This week I visited the Thyyssen Museum, in Madrid, to see Sonia Delaunay’s exhibition. I liked very much the exhibition dedicated to her work only. The last time Sonia was exhibited in Madrid it was along with the work of her husband, Robert Delaunay.
Full-color mirror of the interwar avant-gardes, eclipsed for years by her husband’s shadow because art historians couldn’t appreciate the sublime on her applied arts, Sonia started gain in importance with her solo exhibitions in 2008 at the Tate and in 2014 at the Modern Art Museum of Paris. Now, and until october 15, the exhibition “Sonia Delaunay. Art, Design, and Fashion” can be appreciated in the Thyssen-Bornemisza.
The exhibition placed particular emphasis on the work she made in the years she lived in Madrid, during World War One. On her own workshop, Casa Sonia, she made sketches, interior design, staging, and amazing garments for the artists and aristocrats of the time. Madrid was to Sonia a field for experimentation that would later allow her, back in Paris, to demonstrate she was a multidisciplinary creator, capable of exploring various materials and techniques way beyond painting.
Her paintings, drawings, gouaches, books, and pictures mix up with umbrellas, coats, jackets, and dresses in this exhibition. Visiting it inspires me and fills me with the will to dig deeply into Sonia’s worlds and her search for art in life. Sonia reflects her aesthetics and her colors on the applied arts in a natural, intuitive, and exquisite way. Canvas, clothes, bookbinding, stages, and even objects make the spectator gain consciousness about her creative power.
Understanding her life, origins, teachers, trips, and concerns, we can better understand the artist and her work. Come with me, let’s take a trip through Sonia’s life so we get to know her colors, the Simultaneism, and her applied arts.
A Trip through Sonia Delaunay’s Life and Work
From Odesa to Paris
Sonia Ilínichna Stern was born in a modest Jewish family in Odesa –Russia back then; now Ukraine– on November 14, 1885. As a little girl she moved with her wealth-maternal uncle and his wife in San Petersburg. They allowed her to study first in Germany and then in Paris. Later she married Wilhelm Uhde, so she wouldn’t have to go back to her homeland.
In 1908, she exhibited her Fauvist paintings in Uhde’s gallery. This allowed her to enter into the artistic circles of Picasso, Braque, Derain, Valmich, and Robert Delaunay.
Paris and the Beginnings of Simultaneism
In 1910 she divorce Uhde and marries Robert. The marriage shares the same artistic interests. From the beginning of the relationship, Sonia distinguished herself from her husband by combining the painting brushes with embroidery needles, interior
decoration, and fashion design. Throughout her work, the artist shows her interest for
expressing the avant-garde language with the most diverse materials, bright colors, and different techniques that remind her of her Russian origins.
In 1912, the couple turned into abstraction and the power of color, which took them to develop the Simultaneism theory: a way to understand art in which the impact of light on colors connects with the way colors are combined with each other. For Sonia, that simultaneism could be clearly applied to objects used on daily life.
One of her most famous works is also one of her first ones, a blanket she sew for her son Charles in 1911. Of Cubist looks, it’s made out of color pieces, just as Russian
country women used to make them. The original work is now property of the French Pompidou; we can’t see it at the exhibition since it cannot travel due to its fragility. So, instead, there’s a picture of it.
This blanket moves me. I relate somehow to Sonia, who covers her son with her colors. She, who is pure creation, applies her art knowledge to her daily life, transforming a utilitarian object into a piece of art in a natural and intuitive way.
The Great War, Madrid and Portugal
World War One catches the Delaunays in Spain. The life on the streets, the
markets, and the popular dances, specially flamenco, became protagonists of her work during this period. These were also the previous steps to their collaboration with the Russian ballets of Serguéi Diághilev.
In the sketches Sonia made during this time, there are figures she transformed into color patches, with which she managed to reflect the movement and color of the scenes that moved her and that she chose to capture in her work. This Madrilenian phase, which took place 100 years ago, meant for her a time of great experimentation and freedom that would sign her entire artistic development from 1920 on, once back in Paris.
The exhibition tries to redeem those years in Madrid as an essential milestone in her career. Through photographs and press cuttings, we realize the social impact of her work.
The Bolshevik Revolution and its success (1917-1920) deprived her from the economic support of the pension her family in Russia issued. Then Sonia reinvented herself and established Casa Sonia, where she dressed the woman on trend. Her drawings and paintings became fabric and designs for the modern woman.
The Return to Paris and the Simultaneous Fashion
The last part of the exhibition is focused on Sonia’s work after 1921, when she returns to Paris. The Delaunays soon rejoin the avant-garde movements and rebuild their circle of friends, among which there are Albert Gleizes, André Lothe, André Breton, Tristan Tzara, Philippe Soupault, and Joseph Delteil. They wrote poems inspired in Sonia’s creations and wore clothes she designed and made for them.
Sonia decided to continue funding the family with the commercial applications of her talent. With the experience she gained in Madrid, she set up the library Au sans pareil, in Neuilly. There she made her poem-dresses, outfits designed by Sonia that showed a poem written specially for the woman who would wear them. In the exhibition we can see these sketches.
Can you imagine how special would it be to wear a dress designed by Sonia with a poem specially written for you?
In those years, Sonia launched her own firm, and her work expands to canvas, clothing,
tapestry, lithography, staging, and murals. Along with Dadaists and Surrealists she carries out theatrical and cinematographic projects –like the movie Le p’tit Parigot (1926), by Le Somptier– and she started to works for the Dutch department stores Metz & Co.
In 1937, she works with Robert on the decoration of two big pavilions of the Exposition Internationale of Paris. With her work at the Railway Pavilion she refers to her stay in the Iberian Peninsula. During the decade of 1930 she was in touch with artistic groups that stood up for abstraction in art, like Abstraction-Création or Cercle et Carré, and she was one of the founding members of the salon Réalités Nouvelles, in 1939.
Recognition of Her Individual Work
After her husband’s death, in 1941, Sonia continued working and collaborating with
abstract-art promotion, as it’s shown at the end of the exhibition.
In 1958, the Städtischs Kunsthaus de BiKunsthaus de Bielefeldelefeld (Germany) organized the first big hindsight about Sonia Delaunay with 250 works. In 1964, Sonia and her son Charles donated to the French state an amount of 101 works by Sonia and Robert Delaunay that helped on the conservation of the artistic heritage the couple left. In 1975, she received the National Order of the Legion of Honour.
Her artistic career kept getting multidisciplinary, and it includes the decoration of cars and children books. To know more about the life and work of the Delaunays, you can read her book Nous irons jusqu’au soleil (We Will Go Right Up to the Sun), published in 1978.
Sonia died in her workshop on December 5, 1979, working, surrounded by her colors, her canvas, drawings, fabrics, and sketches.
Sonia for Me
Sonia was a woman who learned to apply her art to the quotidian. She was an artist and a designer who didn’t fear to express herself and who played with color and movement while she researched on how to capture them with different materials and means.
After visiting the museum and seeing the exhibition, I shared the experience with my daughters. Thanks to the Thyssen’s great job, I was able to expose them to Sonia’s work and show them see that a true artist expresses through any material (fabric, paper, canvas, etc.), and that none of them is better than the other.
As soon as we got home after we visited the museum, I proposed my daughters to capture colors on a white piece of cloth. On the table we worked, we had potatoes to create shaped stamps using a carving tool and fabric paint (yellow, blue, red, magenta, white, and black) that we mixed to create our own color palette. The girls started to stain the cloth in an open game, fearless of the result. I always let them start and then I follow, so they can show their intuitive freedom of expression.
After the creative session, we always talk about what we have done. We do it exposing what we all experimented with and we reflect about what attracts our attention, what we like the most, or what we dislike. The effort to translate what we did into words –the more spontaneous and poetic, the better– teaches them how to intellectually express based on color and shape perceptions.
Sonia: art, design, and fashion. A true multifaceted and multidisciplinary artist.
Here’s a playlist with some music Sonia and Robert Delaunay used to listen:
Thanks for joining me on this trip through her life and work. If you liked this post, follow me, share, and tell me what other artist would you like to read about here.
Photography: Alberto Hernandez
Styling and decoration design: Carolina Verd
Make up: Su&Jo
Fashion by Pez (Madrid)
Curry coloured coat by Masscob
Jet-black velvet dress by Masscob
Gold and green ring by To be continued
Single earring by Vanrycke
Shoes by Paola d´Arcano