Guggenheim Makes a Case for Delauney’s Genius

The late Clement Greenberg once said of the French artist Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) that he was “an enterprising painter whose influence is perhaps more important than his art, fine as that is.” Greenberg was writing on the occasion of Delaunay’s first solo exhibition in America in 1949, at the Sidney Janis Gallery. That show was devoted to The Early Delaunay, which was a shrewd decision (as we can now see) on the part of Sidney Janis. For it is the pictorial oeuvre that Delaunay produced in the five or six years between 1908 or 1909 and 1914-some of the dates Delaunay assigned to his pictures in this period are now disputed-that remains the primary focus of our interest in the artist.

It was also, of course, this “early” Delaunay that exerted the extraordinary influence that Greenberg spoke of-an influence that encompassed the work of Paul Klee, Vasili Kandinsky, Franz Marc and Marc Chagall before World War I, and is said to have extended to the design of the most famous of German Expressionist films, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which Robert Wiene produced after the First World War in 1919.

When it is recalled that Delaunay, a largely self-trained painter, was not yet 30 years old when he completed this important body of work, both its quality and the scale of its influence are all the more astounding. It is an achievement, moreover, that is not as well known to the art public-on this side of the Atlantic, anyway-as it should be. The exhibition which Mark Rosenthal has now organized in Visions of Paris: Robert Delaunay’s Series, at the uptown Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, is therefore something of an event. This is said to be the first exhibition ever to be devoted to the “series” paintings that constitute Delaunay’s principal achievement, and it leaves us in no doubt about their artistic importance-though it may leave us wondering about the artist’s subsequent decline.

The “early” Delaunay that we see in Visions of Paris does not, to be sure, include the earliest Delaunays, in which an Impressionism akin to Camille Pissarro’s, a Neo-Impressionism based on Georges Seurat and a version of Fauvist color were the principal influences. (Some of these earliest pictures are reproduced in the excellent catalogue accompanying the current show.) Then came the crucial encounter with Cézanne in 1907. Paul Cézanne had died in October 1906, and to commemorate the master’s passing, two momentous exhibitions were promptly organized in Paris the following year: In June, there was a show at the Gallerie Bernheim-Jeune of 79 watercolors, few of which had ever before been publicly exhibited, and in October, a retrospective of 56 paintings at the Salon d’Automne. This was the turning point for the young Delaunay, as it was for so many other members of the Paris avant-garde, and it is the point at which the Visions of Paris exhibition takes up his story.

Delaunay was later to observe that “the watercolors of Cézanne announce Cubism,” but in 1907 the Cubist innovations that would shortly exert a powerful influence on Delaunay had not yet been developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. His own first response to Cézanne was less immediately radical than theirs, as Delaunay himself came to realize. Thus, in writing about one of the first of his initial series paintings-those begun in 1909 that took as their subject the interior of the church of Saint-Séverin in Paris-he later acknowledged that it “well indicates the expressive desire of a new form, but it doesn’t quite get there.”

The problem with the Saint-Séverin paintings, as Delaunay wrote in a later assessment of his own work, was that “the form is traditional” and “the color is chiaroscuro,” which meant that, in his view, the lessons to be learned from Cézanne had not yet been fully mastered. For as he wrote in a letter to Kandinsky in 1912, somewhat overstating the case, it was Cézanne’s achievement to have “demolished all painting since its inception, that is to say, chiaroscuro adapted to a linear composition which predominates in all known schools.”

Did he exaggerate both his own failure in the Saint-Séverin paintings and the implications of Cézanne’s example? Perhaps to some extent he did, for as Matthew Drutt writes in the fine essay he has contributed to the catalogue of the Visions of Paris exhibition, “The Saint-Séverin paintings are very Cézannesque in character, not only in their palette and brushwork, but also in their structure of exaggerated arcs” that is so characteristic of late Cézanne. On the other hand, when we come to the series Delaunay devoted to The Windows (1912-14), we can no longer wonder why the Saint-Séverin pictures left him dissatisfied. In The Windows, which I regard as Delaunay’s greatest paintings, what he called “the transparency of color” that made such a great impression on him in Cézanne’s watercolors is carried into the brave new pictorial realm of pure abstraction, and takes command of that realm with an artistic authority and independence matched only by Kandinsky at that point in time.

Between the Saint-Séverin series (1909-1910) and The Windows, Delaunay concentrated on two other series: one called The City (1909-11) and, what are probably his most celebrated pictures, another called The Eiffel Tower (1909-12). It was in the paintings of the City and the Eiffel Tower series that Delaunay adapted the formal innovations of Cubism to the urban subjects that he clearly regarded as essential to the spirit of modernity he wished to encompass in his art. Within each of these series, the artist’s pictorial style varies a good deal, however, ranging from exercises in Cézannean structure and adaptations of Seurat’s pointillism to a variety of exploded Cubism that earned Delaunay a reputation-especially in Germany-as “the first known Expressionist,” which is odd when one recalls that the group Die Brücke had already established the foundations of German Expressionism some years earlier.

I frankly find the Eiffel Tower pictures more interesting as period iconography than as fully realized paintings, but many artists at the time-Lyonel Feininger in Germany and John Marin in America, among them-clearly felt otherwise. These were paintings that were much imitated, and it may be that they suffer now from the use that has been made of them by artists a lot less gifted than Feininger and Marin-among them, alas, the later Delaunay. Yet it is also true that, compared to The Windows, the Eiffel Tower pictures mark something of an impasse in Delaunay’s search for a new pictorial esthetic.

Such is not the case with the best of the City paintings, which, as the title of the greatest of them- The Window on the City, No. 3 (1911-12)-suggests, are directly related to the Windows that follow. City No. 3 may not fully achieve that “transparency of color” that was to be Delaunay’s most distinctive accomplishment-and the accomplishment, by the way, that exerted such an important influence on Klee. Its use of color is still largely tethered to the light and dark contrasts that Delaunay condemned as “chiaroscuro.” Yet City No. 3 must nonetheless be counted as an important contribution to the development of pictorial abstraction because of its evenly accented all-over structure of pure painting. In the Eiffel Tower series, it is only in some of the drawings-not the paintings-that a similar degree of abstraction is even attempted.

Whatever the reasons may be for the decline that overtook Delaunay’s art in later years, the paintings that Mr. Rosenthal has assembled in Visions of Paris constitute a crucial chapter in the history of the pre-World War I Paris avant-garde-the artists who set the course for so much that followed in the later decades of the century. The young Delaunay was by no means the most brilliant member of that historic vanguard, but he was one of the few French painters at the time who had the vision to carry the legacy of Cézanne into the realm of abstraction.

That he was, in this respect, more influential beyond the School of Paris than within it, had the effect of delaying the development of abstract art in Paris for at least a generation, maybe longer. For the most important abstract painters to work in Paris in the post-World War I period-pre-eminently, of course, Piet Mondrian and Joan Miró-were outsiders. By that time, sadly, Robert Delaunay could no longer be counted among them.

Visions of Paris remains on view at the uptown Guggenheim Museum, Fifth Avenue at 88th Street, through May 24. Guggenheim Makes a Case for Delauney’s Genius