More than 400 pieces by the Ukraine-born abstract pioneer Sonia Delaunay are now on show at the Paris Museum of Modern Art in Sonia Delaunay: The Colours of Abstraction, the largest such exhibit in her adopted France since 1967. The comprehensive exhibition underscores her role as a key early modernist figure (alongside Paul Klee, Picasso and Matisse), all the more because the diversity of her output translated its principles (such as Dadaist soirée mottos on poem-dresses) to a far broader audience. Her work still feels current today.
Early on, Delaunay took her ideas about shape and colour (she called it "the skin of the world") out of the fine-art gallery and into the wider realm of decorative and applied arts, such as her now-famous Cubist quilt created for her infant son in 1911. It's one of the reasons her work as an artist, fashion and textile designer remains in l'air du temps a century later – currently visible in the playful collections of clothing label Milly and in Missoni's knits and interiors.
In historian Virginia Gardner Troy's The Modernist Textile, her 2006 study of decorative design influence in the development of 21st-century fine art, she credits Delaunay as among the first to use the medium as the means of turning "completely away from pictorial references toward a
pure abstract language based on the interplay of form, colour and texture."
This, as early as 1909 in her embroidered work Broderie de Feuillages that by 1912 evolved into a full theory of colour called Simultaneism, with her husband, French painter Robert Delaunay. It consists of selecting contrasts of colour and shape based on their interplay to create a sense of motion and rhythm.
Waves, discs, concentric circles and slivers of geometric deconstruction, the vivid arc shapes flecked with black of her paintings are, at a distance, not unlike a jumble of licorice allsorts. Her paintings and colour-block lettering of nesting triangles and squares influenced the shadow type of Art Deco posters and graphic design. (French publisher Palette is reissuing her popular 1970 children's board book, Alphabet, in November.)
Delaunay's colour and pattern influence spread in her lifetime – she licensed her designs for home sewing and fabric collaboration with Dutch luxury department store Metz & Co. Her concentric circles are echoed in the mid-1960s mod of Pierre Cardin.
And lately the influence can be seen back in the fashion sphere: the nesting circles and lines of 2003 Emanuel Ungaro; Fiona Kotur cited Delaunay as the inspiration for her fall 2011 minaudières; and her early quilt and dress poems are reiterated in Junya Watanabe's recent exploration of patchwork. His spring 2015 collection includes a close rendering of her 1964 Rythme couleur canvas. Yet even when the influence is implicit (such as in Danish decor line Hay's Kaleido interlocking geometric trays), it's so pervasive that although her own life's work ended at her death in 1979, her original work, once avant-garde, now feels familiar.
Sonia Delaunay: The Colours of Abstraction is at the Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris until Feb. 22, 2015.