Sonia Delaunay died in 1979, just as she was directing the completion of this edition of her deck of cards. Her long life proved, ultimately, as joyous as her art, as vibrant in its color as it was revolutionary in its composition. Born Sarah Stern, she lived most of her life with neither of the names she had been given, taking her uncle's surname, Terk, and the name Sofia, or its Russian form Sonia, when he adopted her. As Sonia Terk, in Paris at the emergence of cubism and abstract painting, she made perhaps her greatest paintings, exploring the inherent emotion and power of colors alone, rather than shapes and scenes. Along with her second husband Robert Delaunay, Sonia stood at the vanguard of pure abstraction, jettisoning subject altogether in favor of color and form.
But as a pure painter, her career was not long. After marrying first Wilhelm Uhde, and then Robert Delaunay, she found herself much more interested in color than she was in pigment. She moved quickly into other areas in which she could explore the actions of colors, dabbling in embroideries first, and then full clothing design. Silk and linen became her canvas, and then the whole world. In the glorious two decades from 1914 to 1934, she helped free the world from rigid form in fashion and design, and unleashed her wild colors and contrasts upon everything from evening dresses to cutlery, even creating the first neon sculpture. Her wild hues found support from the Surrealists and Dadaists of Paris to the Futurists of Milan, and she collaborated with people from Coco Chanel to Sergei Diaghilev. And as she continued to paint, she continued to explore a world unconquered by art, finding every place that art could be, and finding that art could be every place. Her impact on the world of art, fashion and design cannot be easily overstated.
In Paris, she rubbed elbows with the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Rousseau, and Robert Delaunay, with whom she had a passionate affair, and would eventually marry. Delaunay himself was instrumental in breaking the bounds of subject in painting, and was one of the true, great pioneers of abstraction. Sonia felt the emotion and the energy within color, and strove to investigate what colors meant in and of themselves, and how they reacted to each other. Taking her inspiration from the works of Matisse and Gauguin, even as she exhibited in the same halls as they, she took color for itself, building that emotion into her images, subjugating the subject further and further beneath the feelings until in her art, too, there was no subject at all.
Robert Delaunay told Sonia of a book he'd read, the bible of the pointillists, Michel-Eugene Chevreuil's On the Laws of Simultaneous Color Contrasts, written in 1839, which described how colors inform each other, and what juxtaposing them did to the individual colors. And here Sonia found the word which described everything she was doing with color and form, everything her art meant to her. Simultaneity, or in french, simultané. It would become for her much more than contrasting colors. Simultané was unifying the disparate and deconstructing the singular, seeing something as both many things and one thing, simultaneously. In color and in form, simultané was very much her life's work.
Simultané can be well seen in this deck of cards, where the colors form the unified contrasts she strove for, never blending colors, but always standing them up against each other, breaking them apart, splitting them with carefully primitive, torn lines of white, searching for all that color means to itself, and to the beholders. And the geometries of the cards, the shapes of the objects, all derive from her exploration of fashion and form, blending external shape with internal shape.
This deck was originally conceived of in 1939, and a small number of drawings were executed to study the concept. Any plans for rendering it, if they existed at all, were interrupted by war, and the full deck, subtly different in design, didn't see the light of day until 1960, when the University of Bielefeld, one of the first to seriously recognize her contributions to modern art, commissioned her to complete the deck. That she did, and these images are the result. In 1979, the deck was to be published to the world by the Altenburger und Stralsunder Spielkartenfabrik (A & S Playing Card Factory), and Delaunay was called in to supervise its production. She died overseeing its final details.
Her long life would see her through many public and personal tragedies, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, spent in occupied France, compounded by Robert's death in 1941, but in the end, her life finished happy. Basking in the recognition of her profound contribution to art, financially successful, she lived to be 94, with no regrets for any part of her life. "Everything I've done I've had fun doing," she remarked on the occasion of her 90th birthday. I think her art agrees.
All images © Sonia Delaunay and Jacques Damase, displayed here
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