Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay, New York

Meandering through the glittering bazaar of fabric swatches, scarves, and paintings at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum, it is hard to forgive Sonia Delaunay, the creator of all this polychrome magic, for selling herself short. After her husband, the painter Robert Delaunay, died in 1941, she devoted decades to promoting his legacy, leaving her own artistic accomplishments to moulder in obscurity. In 1980, just after her death at 94, a retrospective organised by the Albright-Knox Museum toured the US, stirring up a short-lived flurry of enthusiasm for her bold and colourful clothes, paintings, textiles and stage designs. Now, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum is trying again with Color Moves, which celebrates her profligate talents and wizardly textiles.

Her creed was revolutionary: “For me there is no gap between my painting and my so-called ‘decorative’ work,” she wrote in 1978. “I never considered the ‘minor arts’ to be artistically frustrating; on the contrary, it was an extension of my art.” This fudging of categories was part of the sweeping modernist desire to erase distinctions between art and life. The teachers at the Bauhaus, revolutionary Constructivists, De Stijl minimalists and Italian Futurists all wanted to bring the fruits of the studio into the homes and workplaces of ordinary people.

Sonia Delaunay was born Sarah Stern in 1885 to working-class Jewish parents in the Ukrainian village of Gradizhsk. At five, she went to live with her maternal uncle, a lawyer in St Petersburg, who nourished her on the cultural fare of the haute-bourgeoisie. She spent summers in Finland and learnt German, French and English. After the Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe, Germany, Delaunay found herself, at 20, in Paris, where she met the art dealer Wilhelm Uhde. The well-connected gallerist introduced her to Picasso, Braque and Vlaminck, and presented her first solo show in 1908. The two wed the same year, presumably for convenience: Uhde was gay, and Delaunay, under pressure from her parents to return to Russia, needed a pretext to stay in Paris.

Through Uhde she met Robert Delaunay, her great love. He, too, was born in 1885 and had been brought up by a wealthy aunt and uncle. “He was like a whirlwind,” she remembered. “His eagerness for life, his aggressiveness filled me with delight.” Sonia divorced Uhde, and, seven months pregnant, married her lover. Their romantic union merged into an aesthetic one, partnering cubist form with a fauve palette. “Colour is the skin of the world,” she declared.

Their early styles closely resemble each other, blending light and motion in sparkling hues. But Sonia soon branched out into applied arts. One of the finest works at the Cooper-Hewitt is her 1913 collaboration with the poet Blaise Cendrars, “La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France”. This single sheet of paper folded into 22 panels narrates an account of an imaginary train trip from Moscow to Harbin, China. Text bleeds into tint and phrases roll fluidly into sunlit planes, miming the motif of travel. The poet Apollinaire rhapsodised that his two friends, Cendrars and Delaunay, had “trained the eye to read with one glance the whole of a poem, as an orchestra conductor reads with one glance the notes placed up and down the bar”.

Robert and Sonia found themselves in Spain at the outbreak of the first world war, and they dug in for the duration. The Russian Revolution had wiped out the family subsidies they had been living on and Sonia scrounged work wherever she could. She cultivated a friendship with Sergei Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes impresario, and designed costumes for his Cleopatra. She also opened her first shop, Casa Sonia, supplying clothing and design to chic Madrid.

Back in Paris at the start of the 1920s, she joined forces with the Dadaists, constructing “robes poèmes” (dress poems) out of witty quotations from provocateurs such as Tristan Tzara and Joseph Delteil. The Cooper-Hewitt has some of her whimsical drawings of poetry in motion, with words garlanding sleeves, hips, legs and faces. The Dada connection proved good for business, and when Sonia opened her Paris boutique, La Maison Delaunay, orders flowed from the denizens of the beau monde.

She reached her creative zenith with a coat she designed for Gloria Swanson, an embroidered tour de force of zigzags in ochre, coral and rust to which the museum gives pride of place. In these years, Delaunay seized on bold, geometric patterns and exuberant colours that burst like fireworks over a country still traumatised by war. Her aesthetic touted informality, comfort and freedom of movement that argued tacitly for sexual equality.

The Depression spelt disaster for a business that catered to the formerly rich, but Delaunay continued to design fabrics for others to sell. A large chunk of the exhibit juxtaposes Delaunay’s small gouache studies with the final fabric product; the last room feels like a walk-in mosaic of textile shards. By the 1930s, Delaunay’s work had lost much of its brashness, shrinking in scale and retreating into a more conservative organicism. A jolt of vitality and charming spontaneity was also lost in the translation from paint to cloth.

Delaunay’s golden period in the 1920s looked forward to the modernist renaissance of the 50s and 60s and especially to the flowering of the Finnish company Marimekko, which rose from the ashes of another war into a dashing blend of novelty and tradition. While she was busy tending to her dead husband’s name, the Marimekko creed, that art and everyday life need not be divided, recaptured her utopian optimism and bequeathed it to a generation that had never heard of Sonia Delaunay.

Until June 5

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