April 16, 2011

"Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay" at the Cooper Hewitt

Last month I visited the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and reported back on the sparkling exhibition "Set In Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef and Arpels". Today I returned to visit the second floor galleries and an exhibition that opened while I was in Paris that is dedicated to the work of one of my very favorite 20th Century artists, Sonia Delaunay.

Sarah Stern was born in the Ukraine in 1885. After being adopted at the age of five by her wealthy uncle, Henri Terk, young Sarah moved to St Petersburg where she enjoyed all the privileges of an affluent, well connected Jewish household. Her exposure to the fine arts was augmented with travels through the capitals of Europe and an excellent education including private lessons in drawing and painting. Her natural talents as an artist were quickly recognized and in 1905 she moved to Paris and began formal studies at the Academie de la Palette and visiting galleries and salons to really soak in the scene.

Here's where her life gets interesting. A marriage to the German collector and dealer Wilhelm Uhde allowed her to remain in Paris rather than return to her family in Russia and furthered her education in the "business" of art. However, it was in Uhde's gallery that she met and fell madly in love with Robert Delaunay and her husband, realizing that he didn't stand a chance, graciously stepped aside and divorced her so that she and Robert could be married.

Robert and Sonia were true soul mates. Together they developed their avant garde color theories of Orphism (a brighter version of Cubism) and Simultaneity (color as a major element in the creation of form and movement) and though they worked separately on most projects, each influenced the other greatly.

The practical reality was that Sonia's talents as a designer would provide the financial security for Robert to paint his canvas' and she was able to support her family through commissions for ballet and opera costumes, textile design and custom clothing. "Casa Sonia" in Spain and "L'Atelier Simultané" in Paris were frequented by such patrons as Gloria Swanson and Nancy Cunard who were attracted to her bold geometric compositions in strong colors. In the 1930s, Sonia became a major designer for the Dutch department store Metz & Co to whom she provided over 200 styles. She also collaborated with the poets Blaise Cendrars and Tristan Tzara to illustrate several artist books which are prized by collectors to this day.

The span from 1918 until the mid 1930's was a watershed time in Sonia Delaunay's career and it is this period that the Cooper Hewitt focus' on in this retrospective. Featuring literally hundreds of textile samples and drawings, and augmented with photographs, actual dresses and accessories, the exhibition "Color Moves: Art and Fashion" clearly demonstrates the artist's avant garde genius in the field of design. I mean, imagine a geometric knit bathing suit on the Riviera in 1922 and you're talking style!

Sadly, the Great Depression spelled an end to her fashionable boutiques and worse still her husband Robert died of cancer in 1941. She survived World War II hiding in the French countryside where she also managed to protect the rolled up canvas' of her husband and his dear friend Hans Arp. After the war she returned to Paris and resumed her career as an artist although never with the same verve as before. In the years after her death in 1979, Sonia Delaunay has finally emerged from the shadow of her husband and has earned the esteem of both the art and design communities. "Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay" is a major tribute to this outstanding colorist and should not be missed!

P.S. All of the color illustrations are pochoir prints from Sonia Delaunay's 1925 album "Ses Peintures, Ses Objets, Ses Tissus Simultanés, Ses Modes" and can be found on my website: GeorginaKelman.com

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