Sonia Delaunay by David Seidner

BOMB 2 Winter 1982
002 Fall 1982

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Sonia Delaunay. All photos by David Seidner.

Interviewer’s Note: This interview took place in Paris in the Spring of 1978. From what I understand, it was the last ever done with Sonia Delaunay as she lost her voice shortly thereafter, and died in the winter of the following year.

Written and Translated from the French by David Seidner

Los Angeles, July, 1981

A world of color would be ideal, where one could create emotions accordingly. We could live by impressions the way a blind man lives by touch. We could vivify or seduce, transmute or emote, the possibilities are endless. A world of color so fine and pure, from the deepest innermost part of the human body to the pale washed evasiveness of the white of the human eye. We could live in a constant state of aura where every feeling manifested itself by color thus removing the lie from mankind.

Sonia Delaunay took an early, perhaps the earliest jump into non-objectivity where color elicited form. Her work serves swift proof of a tenacious intensity with which she threw herself into her art, her life. She lived a philosophy of emotion; delving, gouging, tasting, creating. Through a direct communication with the gut, she relied on intuition rather than intelligence, as did men of stature such as Goethe. She strived to emulate such greatness.

Her work is the embodiment of myth and legend, of the God-like strength granted to man. In that sense it is a proud rival to the majesty of ancient cultures in which there was no separation between art and life. Sonia Delaunay is the modern earth goddess. The ancient was Gaea. She sang the music of the sea and the wind. Primitive sensibility and the communication with the baseness of the earth began there. And the personification of rivers took place in pediments, plant life grew from the tops of columns. One simply entered the inner-self and emerged fresh with the proportion, stylization, and technique fitting.

Sonia Delaunay entered so far inside as to reach the womb. She returned not only to primitive sensibility in terms of the universal, but also in terms of woman, of motherhood. As early as 1911, Delaunay delved into the non-objective world. Remembering the peasant crafts of her native Russia, she juxtaposed pieces of fabric and fur to create a lyrical, one-dimensional assemblage of semi-geometric shapes; a primary research into the world of color which was to dominate and dictate the theme of her life. Color became her leitmotif.

She erected a scaffolding of new impressions to reach not upward but inward. A new language of feeling corresponding to the Futurist movement in Italy, Constructivist in Russia, Blaue Reiter in Germany. Sonia Delaunay is at the root of modern art.

Many people have too quickly made a distinction between fine and applied art. The fact that that first baby blanket profoundly influenced Robert Delaunay (after it he began his famous collages) is virtually neglected. She was no theoretician, thus she sought refuge in a more earthy medium. She applied her and her husband’s ideas of the “Simultaneous” and “Pure Painting” to a lamp shade of which she gave the name “Halo Depth;” curtains, “Depth Movement;” cushions, “Sec Movement Colors Depth,” “Astral;” goblets, “Moon Absinthe,” “Water Wine,” “Wine.”

Raised by her uncle Henri Terk in St. Petersburg, she was exposed not only to his collection of Barbizon paintings, but also to his extensive albums of the great Western painters. She can remember being bored with the adults’ conversation and spending hours pouring over those albums. Her uncle was a wealthy attorney. Her childhood portraits boast elaborate costumes. In school she had a particular interest in mathematics. Later she was to say that “color was the hue of number.” After experience in art schools in Russia, she was sent at 18 years of age to the art academy at Karlsruhe in Germany where she remembers being a poor draftsman and having a distaste for drawing. Two years later she found herself in Paris with a group of young Russian girls at the “Academie de la Palette.” She had bought three books on Impressionism in Germany and wanted to be closer to Sisley and Monet, “near their airiness and lightness.” In Paris, she discovered the Nabis School of Galorie Bernheim. She remembers finding Matisse too timid and bourgeois, she wanted to go further. In 1909, at 24, a marriage based on amity and a passion for the arts (conveniently arranged to avoid a return to Russia where her uncle expected to see her married off) took place between Sonia Delaunay and Wilhelm Uhde, the German art critic and dealer. He had a gallery in Paris where the avant-garde art of the period was shown. Through Uhde, Delaunay met Picasso, Derain, Pascin, and Braque. She had already been involved herself in what one may call her Fauve period. Although she disliked Matisse, she was influenced by his transformation of the banal to the vivified via color. From Gaugin, she took the organization of flat colored surfaces. And from Van Gogh, the intensity of color. Although her paintings from this period are colorful, they are far from being “light.” In fact one can trace the somber quality of pensive, intent studies, through her concept of depth being the inspiration for “pure painting.” Not only is there the opposition of commonly believed incongruous color combinations, but also the opposition of the exaltation of color and the seriousness of the subject. The contraries Blake spoke of when he said “without them there would be no progress.”

With Uhde she often visited the Louvre. Not the painting galleries, but the collections of Egyptian jewelry, Assyrian sculpture, and the arts of Messopotamia. In 1907 she met Robert Delaunay. In 1908, she saw him again at an opening at Uhde’s gallery where he was engaged in an argument. Sonia was impressed immediately by the poet and the fighter in him. In 1910 Uhde granted her request for a divorce and she was married to Robert Delaunay. Together they worked, collaborated, exchanged. The richness is legendary. Every night they walked along the Boulevard St. Michel where the gas lamps had just been replaced by electricity. They would return home and capture their impressions of color, much the way Monet did, but in a new and different mode. A non-objective one. Together they walked to the Eiffel Tower, an edifice Robert believed to be the paragon of technology. In honor of their love, he did a small painting of the tower with an inscription on one side reading: “Exposition Universelle…1889 La Tour a l’Universe J’adresse,” and on the other: “ Mouvement Profondeur 1909 France-Russie.”

1911–1912 marks the beginning of abstract art, the beginning of the Delaunay’s experiments with color. Sonia had just begun when she encountered the poetry of Blaise Cendrars. Its movement and association conjured further images of her rhythmic forms and her art was propagated. She made a book binding for his work and stated: “Painting is a form of poetry, colors are words, their relations rhythms, the completed painting a completed poem.” She collaborated much with Cendrars and later made bindings for the works of Rimbaud, Walden, Apollinaire, Tzara, Mallarme…

On the rue des Grand Augustins, the Delaunays held court. To their Thursday evening salons came Gendrars, Apollinaire, Jean and Sophie Taeuber Arp, painters, poets,musicians of the day. Groups would go together afterwards to the Bal Ballier in Montparnasse, a popular dance hall where the Tango and the Fox Trot were the rage. As early as 1912, Sonia Delaunay decorated her clothes with geometry and color, freeing herself from flowers and frills. One may even call her the predecessor of art deco. Apollinaire wrote the following about her and her husband’s ensembles: “They do not burden themselves with the imitation of antiquated fashion, and since they want to be of their own time, they don’t innovate in the cut of cloth (in that they follow contemporary fashion), but rather they seek to influence it by employing new fabrics, infinitely varied with color. There is, for example, an outfit of M. Robert Delaunay: purple jakcet, beige vest, black trousers. Here is another: red coat, with a blue collar, red socks, yellow and black shoes, black trousers, green jacket, sky-blue vest, tiny red tie…” About Sonia Delauney: “…purple dress, wide purple and green sash, and, under the jacket, a corsage divided into brightly colored zones, delicate or faded, where there is mixed an old rose, yellow-orange color, Nattier blue, scarlet, et cetera…appearing on different materials, so that wool cloth, taffeta, tulle, flannelette, watered silk, and peau de sale are juxtaposed…So much variety cannot escape notice. It transforms fantasy into elegance…”

That fantastic elegance made its way through World War I to the “Exposition des Art Decoratifs” in Paris, 1925. Sonia Delaunay’s collaboration with Jacques Heim celebrated her world wide. Furs, automobiles, furniture, clothes, bags…nothing was out of her reach. She also did costumes, those for Diaghilev remain among the Ballet Russe’s best. Cleopatra was swathed in circles stemming from the breast, giving costume the illusion of dance, the airy, ethereal step into another dimension. One critic said the dancers “set in motion costumes that already simulated motion…”

The work by husband and wife continued earnestly. The exchange, the inspiration, collaboration. The marriage of the Delaunays remains today the most magical artistic merger. In 1941, Robert met an untimely death. With World War II, and Robert’s death, Sonia began to incorporate the color black into her work. She realized then that there are as many shades and textures of black as there are colors. Her work was interrupted when she devoted ten years of her life to preserving her husband’s legend.

She is now 93. She worked until 90 but has been arrested by failing health. She fell recently and has been immobile. The apartment in St. Germain des Pres was white and light filled. Ceilings soared harboring enormous tropical plants. There were works by her and her husband, and gifts from Jean Arp, Henri Laurens, Gilioli, Hans Hartung, and others. The spirit of Sonia Delaunay was everywhere: on the floor in rugs, in a myriad of books and posters, catalogues, sketches, paintings. Sonia Delaunay, was white on white: white hair with a cream complexion, few wrinkles and a prevailing sense of softness. In a sensual, raspy voice, she gave simple and direct answers:

David Seidner Is that a wedding ring from Robert?

Sonia Delaunay Yes. I had another one but someone stole it.

DS After you met Robert in 1907, how long was it before you became romantically involved?

SD Immediately! He was so alive. He was searching. And he was full of new ideas.

DS Was there ever any rivalry between you?

SD No. Not from the point of view of painting. We asked each other for advice.

DS How was your marriage to Uhde?

SD Friendly. He searched something abstract and so did I. It was a marriage based on that.

DS How did he react when you asked him for a divorce?

SD He thought it was liberation for me. But it was also liberation when I married Robert. He thought so deeply without ever trying to.

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Books in Delaunay’s apartment.

DS When you married Robert, you called yourself “Sonia Delaunay Terk.” Is it because you consider yourself a feminist?

SD No! I despise the word! Once I even refused to be president of a women’s group. They wanted me to be the leader of all women artists in Europe. I refused because art is universal, outside of any classification. I never thought of myself as a woman in any conscious way. I’m an artist. For a long time I didn’t even know what I was doing. I just had a need to express something.

DS A third person, ageless and sexless. But your husband knew what he was doing. He theorized everything.

SD Yes. He talked, but I realized.

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Desk in Delaunay’s apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

DS What did your real parents do and why were you sent to live with your uncle, Henri Terk?

SD My father was the foreman of a nail factory in the Ukraine. My uncle had no children because his wife had been operated on. It was common practice then; to replace a child with one that was never there.

DS Did your uncle’s collection of Barbizon paintings affect you?

SD Everything affected me.

DS What music influenced you the most?

SD Varese. We saw him occasionally. His music was very vague and abstract, close to us.

DS Did you know the early dissonant work of Schoenberg?

SD I never understood Schoenberg. I was at school with him in Germany and didn’t understand his music at all. But it was early. We were all very young and still searching.

DS With the end of your Fauve period in 1911, did you see a vision which prompted you to jump into non-objectivity?

SD No. It came out of nowhere, all alone. Out of the air.

DS Do you make a distinction between the words “abstract” and “non-objective?”

SD No.

DS I asked because when I think of the word “abstract,” I think of a more spontaneous process, not thought out, like the Abstract Expressionists in America. And when I think of the word “non-objective,” I think of intention and planning, like in the work of Malevich.

SD But my work is spontaneous.

DS Were you familiar with the symbolism of people like Blake and Gustave Moreau? And don’t you find some of their work almost abstract?

SD Yes I knew their work very well…And now that you mention it, I do see some of it as being almost abstract. There was a gallery I used to visit with my friends at the Place Vendome. It was there I saw Blake. He was a great influence. Gustave Moreau less. But it was there that I heard about him for the first time. It was a movement we really loved.

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Works by Sonia and Robert Delaunay in Sonia’s apartment.

DS Did the colors of Romanticism effect you at all? Delacroix?

SD Yes, strongly. We were influenced by everything around us. It was very violent and thus explained itself. I like things which explain themselves.

DS When you went to the Louvre with Elide to visit the Egyptian and Assyrian galleries, were you searching for archaic inspirations as Picasso did with African art?

SD Yes, but not consciously because I was more spontaneous than Picasso.

DS Many art historians attribute your talent and vision to atavism. Do you?

SD Maybe, but why?

DS Would you now apply any theories to your work?

SD No. Too sophisticated. I’m closer to nature and to life. I was searching for something within myself and little by little it became abstract painting.

DS Did Blaise Cendrars’ poetry have an effect on your painting or was it already formulated when you met?

SD I had just begun and hadn’t done too many abstract things before. His work gave me a push, a shock.

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Another scene from the artist’s apartment.

DS What prompted you to make a neon sculpture in the early thirties?

SD I was always attracted to color and brilliance.

DS Were you directly influenced by Matisse’s transformation of banality?

SD No! To the contrary! I always thought he was a pompier! We were always nice to each other. I would see him and say: comment tu vas but that was it! As far as banality goes, I was headed in that direction but hadn’t done anything completely yet. Like many young artists of the period.

DS With your costumes of moving discs, the work had the ability to change. Was that intentional? Do you consider yourself a perceptual artist? How do you feel about fashion today?

SD It’s ridiculous! It was a bit better before because at least there was research. But now it’s horrible!

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A painting by the artist.

DS Was there great commotion when you wore your first simultaneous ensembles to the Bal Bolder?

SD Yes.

DS Who came to your Thursday evening salons on the rue des Grands Augustins?

SD All the artists. We looked for young unknowns, not just the successful ones.

DS How did you meet Jean and Sophie Taeuber Arp?

SD Jean heard about us and came to our apartment. We all looked for each other.

DS What was your relationship with the architect Goldfinger?

SD There was no relationship. He was just a young man who wanted to be chic so he bought one of my lounging robes. Later he worked hard.

DS Did you know Man Ray?

SD Yes.

DS Brassai?

SD Yes.

DS What was Kilt like?

SD A model.

DS Did you know Joyce?

SD Of course I knew of him but didn’t know him personally.

DS What was Diaghilev like?

SD A charming man.

DS What memory remains foremost in your mind about Apollinaire?

SD It’s too general a question…but he saw everything so quickly. He gave a synthesis to all the loose ends.

DS Did you like Braque, Picasso, Pascin, and Derrain?

SD Braque. Never much Picasso. He always looked unhealthy.

DS Do you see auras and astral bodies?

SD No. Too abstract. No no no. I’m more earthy.

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Originally published in

BOMB 2, Winter 1982

Tim Burns & Jim Jarmusch, ABC No Rio, Charles Ludlam & Christopher Scott, Jacki Ochs, Michael Smith, Mirielle Cervenka, Gary Indiana, Sonia Delauney, and Phillipe Demontaut.

Read the issue
002 Fall 1982