Marilyn Monroe said, “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.”
But the right shoes for Sonia Delaunay had nothing to do with her feet. Instead, Sonia walked into the pages of history as the first artist to incorporate abstract geometric art designs into textiles and objects of art. Her work went beyond traditional canvases and transformed the functionality of art.
Sonia’s success in the art world was revolutionary in the early 1900s when she moved to Paris. On a recent visit, I saw one of her tapestries hanging in a gallery window and immediately recognized her work. This bright 5’x7’ wall hanging is valued at about $85,000.
Today, we think nothing of artists and textile producers collaborating on handbags, kitchenware and wallpaper coverings. But lifting the colors and styles from a paintbrush traditionally used on canvases, and seeing new ways to block color and incorporate new designs, was unheard of until Sonia.
Sonia helped to boost the perception of women’s capabilities as well, at a time when women studying art in Paris were generally ignored in the 19th and early 20th century.
Hélène Bertaux, the founder of Paris’s Union des Femmes Peintres et Sculpteurs, said in her inaugural address in 1881: “The woman artist is an ignored, little-understood force, delayed in its rise! A social prejudice of sorts weighs upon her; and yet, every year, the number of women who dedicate themselves to art is swelling with fearsome speed.” (NewsArt)
Women were viewed as inferior artists and considered incapable of creative genius. This set the stage for Sonia’s artistic coming of age. She was born in 1885 in Ukraine at a time when the art world was still largely closed to women. When she was a young girl, Sonia’s parents moved to St. Petersburg, Russia where Sonia’s wealthier aunt and uncle raised her. They introduced her to art museums and a more privileged, educated life. Soon, teachers took notice and encouraged Sonia’s drawing skills.
This helped Sonia to be accepted into the Academie de La Palette in Montparnasse, Paris. She could study and escape the watchful eye of her parents and wealthy relatives. But Sonia yearned for more freedom of expression and to be free from teachers she saw as overly critical.
Again, this may have stemmed from male teachers who saw women as competitive threats and not suitable for work outside of family life.
But Sonia was inspired by post-impressionist art and the free-thinking artists she discovered in galleries and society at large. Artists like Henri Rousseau informed her free will and the power of equality among men, and Gauguin informed her experimental use of color.
After leaving school, Sonia met and quickly married a German art gallery owner, Wilhelm Uhde. He disliked her artistic career but helped Sonia to explore the larger world of art.
Uhde was also interested in using his marriage to Sonia as a cover for his homosexual lifestyle. So it was not surprising when Sonia met Robert Delaunay several years later at the gallery and they began an affair. Sonia divorced Uhde and married Robert in 1910. A year later, their son, Charles was born and life changed again for Sonia.
Charles inspired Sonia to explore her creative boundaries and Sonia credits Robert with helping her to see poetry in colors.
What started as bright patterns on a baby blanket she made for Charles, morphed into colorful geometric designs that Sonia eventually incorporated into furniture, wallpaper, clothing, and art.
These innovative uses of art brought attention to Sonia’s work, as well as the rhythm and motion of her designs. Sonia believed color was nature’s skin and she hoped to capture it in every facet of her life.
Within a few years, Sonia soon became a key figure in the avant-garde world after making the patchwork quilt. She said later that she had designed it remembering the colorful, mixed patterns stitched together by peasants in her native Ukraine.
The influence of Cubist concepts, paintings and other works of art seeped into her everyday life and were probably heightened by her role as a new mother.
Like all young mothers who struggle with the demands of a career beyond family life, Sonia wanted to retain her identity and independence having seen the all-consuming role that most mothers and wives accepted. This new stage in Sonia’s life started to build and she found herself being asked to design everything from books with illustrative paintings of poems to artworks she applied on dresses as early as 1913.
In particular, Sonia was anxious to explore the way complementary colors (usually one primary and one secondary – i.e. Blue next to orange) reacted to each other, outside the confines of traditional painting. Sonia experimented with fashion and décor designs, applying her creative juices to everything from scarves to hats and shoes. Her work soon made its way onto theater stages and in costume designs, breaking ceilings barring women designers and introducing them to new more eclectic places to showcase their talents.
What sets Sonia apart, in addition to her revolutionary way of incorporating art into everyday living, is most certainly Sonia’s bold sense of color and unbridled and her impressive display of color blocking. Together, Robert and Sonia developed a style of Cubist art called Orphism. It involves blocking colors and playing them against other colors to manipulate a sense of movement and energy.
Sonia’s Le Bal Bullier (pictured above) is the perfect example of this technique. The bodies of ballet dancers in this 1913/15 work appear to move across the stage from abstract patches of colors placed next to them.
Over the course of Sonia’s career, she and Robert lived abroad before returning to Paris in 1921. Sonia continued to make inroads across a wide range of industries including architectural projects, paintings, carpets, and tiles. She is celebrated as the first woman to have a retrospective exhibit of her work at the Louvre in 1964, and then again in 1975. Her work has appeared as a large retrospective on abstract art at the Tate Museum in London several times and as recently as 2015 at exhibits in Paris and around the world.
I am particularly fond of Sonia’s Electric Prisms. It demonstrates her understanding of color and is often used as a metaphor for the gender roles that women struggle to escape. It defines the very essence of who Sonia was beyond the art she created – a woman forging her own sense of design and creative self. Both her journey and body of work is a remarkable legacy of the role of creativity and art in everyday life.
To learn more about Sonia, consider purchasing: Sonia Delaunay: Art, Design and Fashion.