Swatches Illuminate a Painter’s Other Art

It is the rare museum exhibition that bets most of the house on fabric swatches — or, more politely, textile samples — and succeeds. This is the impressive achievement of “Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay,” a sumptuous and enlightening show at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum that may change forever the way you look at dry goods.

Orchestrated by Matilda McQuaid, the museum’s deputy curatorial director, and Susan Brown, its assistant curator, “Color Moves” examines the more practical side of the multi-faceted achievement of Delaunay, the pioneering modernist painter (1885-1979). In the process, the show raises interesting questions about painting’s relationship to other two-dimensional, implicitly pictorial arts, including textiles, carpets and rugs, and even suggests that, for all the historical significance of Delaunay’s abstract paintings, she may have been in her best artistic form when designing fabric.

With her husband, the painter Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), Sonia Delaunay originated the especially radiant French brand of Cubo-Futurism that their friend Guillaume Apollinaire named Orphism in 1910 . But there is much more to her achievement than painting.

“I have lived my art,” she declared on more than one occasion, and indeed she had. Adamantly ignoring the stifling distinctions among the categories of fine, decorative and utilitarian art, she painted, sewed, drew, embroidered, stenciled and above all designed her way through a long, eventful life, guided by an inborn faith in color’s visionary force and a survivor’s instinct for adaptation. An important artistic turning point that confirmed her interest in the clash of forms and color that she and Robert called “simultaneity” was simply a patchwork coverlet she made for their son in 1911; in 1962 she proudly wrote a friend that it was “nowadays shown in art galleries as one of the first abstract paintings.”

Her life seems to have been a combination of luck and incredible drive. Born Sarah Stern in Gradizhsk, a town near Odessa in Ukraine, into a Jewish laborer’s family, she was adopted at the age of 5 by her maternal uncle, Henri Terk, a wealthy lawyer in St. Petersburg. She grew up as Sonia Terk in a multilingual, Russian-bourgeois, Jewish-intellectual milieu. Life included regular trips to Europe and a summer house in Finland.

Delaunay’s precocious artistic talent prompted her adoptive parents to send her to Germany to study art in 1903. Within a few years she was ensconced in Paris, just in time to have her affinity for color corroborated by the paintings of van Gogh, Gauguin and Rousseau, as well as Matisse and the Fauves, whose lessons she quickly absorbed. Her parents urged a return to St. Petersburg to make a proper marriage. Instead she made a marriage of convenience with Wilhelm Uhde, a homosexual German art dealer who gave her an exhibition in 1908 and introduced her to the Parisian avant-garde. The union turned inconvenient once she began a love affair with Robert Delaunay, whom she married in December 1910, three months after her divorce from Uhde and two months before the birth of her son.

In 1917, while the Delaunays were sitting out World War I in Portugal, the Russian Revolution wiped out Sonia’s allowance, and she put down her paintbrushes and turned to work as a designer in order to support her family. In essence, she began to funnel her abstract vocabulary into an array of endeavors that ranged widely in terms of economic efficacy.

For the fashion houses bearing her name — first in Madrid and then in Paris — she designed striking dresses, scarves, hats and coats (including one made for Gloria Swanson). She designed costumes for Diaghilev’s dancers in Madrid and, later, in the 1920s, for Dadaist evenings in Paris, collaborating with Tristan Tzara on garments festooned with his poetry. She tried her hand at tapestry, rugs and bookbinding. By the late ’20s it was clear that her most successful endeavor would be fabric design, especially for Metz & Company, a Dutch department store headquartered in Amsterdam.

Delaunay’s impressive prolificacy is still being sorted out. The last museum survey of her work in this country, in 1980, concentrated on her paintings, in an attempt to free her art from her husband’s shadow, and largely ignored the fabric designs that she continued to make even after she returned to painting in the late ’30s.

The Cooper-Hewitt exhibition, like a series of recent shows in Europe, takes the opposite tack. Its brimming installation is sprinkled with a handful of artworks — a bright painting from 1946, several gouaches — and a small but vivid selection of garments and accessories, including a radiant passel of boldly geometric scarves. Swanson’s coat is here; its stepped designs in shades of black and sandstone conjure up Navajo art and its desert environment. So is a section from another coat that might almost be a wall hanging by some embroidery-obsessed contemporary artist.

There are photographs of pleasantly robust fashion models (by today’s standards) in Delaunay designs, posing beside a Delaunay-decorated Citroen B12. Also on hand is a copy of the 1913 “Prose of the Transsiberian and of Little Jehanne of France,” a six-foot-long fold-out poem by Blaise Cendrars to which she added stencils of prismatic color squares that influenced Paul Klee.

But the show’s primary energy source is a group of some 90 small, lively gouache studies and their equally vibrant commercial results: hand-printed silks, velvets and cottons, represented by more than 120 textile samples laid out in large vitrines. It is especially fascinating to see the same patterns repeated in different color schemes.

Excerpt from The New York Times, “Swatches Illuminate a Painter’s Other Art”