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Sonia Delaunay:

by Emily Nathan
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Sonia Delaunay was born to a poor Ukrainian family in 1885, survived two World Wars, and died wealthy in Paris in 1979. In between, she co-founded the French avant-garde movement Orphism with her husband, the painter Robert Delaunay, claimed the first retrospective for a living female artist at the Louvre, and conceived -- as a practical side venture -- a brand that helped define the style of sophisticated authors (Nancy Cunard), international performers (Diaghilev’s Madrid dancers) and, indeed, much of 20th-century cosmopolitan culture.

Sonia described her textiles as mere “exercises in color” that informed her true passion, painting. But her work in fashion and the applied arts, via her Maison Delaunay design atelier, may well be her broader legacy. Such is the argument of “Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay,” an exhibition co-curated by Matilda McQuaid and Susan Brown at the Cooper-Hewitt, where it is on view this spring. Presenting a lush collection of some 250 screen-printed, hand-sewn and embroidered patterns, the show contextualizes Sonia-the-Designer with a handful of photographs, drawings and ephemera that illustrate the trajectory of her creative beginnings.

Née Sarah Stern, the daughter of Jewish laborers, Delaunay was adopted by a wealthy Russian uncle at the age of five and raised in St. Petersburg among a multicultural elite. She excelled artistically and was sent to Paris to study, where she found herself consorting with a vibrant artistic community including Dadaist writer Tristan Tzara and French poet Blaise Cendrars, both of whom would later become her collaborators.

Even before she took up with Robert Delaunay in 1910, Sonia had experimented with “simultaneity,” a notion put forth by French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul in his seminal 1839 work The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors. As a description of the sensation of movement produced by juxtaposing starkly contrasting colors, the idea fascinated the young artist and would continually inflect her work, eventually becoming something of a fashion craze.

Her relationship to design began in 1917 Portugal -- where she and her family had fled from the horrors of World War I -- when straitened finances prompted her to found Casa Sonia, the first edition of her design house, which she later renamed. It was an immediate success; in the early ‘20s, as peace was temporarily settling over Europe, the Delaunays returned to Paris, the new seat of the global fashion empire.

Sonia effortlessly emerged as a leading figure in that world, liberating color, movement and form from two dimensions and uniting them off the canvas in beautiful things that she created for beautiful women to wear. Her Maison Delaunay was launched to enthusiastic public reception, and the workshop in which she labored simultaneously on textiles, costume and accessory design was trademarked as the Atelier Simultané. The designer and her designs were photographed frequently, for portraits taken by her husband and for glamorous black-and-white ads that featured models lounging poolside or strolling with parasols in the mid-afternoon sun. Her name became synonymous with luxurious scenes of female independence, a notion that was quickly transforming Europe.

It is not coincidental that Delaunay dedicated herself to fashion design, which bridges the practical and the impractical; her turn to textiles, after all, had largely been motivated by pragmatic considerations. The ornate flourishes of a distinctively empowering decorative scarf, the woolen swimsuit in navy, lemon and coral which asserted feminine agency but would likely not have survived an actual dip, and the series of hand-stitched motorist caps, meant to complement and preserve the progressive woman’s hairdo as she took to the open road (literally and figuratively) behind the wheel of a Citroen B12, all attest to Sonia’s competence in a sort of boundless, multifarious role, as both creative visionary and activist in the trenches.

In 1925, the renowned furrier Jacques Heim honored her with an invitation to design a display of her “simultaneous” fashions in a shop window for Paris’s iconic Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The Boutique Simultané -- which is replicated at the Cooper-Hewitt with a charming array of hats, scarves and fabrics in a palette of sea-greens and pumpkin oranges -- was a hit. Delaunay's label drew the attention of celebrities worldwide, including Gloria Swanson and the wives of Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and Erich Mendelsohn.

Though she returned to painting in the 1930s, when her designs were in high demand and economic pressure had subsided, her work in textile continued to flourish through the late ‘60s through a partnership forged with Joseph de Leeuw, the owner of the avant-garde Dutch emporium Metz & Co. Over the years, Delaunay created more than 2,000 fabrics for the store, and "Color Moves" proffers a delicious sampling of juxtaposed swatches displayed in glass cases.

The parade of small, brightly patterned fabric squares, accompanied by preliminary drawings and paintings on paper, seems to parallel, or even anticipate, the course of 20th-century abstraction, from de Stijl and Paul Klee to Barnett Newman and Kenneth Noland. Sonia Delaunay combined color and shape in every way possible -- or almost -- and even, possibly, knitted together the fine and applied arts into a timeless unity.

“Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay,” Mar. 18-June 5, 2011, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2 East 91st Street, New York, N.Y. 10128.

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email