The Sonia Delaunay exhibition which opened this week at Tate Modern shows her prodigious output over some seven decades. Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) worked in a variety of media – paintings, drawings, prints, fashion and fabric designs, posters, mosaics, bookbindings, and book illustrations. She is best known as the creator, with Blaise Cendrars, of one of the greatest livres d’artiste, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, for which she provided pochoir illustrations to Cendrars’ poem.
This famous book, published in 1913, has tended, however, to overshadow similar collaborations with other poets, especially the two books she produced with Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism.
Tzara moved to Paris from Zurich in 1919 and it was apparently one of his manifestos that made Sonia and Robert Delaunay, who had lived in Spain and then Portugal since 1914, aware of the renewed artistic vitality of Paris after the end of the war and determined their return to France. Tzara first met the Delaunays soon after their return to Paris in 1921. Their apartment at 19 Boulevard Malesherbes quickly became a fashionable gathering point for the literary and artistic avant garde, its walls covered with multi-coloured poems and other works of art by Philippe Soupault, Vladimir Mayakovsky, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Jean Cocteau, and René Crevel. As well as embroidering waitcoats for her friends, Sonia also decorated the interior of Au Sans Pareil, the Dadaist and Surrealist bookshop.
Tzara soon became a close friend of the couple and in 1923 Robert painted his portrait in which he is wearing a scarf designed by Sonia A monocled Tzara also features in one of Robert Delaunay’s best-known paintings, Le Manège aux cochons, painted in 1922.
Robert Delaunay, Portrait of Tristan Tzara (1923). Madrid, Museo nacional centro de arte Reina Sofia (image from Wikimedia Commons)
The collaboration between Sonia Delaunay and Tzara took various forms. It included robes poèmes, dresses with texts from Tzara’s poems woven into their fabric, all made in 1922, and Sonia’s bookbinding for Tzara’s De nos oiseaux in 1923. Sonia had by then become well known for her textile designs, the main focus of her work over the next 15 years, and it was in that year that Tzara asked her to design the costumes for his play Le Cœur à gaz, a three-act absurdist provocation described by its author as “la plus grande escroquerie en trois actes” (“the biggest swindle in three acts”).
The play had already had a single, disastrous performance during a soirée dada in 1921 with a cast that included Louis Aragon, Benjamin Péret, Philippe Soupault, and Tzara himself. It gained lasting notoriety, however, by the circumstances of this 1923 revival, when it was included in Le Cœur à barbe (“The Bearded Heart”), another soirée dada organised by Tzara and Iliadz. The evening marked the culmination of the ongoing conflict between Tzara and Breton and finally split the Dadaists and led to the foundation of Surrealism by Breton and his followers. It also included first performances of new compositions by Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Erik Satie, and Igor Stravinsky, as well as films by Charles Sheeler and Hans Richter. The two groups came to blows during the performance of the play. Several people were injured and the actors, encased in Sonia’s heavy cardboard costumes, found themselves unable to move. A photograph showing René Crevel (Oeil) and Jacqueline Chaumont (Bouche) has survived, and their costumes can be compared to Sonia’s original designs.
Sonia Delaunay, Costume designs for Le Cœur à barbe, 1923: Left, Bouche; right, Oeil (British Library C.108 aaa.14.). A copy of the photograph can be seen here.
The text of the play had been first published in Der Sturm on 5 March 1922 but did not appear together with Sonia’s costume designs until 1977, when they were published in association with the exhibition La Rencontre: Sonia Delaunay, Tristan Tzara at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris by the art critic and publisher Jacques Damase, a close friend of Sonia who promoted her work in the last 16 years of her life. The volume includes ten lithographs, seven of which are full-page, colour reproductions of the gouaches of the 1923 costume designs; the others comprise an additional title-page and two decorations in the text. 125 copies were printed, all signed by the artist. An additional set of the full-page lithographs, individually signed by the artist, was issued with each of the first 25 copies.
The friendship between Sonia Delaunay and Tzara lasted until Tzara’s death in 1963, although they grew apart in the 1930s, when Tzara joined the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and Sonia was for several years busy with the mural paintings commission for the 1937 International Exhibition. They were next brought together, with other ‘undesirables’, in Toulouse in 1944, three years after the death of Robert Delaunay. After the war Tzara once again became an habitué of Sonia’s studio, now at Rue Saint-Simon on the Left Bank.
Like Sonia, Tzara had a strong interest in illustrated books and worked with numerous artists – including Matisse, Kandinsky, Léger, Mirò, Arp, Giacometti, Villon, Klee and Ernst – on illustrated editions of his poems. There were two collaborations with Sonia: for Le Fruit permis (1956), her first book since La Prose du Transsibérien, Sonia contributed four pochoir compositions, and for Juste présent (1961), a collection of 11 poems written between 1947 and 1950, she made eight full-page colour etchings and an additional colour etching for the slipcase, printed in the right sense on the front and upside down on the back cover.
Above: Two of Sonia Delaunay’s etchings for Juste présent ([Paris], 1961). C.108.aaa.11; Below: etching for slipcase cover of Juste présent
140 copies of Juste présent were printed, all signed by the poet and the artist. The British Library’s copy is no. 124. In both publications Sonia’s colours are strong and pure, with a predominance of vermilion, indigo and black. The compositions, with their interplay between flat colour and black, hatched areas, are typical of her post-1945 output (for example, her various Rythme-couleur paintings).
Jacques Damase, who did so much to promote Sonia Delaunay’s art, did not live to see her final consecration: he was tragically killed in an accident in July 2014, just three months before the opening in Paris of this major exhibition of her work, now at Tate Modern. Perhaps the exhibition should be dedicated to his memory?
Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance collections
Tristan Tzara, Juste présent [Poèmes]. Eaux-fortes de Sonia Delaunay. ([Paris], 1961). C.108.aaa.11
Tristan Tzara, Le cœur à gaz; costumes de Sonia Delaunay. ([Paris], 1977). C.108 aaa.14
La Rencontre: Sonia Delaunay, Tristan Tzara. Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, avril-juin 1977 / [commissaire: Danielle Molinari]. (Paris, ). YV.1987.a.344
Annabelle Melzer, Dada and Surrealist Performance. (Baltimore & London, 1994) YC.1994.a.3134 & 98/01171
Sonia & Robert Delaunay [the catalogue of the Delaunay donation to the Bibliothèque nationalede France]. (Paris, 1977). j/X.415/2418.
Sonia Delaunay, Nous irons jusqu’au soleil. (Paris, 1977). X.429/7809
Sherry A. Buckberrough, Susan Krane, Sonia Delaunay: a retrospective. (Buffalo, NY, 1980) f80/8227.
Sonia Delaunay [the catalogue of the exhibition at Tate Modern]. London, 2015.
Chris Michaelides, ‘Robert and Sonia Delaunay’, review of the exhibition at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, The Burlington Magazine, February 2015. P.P.1931.pcs.