Sonia Delaunay

#96. Alan Gouk writes on Key Paintings of the 20th Century; a Musée Imaginaire, Part 2

Joan Miro, “Painting”, 1953, Guggenheim NY, © 2018 Successió Miró Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ADAGP, Paris

“First the Giants, then the pygmies.”   Elie Faure

PART 2  

Notes Synthetiques ca. 1888  by Paul Gauguin: “Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature whilst dreaming before it, and think more of the creation which will result than of nature”.

To Schuffeneker Aug. 1888: “Like music it acts on the soul through the intermediary of the senses. Harmonious colours respond to the harmonies of sounds”.

And in Diverse Choses 1898: “ The impressionists… heed only the eye and neglect the mysterious centres of thought”.

The sources of these ideas, which were to prove so fertile for the development of abstract painting, lay in the literature of early German Romanticism, Jean Paul, E T A Hoffmann, the synaesthesic imagery taken up by Baudelaire, Schopenhauer’s views on music as reinterpreted by Wagner, and the cult of Richard Wagner in France, which influenced even the  young Cézanne, and the symbolist poets gathered around Mallarme (though some of these pronouncements of Gauguin antecede his friendship with the latter).

Wagner’s music, especially in The Ring, could be described as the triumph of bad literature over music, or the subjugation of music to the literary imagination. The idea that colour, like music, can express the “mysterious centres of thought” appeals to the literary minded, so it is not surprising to find it echoed in Baudelaire and Mallarme. (See the poem Les Phares by Baudelaire). It is for the most part foreign to the French line in painting stemming from Delacroix and finding its culmination in Matisse. Although Matisse echoes the Mallarmean aesthetic “to paint not the thing but the emotion that it arouses in the artist”, in practice his art remains wedded to the full lustre of the sensory world. The transpositions of colour, red for blue, black for azure, are less emotionally driven as arising from his discoveries in Luxe, Calme et Volupte, 1904/05, that degrees of saturation of hue can form the tonal structure, rather than oppositions of dark and light, just as simultaneous contrasts of colour create light rather than oppositions or gradations of warm and cool.

George Seurat and the theorist Charles Henry voiced similar ideas about the expressive role of line and colour in conveying emotion, on the analogy with music, independently of their function in representation. Chromoluminisme as practiced by Seurat and Divisionism as practiced by Paul Signac, endeavour to combine this emotive theory with the science of colour, a hyper-realism, the two sitting uneasily together, and with mixed results, Pissarro being one of the first to express disillusionment with both the pictorial outcome and the intellectual distancing inherent in the approach.


#9. Andy Parkinson writes on Sonia Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay, "Yellow Nude", 1908, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, © Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay, “Yellow Nude”, 1908, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes. © Pracusa 2014083

Viewing the Sonia Delaunay exhibition at Tate Modern (on show until 9 August) I could almost believe that I had been transported to a time and space where decorative or applied art and serious fine art actually co-existed, having equal importance, rather than the gendered separation that was more the reality then and continues, perhaps subliminally into the present. Whilst it may no longer be that we consciously think of one as more important and therefore the domain of men, and the other as less important, being the domain of women, I could suggest that our contemporary suspicion of the decorative is an unconscious carry-over from that sexist separation of domains. It appears that the worst thing that can be said of an artist today is that s/he is “a decorator”, or that a work is “merely decorative”, which may indeed be a repressed form of misogyny. Sonia Delaunay’s designs and paintings, her fabrics and her fashion, were all part of the same project of modernity that promised to overcome traditional hierarchies like male/female and high/applied art. So, whilst what strikes me first about the exhibition is that the work is highly decorative, I see no reason to use that word in a pejorative sense.

Born in Odessa in 1885 to Jewish parents and being adopted by her wealthy uncle when she was five years old, she grew up amongst the St. Petersburg bourgeoisie, learning Russian, French, German and English. Travelling throughout Europe and regularly visiting museums and galleries, she became interested in art from an early age. She studied at the Art Academy in Karlsruhe, Germany and then at the Académie de la Palette, after moving to Paris in 1906. She had visited the third Salone d’Automne in the previous year seeing paintings by the Fauves whose influence along with that of Gauguin can clearly be seen in the gallery of her early work, with her use of bold colours and dark contours around her figures, as seen in the numerous portraits and in her impressive Nu Jaune (Yellow Nude).