Brilliant swirls of color cascade down the left side of this elongated composition, ending with a simplified representation of a red Eiffel Tower. Juxtaposed on the right, in a parallel arrangement, are the words of the poet Cendrars, which end with the text "O Paris." Colors and words drift in a nonlinear fashion similar to a stream of consciousness, a state in which time and location are irrelevant. Delaunay-Terk's hues and Cendrars's prose interact on a simultaneous journey, producing synchronized rhythms of art and poetry.
The text of La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of the Little Jeanne of France) contains Cendrars's sporadic flashbacks and flashforwards to other times and places, and recounts his railroad journey from Moscow to the Sea of Japan in 1904.
It also includes recollections of a train ride with his young French mistress, the "petite Jehanne" of the title, who repeatedly asked, "Are we very far from Montmartre?"
Calling their creation "the first simultaneous book," Delaunay-Terk and Cendrars drew on the artistic theory of simultaneity, espoused by the artist's husband, the painter Robert Delaunay, and modern poets.
Curator, Ann Temkin: In October, 1913, Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars advertised their forthcoming collaboration: La Prose du Transsiberien, or the Transiberian prose poem.
Curator, Leah Dickerman: Sonia Delaunay-Terk's abstract composition of arcing colored forms is on the left, and Blaise Cendrars' text is on the right. And her colors seep over into the interstices between his words. At the very top right is a little Michelin map which shows the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Siberia. And the poem narrates an imaginary journey taken in 1905 in the company of a young French prostitute named after Joan of Arc.
The train in this poem travels from Moscow eastward to Siberia and then it jumps off to China and the North Pole and ends up in Paris itself. And the poem also cuts between 1905 and 1913 and back to memories of the narrator’s childhood. So there's a collision of different times and places, words, images and feelings.
Ann Temkin: Delaunay-Terk and Cendrars called their work “the first simultaneous book,” referring to the way that the combination of text, images and color energize the optical experience.
Leah Dickerman: What they're talking about is a new kind of modern vision where one seizes things quickly amidst a cacophony of information. Where contrasts of color train the eye to read in one glance the whole of a poem the way one reads in an instant the visual imprinted elements of an advertising poster.
When Sonia Delaunay-Terk and her husband, Robert Delaunay, created their first completely abstract or nonobjective paintings, the term "simultaneous contrast" described the harmonious and lyrical effects they achieved with pure color. Their style, "Orphism," alludes to the Greek god and musician Orpheus. Delaunay-Terk's investigations into simultaneity include her internationally acclaimed designs in the applied arts, ranging from textiles to advertisements to book bindings.
Comprised of brightly colored arabesques, concentric circles, triangles, and rectangles, Delaunay-Terk's pochoir illustrations for Blaise Cendrars's poem and its radical format have made this a landmark in the history of the modern book. The poet and the artist conceived of this project as the first "simultaneous book." When closed, the accordion-folded volume can be slipped into a wrapper. Opened out vertically, the format facilitates the contrast of the darker themes of the poem with the vibrant dynamism of the illuminations that accompany it.
Written as a stream of consciousness, Cendrars's poem alternates between his memories of a train trip across Siberia in 1904 and thoughts of his girlfriend, Jehanne. Complementing the rhythms of the poem, Delaunay-Terk interspersed patches of color with the poet's staggered text, printed in twelve different fonts. The poem and the illustration both end with references to the Eiffel Tower and the ferris wheel, two architectural marvels of Paris at that time, further symbolizing modernity and the experiences of simultaneity that urban life provided.
After Prose, Delaunay-Terk returned to book illustration intermittently throughout her career. Although she had made figurative intaglio prints between 1905 and 1910, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that she experimented with screenprint, aquatint, lithography, and etching in her signature style. Of her approximately one hundred fifty prints, nearly one-third are book illustrations.