An Exhibition of Sonia Delaunay’s Work Holds a Mirror to a Life Lived in Art

The show, now on view at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery, is aptly titled “Living Art.”

An art gallery with colorful abstract geometric paintings hanging on the walls
“Sonia Delaunay: Living Art” at the BGC Gallery. © Bruce M. White

Much of the work on view in the Sonia Delaunay exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery is designed for living: textiles for clothing and furnishing, objects for domestic interiors, illustrations for books, record sleeves, even automotive design. And that’s in addition to paintings, prints and theatrical costume design that showcase how Delaunay, a highly influential artist and designer, animated her world. Bold geometric swathes of color intersect in a way that’s at once at home in the realm of modernist abstraction that she was a part of, but also entirely distinctive—the edges are a little less hard and the hand of the painter feels a little more free.

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Delauany was born in 1885 as Sara Elievna Stern in Odessa and emerged as an artist in the 1910s. She studied in Germany before moving to Paris and married another artist, Robert Delaunay. Their creative energies aligned; both were fascinated by the potential of color, the possibilities for blending, contrast and recombination that they dubbed Simultanism, the effects of which were believed to extend beyond the canvas to affect the psyche of the viewer or wearer and the spaces they occupied. It sounds esoteric because it is; think of Simultanism as the color-theory contribution to the modern movement’s various -isms. Moreover, it was a bold vision and a bold aesthetic that was not limited to any one medium and non-hierarchical when it came to “fine” or commercial art. It was also emerging at a time, just before World War I, when experimental abstraction was at the height of the avant-garde, and Delaunay was part of a vibrant creative community challenging norms and traditions across the arts.

A black and white photo of a woman in a 1920s style patchwork dress
Thérèse Bonney (photographer), Woman wearing a costume created by Sonia Delaunay for the Bal des pages at Hôtel Claridge, Paris, 1924. Silver gelatin print. Diktats bookstore. © Pracusa. Thérèse Bonney, © The Regents of the University of California, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Delaunay’s career spanned seventy years. The scope and breadth of her creative output are impressive but present challenges in creating an exhibition. Curator Waleria Dorogova told Observer that, “it would have been easy to get lost in the sheer volume of her work and archives, but by asking specific questions about her practice, we were able to guide the narrative in a focused and nuanced way.”

Specificity and nuance are seen most clearly in the new consideration given to her fashion business, designs for performance and her life and work during the occupation. “Ultimately, we wanted to create an exhibition that presented Sonia Delaunay’s life and work through her objects in a very personal way: The selection was made to reflect her role not only as a painter and designer, but also as a skilled artisan, a strategic thinker, an organizer, a passionate collaborator and someone who consciously shaped her own legacy.” It’s a satisfying experience for longtime fans of Delaunay, as well as anyone seeing her work for the first time. Dorogova explains: “we hope that those who came to the exhibition with a preconceived notion of what her work was will leave amazed and taken by surprise by the new perspectives that the show opens up.”

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The exhibition draws from seventeen institutions (museums and libraries), private galleries and private collections, meaning there’s no shortage of material to discover, and many works are on view in the U.S. for the first time. The Simultaneous Dress (1913) is one item making its American debut, and it’s truly a wonder to see up close. It’s effectively a patchwork—mixed colors and textures—cut in various uneven shapes with an asymmetrical swag draped over one hip like a deflated half-bustle. While it doesn’t conform to standard dressmaking of the time, or any time, it does embody the artist’s aims completely. By wearing the work of art, or maybe it’s wearing her, Delaunay embodies the creative practice, a theme that carries through her very diverse oeuvre. This dress looks, and is, hand-wrought but the playfulness and unexpectedness of the combinations remain visible in her later commercially successful garments and textiles.

A patchwork dress with sleeves
The Simultaneous Dress (1913). © Bruce M. Wite, 2024

Delaunay would go on to create fashion designs that walked the line between experimental and commercial. She continuously blurred boundaries and modalities; the blue green and red concentric circles that appeared in so many of her paintings were printed on the business cards for her studio, effectively becoming what we would recognize today as a “personal brand.” At the famous 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, she exhibited elegant garments that showcased her bold block-printed geometric textiles to best effect. The fashions show an artist who was equally at home with embroidery and printing, consistently championing the new while being mindful of how artisanal techniques could enliven modern shapes. Delaunay was enthusiastic about embracing new technologies and took the idea of dynamism so far as to have textiles rotating in motion on belts in the 1925 shop window. The exhibition includes a stunning 4-minute color film montage from 1926 of models wearing and interacting with the designs. Her custom atelier was relatively short-lived, but she consistently worked on textile design commissions, championing reproducibility and consumer access, including a decades-long partnership with the Dutch department store Metz & Co.

Her designs for theater naturally include costumes, from interpretations of antiquity in the form of Cleopatra, embodied by Ljuibov Tchernitcheva in 1918, to wildly futuristic creations that effectively transformed the body into a series of interlocking geometric shapes and planes for 1924’s Coeur a Gaz. She also designed theater interiors, and in 1919 created an all-encompassing experience that spilled off the stage into painted ceilings and curtains for the Petit Casino in Madrid. The Bard Graduate Center Gallery is a converted private residence, and the scale offers a sense of intimacy to the three-floor show. Designs for interiors pop with color and invite you in. Like the exuberant room created for the daughter of a family friend, Marie-Jacques ‘Jacotte’ Perrier in 1930, where big colored polka dots speckle walls, table, and curtains. It’s easy to imagine taking a seat at the table. Another space between two larger galleries is dedicated to Delaunay’s life and work during the occupation. Collaboration and creation remained a lifeline during a trying time when she took refuge in the unoccupied Southern region of France in the company of fellow artists Nelly van Doesburg and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and her husband.

A gallery exhibition with art and clothing displayed on the walls and in glass cases
An installation view of “Sonia Delaunay: Living Art.” © Bruce M. White, 2024

A monograph exhibition of a famous artist is not particularly groundbreaking in itself, but seeing the scope of this work together inspired questions about how we categorize artists, the movements they are a part of, and how useful that really is. For instance, black and white geometric motifs that were not incorrectly seen as Art Deco in 1925 were newly appreciated as Op-Art in the 1960s. It’s impossible to think of Delaunay as just a painter, textile designer or illustrator, and it’s equally impossible to limit her work to one style. Art, design and fashion histories often rely on thinking about eras, styles and movements. It feels natural to organize and learn information according to a timeline. The exhibition does include a timeline of Delaunay’s career at the entrance but by the time you reach the third floor, objects and motifs could be from the 1930s or the 1970s, and not on account of revival, but because the artist was so singular in her vision, the works can’t be pinned down to any one moment, making them equally impactful in all moments. It’s an antidote to decades-ism. The unifying force is her embrace of color that, curators and visitors agree, has a profoundly joyful impact.

Delaunay lived long enough to witness some of the futuristic visions of the early twentieth century come to fruition in the atomic age. She outlived several of her contemporaries, many of whom were male artists whose work fit more easily into the established art historical canon. She remained true to her artistic principles but kept experimenting. In 1954, when she was sixty-eight years old, Delaunay created her first mosaic. Mosaïque Horizontale, a rectangular concrete slab over ten feet in length, animated with multicolored tesserae that can be seen as either art, sculpture, or architecture. It feels massive and solid, as though her artistic practice was literally becoming monumental. Longevity and acclaim brought more large-scale commissions and publicity. It’s a rare and welcome change to see a woman artist of Delaunay’s generation able to enjoy success during her lifetime and be appreciated by younger audiences. Sadly, she died in 1979, the same year David Bowie and Klaus Nomi re-interpreted the 1921 costumes she designed for Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist play La Coeur a Gaz. I don’t know if she ever saw them, but I feel like Sonia Delaunay would have approved.

Sonia Delaunay: Living Art” is on view at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery through July 7.

An Exhibition of Sonia Delaunay’s Work Holds a Mirror to a Life Lived in Art