During the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I started reading Significant Others: Creativity & Intimate Partnership. This book is a series of essays that explores the relationships of great artists. It is an attempt to understand how gender, creativity, and partnership influence art. Writing and painting take place in a sort of isolation, the privacy of a studio or home. But what happens when to great writers or artists form a relationship? How does this collaboration that happens behind closed doors affect the creative process? Can they both be geniuses? Or is on person just an enabler of genius?
Sonia and Robert Delaunay. Image courtesy of Penny Fabricart
I immediately started with chapter two, Living Simultaneously: Sonia and Robert Delaunay. This couple interested me several years ago. When I taught in LA, I introduced the concept of synesthesia to my students to stimulate their creativity. I couldn’t help but wonder if artist and fashion designer Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) had synesthesia. Sonia, along with her husband, painter Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), developed a color theory called simultaneity, or the sensation of movement when contrasting colors are placed side by side. She also referred to her garments from the 1920s as robe poemes, or dress poems.
Sonia Delaunay. Skirt, Tissu simultanÃ© no. 186, France, ca. 1926; block printed wool jersey. Image courtesy of Studio & Garden.
The essay by Whitney Chadwick really puts the time period and the relationship between these two creative forces into perspective. The 1910s were years dominated by the search for modernity in all its forms. This was as a decade when “the new” was pursued in all areas: the fashionable ideal began to relax, art became more abstract, and urban life allowed ideas and theories to circulate easily. Paris was one of the great urban capitals of this decade, and the city where Sonia and Robert met in 1908.
Rhythm by Robert Delaunay, 1912. Image courtesy of wikipaintings.
Both were painters and influenced each other greatly. Each exhibited their work in galleries, and actively participated in the art scene during the time. Robert was also interested in the academic aspects of art, and later developed theories to explain his work. However, in 1909 Sonia switched mediums and began creating quilts, embroideries, and clothing.
Sonia Delaunay. Design C53, France, 1924; gouache and pencil. Image courtesy of Studio & Garden.
What I find so interesting is that, despite completely different media and approaches, the Delaunays created similar works. It seems to me that their relationship was mutually productive and enriching. Sonia would create the “fabric” of their home environment: clothing, curtains, lampshades, quilts and Robert would paint and theorize about their methods of creation. They each contributed to inspiring the other. This is mostly because while they had similar goals, they had different perspectives. Chadwick explains:
“However indebted Robert may have been to Sonia’s more spontaneous and uninhibited expression of color – of she to his years of studying and analyzing form – they both understood their sources quite differently.”
Simultaneous Windows on the City, 1912, by Robert Delaunay,
Robert’s approach to creating and painting was very scientific. He constantly sought out theories and justifications for his use of color and form. Sonia was able to translate sensations into creative form very easily because of her training, but never sought to formally explain her art.
Sonia Delaunay. Design 951bis, fabric samples, France, 1929; printed silk. Image courtesy of Studio & Garden.
The reading sent me on a spiral of looking up each of their works. Their use of color and form is similar, yet distinct. I find it so interesting to see how their work obviously parallels. They both shared the aesthetic vision of simultaneity. Where they differed was their ideal audience. Robert wanted to remain an academic painter in the salon, while Sonia believed art should be accessible to everyone and took it to the street.
Circular Forms (Formes circulaires), 1930. Oil on canvas, 50 3/4 x 76 3/4 inches (128.9 x 194.9 cm). Image courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 49.1184
Sonia Delaunay. Design 1317, working drawing, France, 1934; colorprint, pencil, and ink on paper. Image courtesy of Studio & Garden.
Rhythme: Robert Delaunay, 1938. Image by SandrineT, 28 April 2009 August 2010 (Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris) Image courtesy of Tom Clark.
Sonia Delaunay. Scarf, produced by Liberty’s of London, France, ca. 1967; printed silk voile. Image courtesy of Studio & Garden.
I think the difference in perspective and desired audience allowed the Delaunays relationship to remain positive. Instead of directly competing with each other, they inspired one another. They created a stimulating and creative environment. They were both able to express themselves though diverse media, and somehow blend them together. A great example of this domestic and creative harmony is the image below. It’s a portrait of Tristan Tzara, painted by Robert, wearing one of Sonia’s scarves.
Portrait of Tristan Tzara by Robert Delaunay, 1923. Image courtesy of Wearable Art.