To her parents despair, Sonia Terk (later, Delaunay) decided not to move back to St Petersburg after completing her education. Instead, like many other creatives at the time, she moved to Paris: 'We all went to Paris,' wrote Stephen Longstreet '...a steady, mounting migration of geniuses, fools, and drunkards, Wesleyans, cultists and jazz musicians'
In Paris, Sonia was caught up in a whirlwind of exhibitions, gallery openings and artist salons. Years later when she was married to Robert Delaunay these social events would become part of the fabric of their lives, opening their home 3, rue des Grands Augustins every Sunday to the creative community and regularly attending social events such as Le Bal Bullier.
In Artist of the Lost Generation: Sonia Delaunay, Axel Madsen wrote:
Sonia liked to live in a masculine world. She considered herself equal- better, the friend - of men. She knew how to maintain intense… spiritual relationships with men.
As such, the most significant characters in her life happened to be men; particularly the following three.
In February 1906, Sonia met art collector and gallerist Wilhelm Uhde. On their first meeting he showed her his paintings by Derain, Vlaminck, Braque and Dufy, Pablo Picasso and Henri Rousseau. Unsurprisingly, they became firm friends.
In 1908, after a few years of platonic companionship, they decided to get married. Wilhelm had his own reasons for seeking a union with Sonia. He was a homosexual and LGBT communities throughout Europe still suffered great intolerance. In fact Uhde lived with his ‘butler’, Constant; said to have been his lover. Marriage to a woman would give Uhde security.
Sonia needed Wilhelm as much as he needed her. In her own way she had been battling against marginalisation too. Convinced a single woman was socially and financially unstable, her adopted father, Henri Terk, refused to give her her inheritance until she was married. He was also determined she should return to St Petersburg in the meantime. Thriving in France and desperate for independence- the ongoing disagreement was becoming exhausting. Marriage would end the debate once and for all.
Despite it being a marriage of convenience, the pair shared a true, spiritual bond. In his memoirs Wilhelm once wrote:
She was intelligent, generous, open-hearted. She knew about pictures and was herself a gifted painter. She, too, wished to have a… serious relationship of the mind.
The pair threw many glamorous dinner parties, inviting many of Uhde’s art-world contacts including Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Henri Rousseau. Other regular visitors included Berthe Delaunay and her outspoken son, Robert. It was at these gatherings that Sonia and Robert would spark their first interest in one another, leading to their marriage in 1910.
Poet, art critic and writer Guillaume Apollinaire (also friend to Henri Rousseau) was a frequent visitor at the Delaunay’s residence and once commented after a night there:
As they wake up, the Delaunay’s speak painting.
He deliberately misses the word ‘about’, as though their immersion in art had allowed them to communicate chromatically. Apollinaire had written about the invention of artificial languages before, and in a way ‘to speak painting’ was simply a new form of language to him.
In 1912, five years after Wilhelm had witnessed the birth of Cubism in Picasso’s studio, with his painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Guillaume identified a new style of Cubist painting. He became inspired by the work of František Kupka and the Delaunays’, who, although channelling the Cubist vision, prioritised colour in their work. Guillaume felt this use of colour brought movement, light and musical qualities to the artwork and therefore referenced the legendary poet and singer of ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus, when naming the movement ‘Orphism’.
The Delaunay’s did not adopt the term Orphism themselves, preferring to use Simultanism instead. Nevertheless Robert supported his friends vigorous campaign in favour of this style. The trio continued to collaborate and support one another’s work in other ways too; In the current exhibition of her work at Tate Modern, you can see two of Apollinaire’s poetry collections with covers designed and painted by Sonia. Influenced by their mutual friend Blaise Cendrars’s poem Les Pâques à New York, Apollinaire wrote Zones. Pictured above is Sonia’s response to the piece.
After running away from home in Switzerland at 15, Blaise Cendrars travelled for ten years before final deciding to settle in Paris in 1912. Guillaume Apollinaire was to introduce Blaise to the Delaunay’s, and this was the start of an intimate and reciprocally influential friendship. When Blaise died in 1961, Sonia would say she had lived a “luminous moment” with him. (Axel Madsen p. 123)
The most significant collaboration between Blaise and Sonia was the La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jehanne of France) and poem written by Blaise and simultaneously designed by Sonia. The cover reads ‘the first simultaneous book’.Blaise described it as ‘a sad poem printed on sunlight’ and it describes the journey of his 16-year old self through the apocalyptic landscape of war torn Russia from Moscow to Harbin in Mongolia. The journey is punctuated by the poet’s companion, Jehanne. Displaced and listless, she repeatedly asks ‘Dis Blaise, sommes nous bien loin de Montmartre?’ (Blaise, are we very far from Montmartre?’).
The central theme of Sonia’s illustrations was the Eiffel Tower, a symbol of modernity and progress. If all 150 of these accordion-style books had been printed, as planned, the combined length of their pages would have been as tall as this monument. The combination of pictures and words was to create a sense of movement in the viewer as their eye moved back and forth over the page, communicating the speed and disorientation of a train journey.
Aside from Sonia’s paintings, her fashion designs and textiles are a significant focus within her oeuvre. Her ‘Simultaneous dress’ (above) was a symbol of her living her art publicly and a testament to her stance as a woman of the avant-garde. This image was reproduced in her 1916 exhibition catalogue, accompanied by a poem by Blaise, which includes the lines:
‘On her dress she has a body’
Below her arms are heathers hands lunules and pistils while
waters flow over her glaucine-shouldered back
Her belly a disc that moves
Her breasts double-hulled pass under the bridge of rainbows
Colours fall a perpendicular glare upon her thighs
As he draws parallels between poetry and Sonia’s seminal garment he adopts what they named, Sonia’s ‘patchwork’ technique, in its form and structure. Together the image and words act as a manifesto for Simultanism whilst demonstrating the pairs’ deep mutual understanding.