While crossing under the East River during my daily train ride on the LIRR, I recalled the train I took from Paris to London, which passed under a much larger body of water: the English Channel. In the weeks since my trip, I attempted to find a word to describe my journey, and I’ve determined that I experienced a series of crossovers—not only between countries, but also between media from fine art to textile design, and environments both private and public.
As I contemplated the word “crossover” I realized that the interchange between artistic disciplines was the impetus for my travel grant. During my internship in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, I’ve been assisting with research on the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1912—25 (which opens in December of this year). The exhibition focuses on the formation of abstraction in the early 20th century and its development across mediums and nations. As a future Master’s student at the FIT Fashion and Textile Studies program, I took a personal interest in artists, such as Sonia Delaunay, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa Bell, who also designed clothing and textiles. For my trip, I wanted to learn more about works by these artists and gain an understanding of how their paintings may have informed their dress and textile designs.
Upon entering the Centre Pompidou—a major lender to Inventing Abstraction—I quickly found the galleries dedicated to early abstraction. In a section entitled Early Abstraction: Color as Light, Sonia and her husband Robert Delaunay’s paintings hung alongside those of Frantisek Kupka and the Futurist painter Giacomo Balla. Their works investigated contrasting pure color and movement, creating, in the case of Balla and the Dealunays, images of circular shapes of variegated colors that conversed with Kupka’s cosmic chromatic studies. Sonia Delaunay’s painting Electric Prisms(1914) was the centerpiece of the gallery. The vibrant orbs of color moving across the canvas are exemplary of the Dealunays’ theory of simultaneity, as explained by Robert Delaunay: “At this moment, about 1912–1913, I had the idea for a kind of painting that would depend only on color and its contrast but would develop over time, simultaneously perceived at a single moment.”
Sonia Delaunay’s textile designs are an extension of her simultaneous painting. At Les Arts Decoratifs I saw a display of Delaunay’s designs from their permanent collection. A selection of textile studies were hung salon-style against a bright violet wall across from a living room display of furniture by Jean Royère. Her designs consisted of reds, blues, and verdant greens intensified by strong black lines. They echoed her early paintings, yet abandoned circular motifs for geometric shapes. The utilization of angular forms and linear strokes in the textile designs successfully creates movement. The motion evoked by the works was amplified by the jazz music of Django Reinhardt, a French musician and close friend of the Delaunays’ son Charles, which played on an interactive monitor. I happened to be the only person in the gallery, which allowed me observe the works more intimately. I felt as though I was gazing upon the designs while listening to jazz in a friend’s living room.
The ability to experience a private moment within an museum was always within reach. At the Centre Pompidou, I discovered a pair of letters between Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann displayed in a narrow hallway with small artworks by other Dada artists. The old friends recounted their experiences during World War II. Eager to write to his friend, Hausmann confides in Schwitters, “Do you really trust in love? I know nothing about love.” Schwitters reassures him about art and his current partner Heta, encouraging him to continue with his photography and affirming his belief in love. The chance to view such an unassuming exchange between these two modern artists enabled me to relate to them on a very personal level, and to see these men in a new way: as two very sensitive human beings.
Paris was followed by a trip to London, where I went to The Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms at the Tate Britain to research the abstract works by the Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. Grant and Bell’s early abstract period was brief and largely influenced by their design work. They began to incorporate geometric forms in their textile and decorative designs for the Omega workshops in 1913. While going through object files at the Tate Archives I found a quote from a letter written by Vanessa Bell to Roger Fry in the summer of 1914: “Anyhow, Duncan and I do nothing here but paint. He has started a long painting which is meant to be rolled up after the manner of those Chinese paintings and seen in degrees.” The work Bell described is the Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound, (1914) in the Tate’s collection (which is featured in Inventing Abstraction). Made of repetitive painted rectangular cut papers, the scroll was meant to be viewed through an apparatus displaying only portions of the painting while a Bach fugue is played. A photocopy a sketch Grant made of the apparatus (drawn on the back cover of an issue of Soirées de Paris) depicted plans for the painting to be viewed in a vertical, rather than horizontal, format. Unfortunately Grant never fully realized the work, and it is still unclear how he originally intended the piece to be viewed.
In order to gain a deeper insight into the works of Grant and Bell, I ventured to their home, the Charleston Trust. In 1916 the couple decided to move to the countryside in order to seek salvation from World War I. They created a home where the images they painted on their canvases continued onto every possible surface of their household. Their private space was equally their artistic space. Although Bell and Grant returned to representational painting after 1914, examples of their use of geometric and abstract designs could be found throughout the house, as in a curtain Bell designed with a rectangular blue-and-gray pattern, entitled Maud, and even a bath panel painted by Duncan Grant in 1945. For these artists the separation between art and life was nonexistent. I discovered through the course of my trip that the boundaries between artistic disciplines could be easily crossed, and an intimate moment could be experienced in the most public of spaces.