“We are...only at the beginning of color research (full of mysteries still to be discovered)....”
Red and green, blue and orange, yellow and violet: these color combinations were vital to the artistic practice and theory of Sonia Delaunay-Terk, whose vast body of work—paintings and drawings, prints and illustrations, textiles and furnishings, clothing and accessories—enthralled its earliest viewers, users, and wearers. While living in Paris in the 1910s, Delaunay-Terk and her husband, Robert Delaunay, began to explore the visual properties of contrasting colors—colors opposite one another on the color wheel. The pairing of two such colors, they realized, heightened the optical intensity, making both colors appear more vivid than they would on their own. Studying color inside and outside of the studio, in their own creations and in Parisian museums, galleries, and exhibitions, Delaunay-Terk and Delaunay pursued a shared passion for hues made brilliant, even dynamic through their relationships to each other. “12, 13, 14, what rich and explosive years for Robert and me!” Delaunay-Terk later recalled. “We had rediscovered the moving principle of any work of art: the light, the movement of color.”
Delaunay-Terk’s lifelong fascination with color emerged during her childhood in the Ukrainian village of Gradizhsk, where she was born Sara Stern in 1885. In a memoir published the year before her death, she would write of “memories of the peasant weddings of my country, where the red and green dresses, ornamented with many ribbons, flew about in dancing.” Sara became Sonia at the age of seven, when her working-class parents sent their youngest daughter to live with wealthy relatives in St. Petersburg. In the household of Henri Terk, her maternal uncle, Sonia Terk enjoyed a privileged upbringing replete with private schools, international travel, and art lessons. With the support of her uncle, she left St. Petersburg for Germany as a teenager to advance her study of art. “There is just one thing I need: to have a place where I can be alone, even if only for one hour a day,” she recorded in her diary shortly before leaving Russia. “I have already decided that, as soon as possible, I will settle in Paris or London, life is broader and happier there.”
As planned, Terk moved to Paris following her studies in Germany. And as predicted, life in the French capital proved “broader and happier.” After painting seriously for several years, Terk held her first individual exhibition in 1908; she married Robert Delaunay in 1910. Together, the couple developed what they called “simultanéisme” (“Simultanism”), a mode of art centered not on the representation of real-world figures, objects, or scenes but rather on the “simultaneous contrast” of colors. According to Delaunay-Terk, the phrase “simultaneous contrast” came from a 19th-century scientific treatise on color theory that her husband admired, but that she felt was less significant to her own practice than sustained experiments in collage. Using pieces of brightly colored paper and fabric, the artist created quilts, curtains, and lampshades for her home, as well as “simultaneous dresses” that she herself wore around Paris. In 1913, Delaunay-Terk announced the publication of the “first simultaneous book.” A collaboration between her and the writer Blaise Cendrars, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France) extends Simultanism from the realm of color into the realm of words and images, and space and time. The book comprises a lengthy sheet that unfolds to reveal Cendrars’s poem at right and Delaunay-Terk’s illustrations at left, an unusual format that allows for the synchronous contemplation of both art forms while also evoking the lengthy, trans-Siberian train journey that provides the book’s plot. Moreover, both the poem and the illustrations juxtapose near and far, past and present—juxtapositions that critics and scholars have related to new technologies in transportation and communication.
From the 1910s to the 1970s, Delaunay-Terk applied her Simultanism to painting, design, and fashion. Portuguese Market, undertaken when the artist and her family lived in Portugal during World War I, depicts a towering heap of fruits and vegetables. Yet the true protagonist of the painting is color: at center, a luscious orb—perhaps a melon—rendered in rounded stripes of orange, yellow, green, and red; to either side, bold arrangements of sometimes glossy, sometimes matte pigments that suggest the sights, smells, and sounds of a bustling marketplace. Unsurprisingly, color is a prominent feature of Delaunay-Terk’s descriptions of Portugal. “The light was not intense,” she later remembered, “but it enhanced all the colors—the multicolor or dazzling white houses of sober design, the peasants in folk costumes, the materials, the ceramics that had amazingly pure lines of ancient beauty.”
The Iberian country reminded Delaunay-Terk of Ukraine, and these reminiscences would shape her work in subsequent years. Whether she was devising fabrics for department stores, costumes for plays, or murals for international exhibitions, Delaunay-Terk looked back to the craft traditions—in particular, the vibrant colors and rhythmic patterns—of her childhood. At the same time, she looked ahead to the future. In a 1926 lecture on fashion delivered at the Sorbonne University, for instance, Delaunay-Terk argued that modern women needed modern clothing. Out with corsets, and in with comfortable, colorful garments that enabled active lives. “We are, however, only at the beginning of color research (full of mysteries still to be discovered), which is the basis of the modern vision,” the artist concluded. “We can enrich, complete, develop this color vision further—others besides ourselves can continue it—but we cannot return to the past.”
Annemarie Iker, independent scholar, 2022