Art into Life—and Back Again
In late fall of 1924, Sonia Delaunay contributed an unusual work to the annual Salon d’Automne. Her submission comprised eight rectangular pieces of printed silk fabric, each bearing a different brightly-colored geometric pattern. Printed not by Delaunay herself, but by the Godau-Guillaume-Arnault firm, these silks were then sewn together to create four loops. Mounted on a specially designed electric mechanism, a device patented by her husband and professional partner Robert Delaunay, her silks slowly spooled around.1 Exhibited under the label Simultané, referencing the stylistic term that she and Robert invented for their art, Delaunay’s display constituted a large-scale abstract painting—one which, set in continual motion, never achieved fixed or final form. Dramatically spot-lit, her installation also functioned as an eye-catching shop window, advertising clothing in potentia, inviting Salon-goers to conjure future garments in their minds’ eyes.
Delaunay’s Simultaneous Windows, and the fashions she produced around that time, place her in a group of avant-garde artists who “appropriate[d] dress design as a privileged field in which the artist could overstep the limits of ‘pure’ art and act directly on daily life.”2 These experiments with clothing also allowed Delaunay to attain a simultaneity surpassing that which could be achieved in painting. As theorized by Robert Delaunay in the early 1910s, Simultanéisme aimed to convey the “synchromatic movement (simultaneity) of light.”3 By this he meant that when light hits the surface of an object, it breaks up into colored planes, thus producing the optical sensation of color in motion. As if to illustrate this theory, in 1913 Sonia Delaunay painted her most ambitious work to date, Bal Bullier, a mural-scaled image of the bustling Montparnasse dance hall. She rendered the pulsating glow of the hall’s electric globe lights and the swaying bodies of its tangoing couples with bold swatches of paint that jostle against one another, producing a dynamic visual friction.
The same year that she painted Bal Bullier, Delaunay fabricated her first garment, a patchwork dress that she herself wore on frequent visits to the dance hall. The design of this dress, with its irregularly sized planes of contrasting color and texture, clearly derived from her painterly idiom. It also extended her painterly practice, not only by entering real space, but also by experimenting with the effects of actual light and movement. The garment’s swatches of sateen and velvet would have caught and refracted ambient light, cascading across her body as she moved, initiating subtle changes in hue and tone. In subsequent years, Delaunay expanded her dress design beyond her own use, working on ballet and theater costumes, everyday wear, and textiles. Moving Simultanéisme from the gallery to the stage, the home, and the street, Delaunay illustrated its potential to reshape modern life.4
Yet the fact that Delaunay put her fabrics on display at the Salon d’Automne suggests an ambition to make them count as art. Hers was an artistic project—and a business venture. Delaunay’s collaboration with corporate entities such as Godau-Guillaume-Arnault and Metz & Co. indicate that her goal was not “to reject ‘official’ fashion, refusing its mercantile logic and striving to replace it by a utopian ‘antifashion.’”5 Her efforts to commoditize Simultanéisme—for example, registering the brand name “Simultané” in both France and the U.S. in 1925—resemble her contemporaries Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. Those couturières’ proximity to the art world gave their fashions an aesthetic cache that quickly translated into market value. Arguably, though, Delaunay’s strategy worked the other way around. Success in the marketplace allowed her greater access to a still male-dominated avant-garde, even as it relegated her most radical works to the marginal realm of “decorative art.”
In late fall of 2014, a re-creation of the Simultaneous Windows went on view at a Delaunay retrospective organized by the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. The display showed how crucial movement was to Delaunay’s designs, mobilizing their interplay of color and form. By comparison, the clothing designs displayed in the room—flat in vitrines or hanging on mannequins—appeared artificially static. Unsettling the viewing experience, the Simultaneous Window suggests that the transformative potential of Delaunay’s fashions may not be limited to their impact on daily life, but includes the way they may reshape expectations about art and the conditions of its viewing.
- Cécile Godefroy, “The Métier of Simultanism,” in Sonia Delaunay eds. Cécile Godefroy and Anne Montfort. (London: Tate Publishing, 2014), 156–160.
- Radu Stern, Against Fashion: Clothing as Art, 1850 – 1930 . (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004), 3.
- Robert Delaunay, “Light” , reprinted in The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, ed. Arthur A. Cohen (New York: Viking Press, 1978), 81–82.
- Juliet Bellow, “Fashioning Cléopâtre: Sonia Delaunay’s New Woman,” Art Journal (68, 2, Spring 2009), 6–25.
- Stern, 3.
JULIET BELLOW is Associate Professor of Art History at American University and the author of Modernism on Stage: The Ballets Russes and the Parisian Avant-Garde (Ashgate/Routledge, 2013).