revered for her work as a painter. If the presence of the Matra is intended to point up her substantial achievements as a designer, those credentials were largely disregarded by that time, an era dominated by abstract painting, when anything that smacked of craft and applied art was routinely devalued.
Two works interrupt the temporal cohesion of the opening display. The earlier is a portrait, rendered almost crudely in intense reds, black, and yellow, from 1907, the year after the young Ukrainian-born, Russian-bred artist arrived in Paris.3 Given how incisive the selection of exhibits throughout the show is, it is not incidental that the sitter, Philomène, was the artist’s seamstress. The second outlier is a small 1924 abstract gouache listed in the catalogue as a study for a fabric design. It is installed adjacent to a 1964 sketch for a poster, remarkably similar in size, style, and medium, that features the artist’s name and may have been intended as an announcement for an exhibition.
The subtle fabric design is evergreen: as stylish today as it was a century ago. The roadster, in comparison, feels dated. Once an avatar of speed and modernity, it now appears a relic from a time when Pop art was trending.4 Contributing to the aura of datedness are the abstract geometric forms applied to the car’s body: Supplements, they read as ornamentation. By contrast, when Delaunay’s textile designs were block-printed manually onto lengths of plain cloth, pattern became cognate with “raw” fabric, yardage, to be used for the creation of luxurious apparel. In contrast to a decorative overlay on a finished artifact, the textile design was integral to the final form: It played a crucial role in styling the garment.
From the show’s outset, deep-rooted hierarchies of the fine and applied arts—hierarchies that Delaunay herself never accepted—were preemptively erased.
In sum, the first gallery positions the ’20s as the fulcrum and crucible of an artistic practice that was spread across multiple platforms to the very end. A provocative gambit, it rubs against the orthodox interpretation, which frames Delaunay’s contribution to modernist art primarily in relation to the genesis of abstraction. From that critical vantage, the high points of her oeuvre include her 1913 collaboration with Blaise Cendrars, a multiple that takes the form of a six-and-a-half-foot-long leporello, La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France); a series of paintings, “Prismes électriques” (Electric Prisms), from 1913–14; and related monumental oils, such as Bal Bullier, 1913, conceived for presentation at the Salon. In this canonical telling, more modest contemporaneous ventures, whether book covers, speculative studies for advertisements for consumer products, or sets and costumes for theater and ballet—not least Delaunay’s celebrated design for Cleopatra’s gown in the Ballet Russes’ eponymous production choreographed in 1918 by Michel Fokine—are relegated to the ancillary realm of design. In Humlebæk, however, they are better understood as a prelude to the maturation of her Simultané aesthetic in a Constructivist vocabulary comprising abstract geometric forms: squares, rectangles, chevrons, and stripes. The efflorescence of Delaunay’s textile and fashion design in the ’20s, based on this flexible lexicon, generated apparel sought after by the haute bourgeoisie and cultural elite and still coveted by fashionistas today.
In 1925, the great Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes assembled works by leading designers from across Europe. Delaunay’s contribution was presented in collaboration with furrier Jacques Heim in a dedicated pavilion that garnered extraordinary attention. Acclaim for her fashion and textile designs spread internationally. But the stock-market crash of 1929 eviscerated her high-end clientele, forcing the closure of what had become a very successful couture business and the dismissal of her Russian seamstresses. In the ’30s, ever short of money, Delaunay reined in and redirected her energies, orienting her textile designs toward more overtly decorative, popular patterns attractive to mainstream audiences. With her income dependent primarily on fabric designs, she revised her conception of modern dress in democratic terms. Arguing that clothes should be adapted to “the needs of everyday life and the movement it requires,” she advocated for mass manufacturing, enhanced quality, and wide distribution in lectures and related articles she published in the specialist press.5 In the mid-’30s, a unique opportunity to create murals on a grand scale arose when the French government sought to rally the nation’s spirit, oppressed by the grinding Depression, with an ambitious public undertaking: the Exposition Internationale des Arts et des Techniques. Little remains of Delaunay’s contributions to two of the overblown project’s hastily erected pavilions, one dedicated to rail travel, the other to aviation. In 1938, she created a monumental oil painting, Rythme, décoration pour le Salon des Tuileries (Disques)(Rhythm, Decoration for the Salon des Tuileries [Discs]), now in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. A documentary program accompanying the Louisiana’s exhibition includes a clip of this vast work in situ, with artist Sheila Hicks taking stock. In her brief commentary, Hicks extols Delaunay’s predilection for putting bold primaries into play so that they clash dynamically. “Mighty powerful,” she declares. “Mighty brave.”
In the wake of her husband Robert Delaunay’s death in 1941, Sonia put her own work and career on hold, devoting herself to the consolidation of his reputation. Only in the late ’50s did she resume production in earnest. Thereafter, designs for books, tapestries and sumptuous rugs were produced in tandem with paintings scaled for exhibition in galleries and museums.
The case for the ’20s as at once a culmination of her career to that point and the locus of her most radical artistic statements is made in a large gallery located midway through the retrospective. Its focus is a trio of exquisite garments, along with related studies, swatches, accessories, works on paper, photography, films, and documentation. At first glance, two dresses from around 1926 appear to be simple sheaths in the manner of Chanel’s then-iconic day dress. Closer inspection reveals how Delaunay reformulated the decade’s signature garment to her own ends. In the better known of the two, front and back consist of identical lengths of silk patterned in long rectangular bars in four hues—light and dark green, black, and white. A black band rings the lower edge. The fabric is pleated, allowing the wearer to move freely and tempering the charged geometric design with what reads as a fragile linear veil, a graphic overlay. Aesthetic and functional ends—elegance, mobility, comfort—are conflated. All forms of tailoring, such as darts, which in adjusting the garment to fit the body disturb the integrity of the surface pattern, are eschewed in favor of the uninterrupted expanse of the large-scale abstract composition. In this unitary field, questions of decoration are subsumed by painting-adjacent considerations: rhythmic composition within a pictorial frame. Repetitive accents, the knife-edge pleats when galvanized by the body’s slightest motion animate the planar surface, creating what Delaunay termed “a living painting.”
That same sleek style was the point of departure for the second dress, made from a diaphanous silk fabric whose small-scale pattern is composed of diagonal lines of red, green, and yellow squares on a white ground. This sheath, too, drapes from the shoulders, a fulcrum that allows the delicately patterned field to hang unobstructed. Visible from the sides of the simple tunic, an inner lining in the same material incorporates pleats below the waist, permitting the wearer to move easily without disturbing unduly the floating outer layer. At neck and hem, a stepped band of plain white silk punctuates the garment’s upper and lower edges. Reversing expectation, decoration in this subtle design is embodied in delicate monochrome accents.
The final garment of the trio is a time-tested standout: The celebrated ca. 1925 coat made for Gloria Swanson features a complex geometric configuration that, flowing across its surface irrespective of seams and edges, creates an identical design on front and back. Embroidered in a technique akin to point d’Hongrie, the stitches do not overlap but dovetail, blending into a pliable membrane, like a pelt. Once again, the style of the garment is classic, not innovative. Indeed, its closest prototype may be a shibori kimono adorned with a magnificent pictorial motif. In her designs for apparel, Delaunay did not invent new typologies, as did, say, Chanel with her eponymous dress, or unprecedented ways of styling, as did Madeleine Vionnet with her signature bias cut. Rather, her unparalleled contribution stems from her use of exceptional fabric designs, (mostly) large-scale abstract patterns that transform the garment they bring into being, enlivening it literally and figuratively.
The efflorescence of Delaunay’s textile and fashion design in the ’20s generated apparel sought after by the haute bourgeoisie and cultural elite and still coveted by fashionistas today.
Little of Delaunay’s most radical attire has survived. Known only through black-and-white photographs commissioned and staged by the artist, it might best be described as leisurewear to be worn in the privacy of the home. A single piece of fabric, perhaps a shawl or wrap, more likely a length of yardage, is casually draped around the body, sometimes affixed loosely, like a toga.6 Other photographs show models from behind, enveloped in garments resembling housecoats or kimonos, in what appear to be studio settings, framed by walls covered with fabrics that, like those their garbs comprise, stretch from edge to edge, selvage to selvage, without repetition. In those meticulously staged mise-en-scènes, patterned surfaces are collaged into a series of juxtaposed and overlapping planes—decorative “murals” reminiscent of works by Matisse and Vuillard.
Related gouaches depict models and mannequins—it’s often hard to differentiate between them—wearing garments in the same Simultané patterns as the interior decor. Abstracted and decorporealized, their bodies are literally absorbed in environs—wallpaper, carpets, rugs, and screens—of her own making. These tableaux have been likened to Gesamtkunstwerks in the manner of the Wiener Werkstätte, but Delaunay’s goals were very different. The singular presentational strategies she deployed to construct pictorial representations transform spatial contexts into flat, ornamental compositions. Forerunners in such a genealogy might include Matisse’s Still Life with Aubergines, 1911, in which the decorative—a miscellany of two-dimensional patterns—becomes the very stuff of the pictorial, and Vuillard’s Embroidery,1895–96, a “tapestry” in oils that nods to the mural as an essential component of interior design.
A rare short film, shown at the Louisiana in tandem with enlarged prints of selected black-and-white photographs and gouaches, reveals a model wearing Delaunay’s indelible designs seated in front of a box in an interior draped with her fabrics. When the lid is opened, a trove of additional lengths of fabric spills forth, threatening to engulf her. If there was an audience for these experimental tableaux vivants, or even for their representations, it must have been limited, on the far edge of a practice in which, Delaunay affirmed, no “gap” separated her art from “my so-called decorative work.” That tenet implied more than the extension of a style and an aesthetic from one medium—painting—to multiple others.7 If, at its most conventional, it amounted to little more than applied decoration, vis-à-vis the Matra, at its most innovative, groundbreaking textile designs, transformed into wearables, became animate: “living paintings.”8 Ephemeral and unfixed, these short-lived experiments were confined to the mid-to-late ’20s, when her reputation as a couturier was at its height and her business was thriving: She was freed to pursue the outer reaches of an enduringly vanguardist vision.
Curator Tine Colstrup’s compelling rehabilitation of Delaunay does not ultimately chime precisely with the artist’s self-evaluation. As Delaunay noted proudly in a late interview, the luxurious fabrics and apparel she designed between 1919 and 1930 provided a considerable income from which her family lived well during those years.9 But success in business was never her primary objective. By the late ’20s, she was internationally marketing her lucrative tissu-patron, or “dress kit,” which afforded the domestic seamstress the possibility of making a Delaunay garment from fabric the artist had designed. However, when she realized that consumers were altering the clothes to ensure a “better” fit and in so doing were compromising the integrity of the garment’s design and disrupting the holistic expanse of painterly pattern—for her, an equally egregious intervention—she discontinued it. Delaunay was a cultural entrepreneur, and her manifold endeavors encompassed shopping, fashion, cinema, theater, and related urban entertainments. Fueled by advertisements directed specifically at women, these quintessentially modern pursuits suggest why she is a cynosure for artists working across multiple platforms today. That said, her inimitable achievement, if not her legacy, lies elsewhere: in a visionary practice fashioned on her own terms that secures her place within a twenty-first-century art history marked by multiple narratives, subject positions, and materialities.10
“Sonia Delaunay” is on view at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark, through June 12.
Lynne Cooke is senior curator for special projects at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. She is currently at work on “Braided Histories: Modernist Abstraction and Woven Forms,” a planned 2023 exhibition that will explore affiliations and interchanges between abstract artists and textile designers and producers.
1. The same can be said of her pioneering peers—Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Anni Albers, Liubov Popova—renowned for their work with textile and fashion design. For Delaunay, as for Taeuber-Arp, painting was nonetheless the ever-present touchstone of her practice.
2. A small but telling example: Contrary to normative practice, works on the checklist are not divided into media-based categories prior to being ordered chronologically.
3. That year, Delaunay entered the orbit of German gallerist Wilhelm Uhde, who soon presented her work alongside that of Picasso and Braque. It was also the year she met her future husband, Robert Delaunay, whom she wedded in 1910 after divorcing Uhde following a short-lived marriage of convenience.
4. In 1925, Delaunay decorated a Citroën B12 with her Simultané idiom, then deployed it as a prop in photographs of models in her ensembles, embodiments of privilege, luxury, elegance, and refined taste. In 1928, Delaunay designed the upholstery of her Talbot.
5. Sonia Delaunay, “Artists and the Future of Fashion” (“Les artistes et l’avenir de la mode,” 1931), reprinted in Radu Stern, Against Fashion: Clothing as Art, 1850–1930 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 186.
6. Delaunay’s prescient use of photography to document her couture served a variety of ends, above all establishing and consolidating her practice and reputation through articles in the press, art journals, and women’s magazines, as Cécile Godefroy argues based on granular research into the corpus of some five hundred extant images that Delaunay commissioned and supervised through 1930. The majority of those shots fit comfortably within the genre of fashion photography as it was then understood. See Godefroy, Sonia Delaunay: Sa Mode, Ses Tableaux, Ses Tissus (Paris: Flammarion, 2014), and her contribution to the Louisiana Museum’s catalogue, “From Fashion to Its Image: Sonia Delaunay’s Total Art,” in Sonia Delaunay (Humlebæk, Denmark: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2022), 62–86.
7. Delaunay’s engagement with apparel originates in a 1913 dress, not included here. Applying patches to the surface of a formfitting garment, she created a work in the Cubist-derived idiom of her contemporaneous painting. The lively decorative overlay of variously shaped pieces of brightly colored and textured fabric counterpoints without fully eliding the curves of the wearer’s shapely body. Delaunay wore this striking outfit regularly to the popular Parisian dance hall, the Bal Bullier, and on high-visibility public occasions, such as exhibition openings at the annual Salons. In addition, as Rachel Silveri has shown (“Sonia Delaunay, ‘Living Profoundly,’” in Art History 45, no. 1 : 36–65), she circulated for publication in the art press staged photographs in which she wears her hallmark outfit. That strategy is consistent with her refusal to present her design work in contexts devoted to the applied arts. Displayed in connection to modern art, it was revealed as an extension of her self-consciously avant-gardist practice.
8. Expanding on her 1913 exploration of the performative potential of apparel, Delaunay’s 1918 Cléopâtre dress (now too fragile to be loaned) offers an important precedent. As Juliet Bellow notes, in the climactic dance of veils, the veils were held up like a screen behind the heroine, who was virtually immobilized in a tightly constricted garment, their colored planes fusing with her dress in a “live tableau.” (“Fashioning Cléopâtre: Sonia Delaunay’s New Woman,” Art Journal 68, no. 2 (2009): 17.)
9. From the moment in 1917, with the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution, when the source of her inherited wealth—and the basis of the family income—dried up, she recognized that her role would include being the breadwinner for her family.
10. For an important introduction to the deep interdependence of biography and oeuvre, and of issues of agency and self-determination, key in Delaunay’s practice, see Griselda Pollock, “Art Criticism and the Problem of the Non-Modern Story of Modern Art” (2015), reprinted in Sonia Delaunay, 28–39.