Saturday, 10 July 2010

Hail Sonia, Whose Mantle Picasso Wore

At some point in the last 15 years I became obsessed by the conviction that several 20th-Century woman artists had been unfairly eclipsed by their famous but artistically inferior male companions.

It began with my simple amazement that I had never even heard of Frida Kahlo (twice married to Diego Rivera) until I saw two of her canvasses at the Phoenix Art Museum; Sophie Tauebner (married to Hans Arp) until the Museum of Modern Art gave her a one-person show; Gabrielle Muenter (Wasily Kandinsky’s mistress) until Princeton mounted a retrospective several years ago; Marianne Werefkind (whom Alexei Jawlensky grossly abused by seducing her young ward) until the Municipal Art Museum in Ascona, Switzerland, honored the 50th anniversary of her death in 1988; and Sonia Delaunay (wife of Robert), who gave up her own art making for ten years after his early death in 1941 to reestablish his reputation.

Axel Madsen’s fine new biography, Sonia Delaunay: Artist of the Lost Generation (McGraw-Hill, $24.95), has started me thinking yet again about how skewed the canon of modernism remains.

Sonia was born in 1885 in the Ukraine as Sarah Stern, precocious daughter of a factory mechanic, the same year that Robert was born in Paris to a down-at-the-heels countess. Sarah became Sonia when her uncle, Henri Terk, adopted her in St. Petersburg, where he had accumulated a fortune as a lawyer.

Sonia was thus blessed by the upper-middle-class secular Jewish milieu, with its highly developed cultural interests. She was recognized as a genius by a high school teacher who later became the founding director of the Museum of Popular Art.

She began her formal training in Karlsruhe and spent a year in Paris, where she had a munificent $1,000-a-month stipend. To get a second year, she entered into a marriage of convenience with homosexual art dealer Willi Uhde, who drew her wholeheartedly into the artistic life of the world capital of art.

She met and fell deeply in love with Robert, even though he was a loudmouthed, arrogant man consumed with a sense of his own great future.

Robert was basing his aesthetic of Simultaneous Art on an 1839 treatise by Michel-Eugene Chevreuil which asserted: “When two objects of different colors are placed side by side, neither keeps its own color and each acquires a new tint due to the influence of the colors of other objects.”

Out of this, he ultimately fashioned a theory of non-figurative abstraction which he believed established his claim to be one of the major pioneers of modernism. No matter that he dabbed in cubism (with his Eiffel Tower and San Severin suites) or futurism in his soccer-player canvasses or that he did a great many potboiling portraits.

More mysterious is that Sonia took him at his own face value, systematically deprecating herself. Sidney Janis had come to inspect her lode of Robert’s work with a view to a major exhibition in his New York gallery. He noticed another painting on the wall of the staircase. “Who did that?” he inquired.

“That one is by me,” she replied humbly. Janis was speechless in awe. Finally, he told her: “You know, you’re a great artist.”

At 67, she was free to become her best self. She once confided to a friend that she had led three lives—one for Robert, a second for her son and grandsons, and then her own. Since she lived to be 94 and was protean in every conceivable medium, we have a great deal more evidence of her genius than we do of Robert’s, who seemed to be a manic-depressive with down periods when he did nothing artistic and manic surges when he wasted a lot of Sonia’s hard-earned francs on crackpot schemes.

She was strangely anti-feminist, rarely agreeing to enter women-only shows, was almost entirely apolitical and was happy only when she was boosting Robert’s reputation or creating in an astonishing range of media. She considered no art “minor”: She lectured at the Sorbonne in 1927 on the influence of painting on dress design.

When the Russian Revolution abruptly cut off her monthly remittances from St. Petersburg, she turned to fashion, where her funky color schemes made her work the talk of the town. She opened a Casa Sonia in Madrid. Her Ateliers Simultanes made her the darling of the Art Deco era.

She and Robert lived a very hard life during World War II, eking out a meager existence, sometimes by selling old work to Swiss museums or to the Guggenheims.

She was devastated when Robert died of rectal cancer, but her friends rallied around—especially the Arps—and she plotted how she’d establish her dead husband’s reputation once the war was over. Her only son, Charles, joined the Resistance and returned at the end of the war to his role as the premiere organizer of American jazz in Europe.

She could be a fierce fighter when she thought the Delaunay legacy was threatened. When Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning started drifting into Paris to take over the abstract art movement, she railed at them as “dirty foreigners.” She became a favorite of Andre Malraux when he assumed the mantel of De Gaulle’s Ministry of Culture, and even le grand Charles honored her at the Elysee Palace.

Still, since I’ve become convinced she is one of the greatest artists—if not the greatest—of the 20th century, I play a quiet game in arty conversations. Nine out of ten who know Robert (however vaguely) have never heard of Sonia. But shows at the Bellerive (Zurich) and MOMA (Paris) convinced me gender-skewed criticism has given Picasso Delaunay’s rightful place.

from Welcomat: After Dark – Hazard-at-Large, September 12, 1990

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