Art Deco Architecture in Paris: Robert Mallet-Stevens, Part One

Robert Mallet-Stevens (1885-1945)

The Architect of Art Deco, Part One

The architectural counterpart to Le Corbusier and his purist radical modern architecture was the less purist less radical yet still modern architecture of Robert Mallet-Stevens. Time and shifting interest has shunted Mallet-Stevens to one side, while headlining Le Corbusier, and yet Mallet-Stevens was far more persuasive in his own time in the popularization of Art Deco architecture. One could argue that most of the Art Deco architecture of note in Paris was his work. Robert Mallet-Stevens, a most elegant architect, who resembled the dancer Fred Astaire, was to the manor born. Specifically, he was born in Maison Lafitte, a seventeenth century home designed by François Mansart, after whom the famous “Mansard Roof,” the signature architectural look for that century in France, was named. The son and grandson of art dealers, Mallet-Stevens was very well connected: his mother, the source of his name “Stevens” was the niece of the well-known painter from Belgium, Alfred Stevens.

Palais Stoclet

Another member of the Stevens family, Suzanne, had married very well, to none other than Adolphe Stoclet, whose famous home in Brussels was designed in 1911 by Austrian designer, Josef Hoffmann. The influence of Hoffmann’s Palais Stoclet tempered the modernist architecture of Mallet-Stevens whose practice was focused mostly on domestic architecture for a wealthy avant-garde clientele. He designed an elegant studio for the painter Tamara de Lempicka; he began a new home on a hillside for Paul Poiret, but the 1921 villa was never completed, and he created the exquisite Villa Noailles for Charles and Marie-Laure, the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles, descendants of the Marquis de Sade. This yellow-bricked home was a collaborative exercise for the noble couple, and the design team included Eileen Gray and Theo van Doesberg.

Mallet-Stevens paused in this project in Hyères when he was invited to participate in the Paris fair of 1925, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. His signature work for the Exhibition was a towering Tourist Pavillon, which had a place of pride at the Exhibition, at the entryway transition. Its tall and narrow tower made for an impressive display of the abilities of reinforced concrete, a strong statement, announcing the arrival of modern architecture in a distinctive Art Deco style. The Tourist Pavillon, unlike Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau, was placed advantageously, adjacent to the Grand Palais, creating a strong comparison between the eclectic structure from 1900 and the daring upward march of the Pavillon’s tower, built only twenty-five years later. Interestingly, Le Corbusier’s Pavillion was also in the sight line of the Palais, but he deliberately cropped the older building out to give the illusion that his radical building stood alone, like a work of sculpture. More than an announcement or an introduction to the Fairgrounds, the structure by Robert Mallet-Stevens marked the difference a new century had made and closed the door on a terrible war.

Pavillon du Tourisme

In opening the entrance to the future, the tall vertical for this soaring structure became an exclamation point of a building, topped by a clock face. The sharp tower rose above its counterpart, a long narrow building devoted to Fair information, a horizontal dash adjoining the vertical. The best way to describe the style of Mallet-Stevens was “mannerist.” In contrast to the architectural system devised by Le Corbusier—the concrete columns, the ribbon windows, the open plan, and so on—Mallet-Stevens was the decorator who adorned the surfaces of geometric forms and he often acted as the multiplier of the modernist cube, which he was stack vertically or would arrange horizontally. At the top of shaft of the tower over the entry for the Tourist Pavilion, he mounted non-functional rectangular wafers shapes inserted into the structure, rather like a set of blades had flown in and had become embedded in the spire. The vertical of the clock tower played off the horizontal juxtaposition of two long extensions, which were The Pavillon itself was a two level horizontal extension, stretching out behind the clock tower, as if the vertical member was duplicated and then grounded. The exterior sides of the long grounded hall were studded with non-functional pegs popping out along the lengths of the two halls.

Home for the brothers Martel. Mallet Stevens Street, Paris (1928)

If Robert Mallet-Stevens was an architect of the twentieth century, he was less a creator of new forms and more of a hunter-gatherer who acted like a bricoleur who borrowed modern shapes from late Cubism, from radical architecture, from Mondrian, juggling concepts and playing with philosophies and theories and turning them into style. Although Mallet-Stevens was termed a “Functionalist,” much like Le Corbusier, but he took the elements of modern design, such as the glazed window walls, cantilevered overhangs, exterior staircases and played with them, as if he were juggling a multiplicity of geometric shapes and allowing them to coalesce into a single complex building. As a multiplier of geometric forms, Mallet-Stevens was also an assemblage artist, putting section upon section together. On the street that bears his name, a short street in Paris where six of his domestic homes are clustered, one can see his sheer exuberance in stacking cubes, one on top of another, a balancing act rather like a Mondrian painting. Instead of restraint, Mallet-Stevens took up the available modern forms, all geometric, borrowed them, displacing them from their radical origins in architectural theory, and deployed the shapes with visible pleasure, engaging in exercises of sensuous elaboration. Adolf Loos would have been suspicious, sensing that the use of the apparently bare and plain forms in such extravagant numbers was somehow decorative and lacking in restraint. Indeed, architects and architectural critics of the 20s and 30s expressed their opinions of Mallet-Stevens, based upon comparing him with his radical and purist counterparts. Sigfried Gideon called him “elegant “and a “formalist.” Marie Dormoy used the term “aesthete.” These were not necessarily compliments, but his work was motivated by forces quite different from the architects who can be termed “modern,” for the term “Art Deco” comes closer to explaining the work of Mallet-Stevens, because his was an architecture of high and self-conscious style.

The desire for elaboration seemed to drive the architect, a prolific furniture designer in his own right, who also created specialized furniture for his homes. The metal chair he created for Mobilier was his take on a Thornet chair. This chair seems to be drawn in black outline around the wooden seat and extended to the legs which are tilted backward and slanted forward, opening its stance to a slightly splayed appearance. The back of the chair is half an oval, contrasted by two straight lines cutting through the middle emptiness. Elegant, simple, and stackable, the chair could be black or white or chrome, wooden seat, cushioned seat or metal seat.

Chairs by Robert Mallet-Stevens

Infinite variability was one of the calling cards of Mallet-Stevens. His wooden chairs were strongly reminiscent of De Stijl, based on a couple of open squares, like his Udara design, using open squares which support two comfortable square cushions.

Robert Mallet-Stevens Udara Chair

To describe this architect one uses another vocabulary, one alien to radical modern architecture coming out of the Bauhaus in Germany, for example. One would never use the word “Beautiful” to describe a work by Le Corbusier, nor would one say “exaggerated” or “exuberate” when referencing Bauhaus buildings. In addition, the words “associative” or “referential,” much less “quotation,” all of which were outside the discourse of the purity of modern architecture. But Robert Mallet-Stevens was all of these words, with his buildings gesturing towards De Stijl—making allusions to painting—and playful in his delight in throwing architectural elements together. Lacking the rigid theoretical foundations of his contemporaries, he was closer to the Wiener Werkstätte and the idea of the total work of art, a notion quite different from following the rationality of the machine and the logic of structural construction. As opposed to thinking of architecture as form, Mallet-Stevens seemed to think of a building as a presence in the environment, casting a spell, creating a mood, and, most of all, setting a scene. In his placement of a building, in his creation of a sense of place, Mallet-Stevens practiced a mise-en-scène approach, setting a stage for a work of architecture in the same way he designed the sets for the films he worked on. Buildings are presented and displayed, set at their best vantage point, drawing the viewer towards the site, moving forward expecting more delights to unfold as she or he is drawn towards the building-as-display.

The Villa Poiret

The Villa Poiret (1925) near Mézy-sur-Seine was a case in point, where the architect, acting like a set designer, placed a long white building on the crest of a hill, sited so that the fashion designer, Paul Poiret, could watch races on the river below. The visitor, then, inevitably approaches from below and is asked to look up to the top of the hill. The Villa takes on an aloof appearance, blindingly white in the strong sun, refusing to blend into the surroundings. In contrast, Le Corbusier’s contemporaneous work, the Villa Savoye, has no vantage point, no particular environment, and is presented rather baldly, like a white box on a flat plate. The Villa Savoye can claim an exchange between the inside and outside, thanks to its ribbon windows and roof garden, but it does not respond to the setting. Alone it stands with the aloofness of a sculpture on a socle. This independence is precisely what the architect intended. However, Mallet-Stevens always reacted to the site and used to the advantage of the building, to show off his design, so to speak. Depending upon how it is photographed, the building for Paul Poiret has the look of an ocean liner, cresting the rolling waves of the green hill, with a pair of exterior staircases, one of the architect’s favorite devices, making a V at a corner to stress the appearance of the prow of a ship, pushing the ocean aside.

Villa Poiret

Viewed from the other side, there is a curved wall that resembles the promenade deck of a ship. As if to enhance the illusion of being a sea-going vessel, the wall was punctuated by small square openings that look like portholes on the side of an ocean liner. From another angle, the Villa is deeply reminiscent of the Palais Stocolet in its memories of restrained ornament. The entire structure is a textbook example of how to use reinforced concrete to take advantage of the support system to open the walls. As a result, some windows are large, some are medium sized, some are round, some are square, some rise floor to ceiling, balancing each other in a patterned asymmetrical harmony, like a Mondrian painting. This referencing to another medium, the play between the actual water at the bottom of the hill and the suggestion of the mounds of earth being ocean waves, hoisting the ship/house above towards the sky–all of these conceptual moves by Robert Mallet-Stevens were alien to modern architecture but integral to Art Deco design.

The next post will discuss Part Two on this architect.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Constructivism on Display, Part Two

The Brief Existence of Constructivism

At the Paris Fair of 1925

The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts was “international,” stressing the nationalism of the post-war period, but the French, the host nation, proved to be cautious with which countries were invited and included. The French government had officially recognized the new Soviet Union in 1924, so the invitation to the Exposition was belated, but the artists sprang into action. Along with Le Corbusier’s Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau, the Soviet Pavilion stood out as the two buildings resisting the blandishments of Art Deco and memories of early pre-war modern architecture. Only in these two buildings was the Bauhaus spirit manifested and only in these two buildings was ornamentation and decoration resisted for an assertion of the philosophy of Construction as Design. The Soviet Pavilion, which exists today only as a series of photographs, was a series of slices of architecture composed of slants and diagonals. The Pavilion was daring and simple: two triangular volumes sliced in half by a staircase. A glazed wall, windows stretching from roof to road, bend steeply to make way for a rising flight of steps. From the outside one could look through this sheet of glass and view all the exhibitions inside the building. Above the stairway, the series of diagonals crossed like swords above the processional also functioned like a faux set of roof beams supporting nothing, existing only as formal shapes. This stunning building turned the architect, Konstantin Melnikov (1890-1974) into a sought-after celebrity among the Parisians. Only Le Corbusier, a Swiss architect, working and practicing in Paris, had offered such an architectural work of such revolutionary impact. Perhaps because he was representing a far-away and still unfamiliar government, Melnikov’s offering was better received than that of Le Corbusier whose threat to the status quo in France was far more apparent.

Soviet Pavilion at the World’s Fair, Paris 1925

The best analogy to this building would be the contemporary design for the Wexner Center of the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, designed in the late 1980s by Peter Eisenmann. Eisenman took his abstract philosophical theories of deconstruction as applied to architecture and refused the architectural dictates of straight lines and enclosure for broken angles and opened walls.

The Wexner Center of the Arts

But Melnikov was using abstract two-dimensional shapes from painting as architectural slabs fitted together into a dynamic and daring pavilion. However, Melnikov’s working method revealed a deconstructive mindset, for his preparatory drawings showed that he played with geometric shapes which he broke up and reconnected through causal intersections. Indeed, much of the building was glass, buttressed by an occasional slab wall here and there. Topping the building was a tower of open work trusses, suggesting the Tribune of El Lissitzky. The skeletal projection was also a flag pole, and it should be noted, that, at the closing of the Exposition, the flags of all nations were ceremoniously lowered, except for that of Russia. For days afterward, the red flag with the gold hammer and sickle rode the late summer breezes. Clearly, Melnikov was experimenting with the language of architecture, as was Eisenman, almost one hundred years later, deconstructing the concept of “structure” in what was probably an experiment in formal language. Even Le Corbusier’s offering was conservative compared to the Russian architect’s design that was as savage and brutal as it was a fragile accumulation of teetering walls, leaning against each other. As if to emphasize the precariousness of the structure, a conglomeration of words suspended in air, somehow attached to the building, announced that this was the Soviet Pavilion. If anyone was in doubt, a hammer and sickle rose in the air, cutting into the sky. While he was in Paris, Melnikov gave an interview, recently translated, in which he laconically described his intentions:

This glazed box is not the fruit of an abstract idea. My starting point was real life; I had to deal with real circumstances. Above all, I worked with the site that was allocated to me, a site surrounded by trees: it was necessary that my little building should stand out clearly amidst the shapeless masses through its color, height, and skillful combination of forms. I wanted the pavilion to be as full of light and air as possible. That is my personal predilection, but I think it reasonably represents the aspiration of our whole nation. Not everyone who walks past the pavilion will go inside it. But each of them will see something of what’s exhibited inside my building all the same, thanks to the glazed walls, and thanks to the staircase that goes out to meet the crowd, passes through the pavilion, and enables them to survey the whole of its content from above. As far as the intersecting diagonal planes over the route are concerned, may they be a disappointment to lovers of roofs corked up like bottles! But this roof is no worse than any other: it is made so as to let in the air, and you keep out of the rain from whatever direction it may fall.

Interior of Soviet Pavilion

The Soviet Pavilion, with its interior exhibits, was a container that was a Constructivist “thing” or object that, in turn, held more “objects” from the utopian society. And yet, Melnikov’s design intention was never symbolic. He was concerned with the site itself only—where the building was located at the fair and the fact that the exposition was a temporary event, destined to be torn down. As the result of accepting the ephemeral nature of the placement, there is a thrown-together-soon-to-be-demolished temporary air of casualness about the Pavilion that reinforces the artist’s statement: “..why should a building whose function is temporary be granted the false attributes of the everlasting? My pavilion doesn’t have to keep standing for the whole life of the Soviet Union. It’s quite enough for it to keep standing until this exhibition closes. To put it briefly, the clarity of color, simplicity of line, and abundance of light and air that characterize this pavilion (whose unusual features you may like or dislike according to taste) have a similarity to the country I come from. But do not think, for goodness sake, that I set out to build a symbol.”

The Temporary Soviet Pavilion in 1925

In addition, as with the displayed objects inside, the object/structure was an example of faktura or the practicality of industrial materials used as materials without disguise or cladding or decoration. Glass was glass, steel was steel and wood was wood. However, although the architect intended the building to be read as an independent Constructivist object in its own right, the Pavilion was understood by others as a propaganda document, advertising the modernity of the USSR, a newly arrived political entity, which, by ingesting European modernism, had forged forward on its own unique path. Inside the Pavilion, the Monument to the Third International by Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) rose toward the ceiling, pointing to the sky and to the future of the Soviet Union. Alexander Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club, which served as an interior room and exhibit and as an object all at the same time, followed the utilitarian and ideological philosophy that an experimental construction or an example of how studio “laboratory” work could become a practical object. An abstract sculpture could become a building, an abstract painting could become a pavilion, and faktura could be mobilized to build simple and useful tools for the workers to use. The Club, which is an ideal model, was conceived by Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) as a three-dimensional design for education and comradeship among workers. There is an exchange between the workers’ bodies and the activities practiced in the space: the long table is a communal affair, a place where workers congregate on both sides, facing each other. The worker is contained in an enveloping chair that curves around in a semi-circle, embracing him or her with the arms of comradeship.

Reconstruction of Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club

Rodchenko imagined these Constructivist objects to be comrades in their own right: friends and allies for the workers, working in unison with the laborers. Unlike the rather rigid and uncomfortable chairs, the tabletop could be altered. The top could flip up for writing or down for reading, but based on the photographs and reconstructions of this table, such alterations would have to be communal, at least on that side—everyone must read or everyone must write. And there are racks for magazines full of educational materials for the edification of the labor force. In describing these structures, Stepanova referred to them as “wall newspapers,” which like all the objects in the Club could be manipulated and controlled by the worker seeking knowledge. While newspapers dangle like towels from a white rack, Lenin peers down benignly from a photograph a year after his death. This is the “Lenin corner” with the photograph of the recently deceased and embalmed leader taking the place of the religious icon in the traditional Russian home. The corner is carefully designed, from the white square left blank, waiting for the requisite photograph, to the timeline constructed of a series of arrows. This corner was conceived of as more than a cult site where the worker was expected to peruse the archive of materials on Lenin that would, over time, accumulate as the heritage of the leader grew in Russia. In the place of religion, there was the cult of Lenin, who became the founding father about which all should learn and from whom all would be inspired. Rodchenko preferred the authentic record of Lenin, that is the many photographs taken of him to traditional portraiture. Lenin was modern, like the workers’ club and he was present, not in representation but in a substitute reality, hovering in the index of the camera’s record of his existence.

True to the desire to educate the worker, there is a speaker’s lectern and a movie screen, allowing the club to be turned into a site of saturation, where Communist philosophy could be absorbed by the now passive audience. As with his posters, Rodchenko demanded that the workers participate with and manipulate the media stands in order to obtain the information contained in the various stands. Above the heads of the activated workers, electric lights hang, symbolizing the goals of Lenin–to electrify and thus to modernize the nation and the desire to educate the people in the ways of Communism. There is an air of efficiency, from the simple and inexpensive materials used for the furnishings to the sense that the Club was completely transportable and could be set up in any available room. Time was precious and could not be wasted with fun and must be used for edification, put to good use in this Club that has everything but relaxation and enjoyment. The placement of the Club inside the Soviet Pavilion, suggesting an alternative to capitalism, in the City of Light, Paris. In Paris, one wasted time and sat at a sidewalk table and sipped a café au lait while chatting with friends and watching the parade of fashion down the boulevard. Such capitalist customs were a scandal to Rodchenko who was in Paris for the first and last time in his life. The contrast between the austerity and discomfort of the rigidly designed Workers’ Club and the long lunches enjoyed by Parisians could not be clearer: the Club was the Soviet rejection of Western decadence. It is impossible to miss the artist’s assertion of totalitarian control over the lower classes, their minds, their activities, their movements, and their time. The difference between the Leninist avant-garde and the Stalinist Socialist Realism is a distinction without a difference. It is clear, that, while the Workers’ Club was ostensibly a site of relaxation, complete with chess sets, this room was also a site of propaganda and control.

Writing about the Pavilion a few years after the Fair in the 1929 book, The Reconstruction of Architecture in the USSR, the artist El Lissitzky (1890-1941) said,

The first small building that gave clear evidence of the reconstruction of our architecture was the Soviet Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1925, designed by Melnikov. The close proximity of the Soviet Pavilion to other creations of international architecture revealed in the most glaring way the fundamentally different attitudes and concepts embodied in Soviet architecture. This work represents the “formalistic” [Rationalist] wing of the radical front of our architecture, a group whose primary aim was to work out a fitting architectural concept for each utilitarian task. In this case, the basic concept represents an attempt to loosen up the overall volume by exposing the staircase. In the plan, the axis of symmetry is established on the diagonal, and all other elements are rotated by 180 ̊. Hence, the whole has been transposed from ordinary symmetry at rest into symmetry in motion. The tower element has been transformed into an open system of pylons. The structure is built honestly of wood, but instead of relying on traditional Russian log construction [it] employs modern wood construction methods. The whole is transparent. Unbroken colors. Therefore no false monumentality. A new spirit.

The Soviet Pavilion 1925

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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The Delaunays, Robert and Sonia, Between the Wars

The Delaunays and Modern Life

Paris Between the Wars,

In 1889, the year that France celebrated the centenary of the Revolution, is best known for the shock of the new tower rising from the Champs de Mars, the Eiffel Tower, but that year was also the year that the first steps were taken to electrify Paris. Today Paris is known as “the city of light,” but as the nation of France approached the twentieth century, it was suddenly realized that the capital city was falling behind other European nations in adopting the latest in lighting technology–electricity. Writing in 1911, A. N. Holcombe noted that not until the Opéra Comique burned down did the officials awaken to continuing danger of using gas for public buildings. The article of 1911, “The Electric Lighting System of Paris,” is as boring and straightforward as the title, detailing the long process of installing a new means of illuminating the city, from putting “underground conduits and wiring” in place to deciding what fixed price should be charged and determining how the private companies undertaking the enterprise should be compensated in relation to the capital investments made by the state. By 1907, the year of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the public had accepted the switch (so to speak) from gas to electric and the demand for installation far exceeded the speed of the companies, which, being private, needed more investment funds. The tangled tale involved how the government should deal with private for-profit companies serving the public and how both entities should deal with labor.

Sonia Delaunay. Electric Prisms (1914)

A. N. Holcombe’s article in the Political Science Quarterly noted that when all the companies were merged into one company, the Paris Electricity Supply Company, capitalized by the city was given an exclusive contract that would begin in 1914 and extend to 1940. The city-owned the plant(s) and the company was given access to “the exclusive use of the property.” What is interesting about this article, now over one hundred years old, is that, in its own dry fashion, illustrates how new and novel public electric lighting would have been in the Paris of Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk-Delaunay, artists who were dazzled and enchanted by this burst of modernity. In the evenings before the Great War, the newly married couple would stroll down the Boulevard St Michel where the new lights were providing a sharp brilliance, blindingly radiant in comparison to the mellow glow of gas. She remembered, “Halos were making colors and shadows turn and vibrate around us, as if unidentified objects were falling from the sky, friendly and crazy.”

Sonia Delaunay. Electric Prisms (1913)

In her interesting article on the impact of electric lights on artists, Christine Poggi wrote that when the street lights were installed on the Boulevard St. Michel were installed just before 1913 both Delaunays made sketches of the people of Paris, drawn to the novel sight, congregating under the bright lights. “The new arc lights can be viewed as one of the modernizing effects of Haussmannization, in which expansive new boulevards, among them the Boulevard St. Michel, cut through the narrow streets of old Paris, opening them to greater circulation and the production of new forms of visuality and spectacle. As Wolfgang Schivelbusch observes, arc lights were like small sums with a spectrum similar to that of daylight. In contrast to the gas lamps they replaced, they were extraordinarily bright and could not be looked at directly. As a result, they had to be fixed much higher on posts, where they were out of view. For those entering one of the places illuminated by arc lights from a dim, gas-lit side street, the transition could be dramatic. Delaunay’s memoir evoke her experience of the modernity of the site, the brilliant color and disorienting spatial effects created by the arc lights inducing a sense of ‘madness.'”

I liked electricity. Public lighting was a novelty. At night, during our walks, we entered the era of light, arm-in-arm. Rendez-vous at the St. Michel fountain. The municipality had substitued electric lamps for the old gas lights. The “Boul Mich,” highway to a new world fascinated me. We would go and admire the neighborhood show. The halos amde the colors and shadows swirl and vibrate around us as if unidentified objects were falling from the sky, beckoning our madness.

But, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the blossoming of electric street lights, marching from neighborhood to boulevard, was not the only modern innovation that captured their attention. Elsewhere, far away, an extraordinary railway–the Trans-Siberian Railway–was being completed in Eastern Russia. Alarmed by the moves by China to build a railroad up to the Eastern borders of Russia, Tsar Alexander III began the project–intended to protect the Russian Empire from any Chinese incursion–in 1890. The father wrote to his son, “I desire you to lay the first stone at Vladivostok for the construction of the Ussuri line, forming part of the Siberian Railway, which is to be carried at the cost of the state and under direction of the government. Your participation in the achievement of this work will be a testimony to My ardent desire to facilitate the communications between Siberia and the other countries of the empire, and to manifest My extreme anxiety to secure the peaceful prosperity of this country.” His heir Nicholas I finished the “Great Siberian Way”, as it was called, twelve years later, and the completion of this major route of trade and transportation was arguably the finest of his few achievements. The Railway stretched from Moscow to Vladivostok but it was built on the cheap and during the 1903 war with Japan, the rails failed and the system sagged and collapsed with the Empire itself. In a little-known footnote to history, just before the Russian Revolution installed a Soviet system of a worker controlled Communist state, it was the most capitalistic nation in the world, the United States of America that sent in workers and engineers in 1917 to help the fledgling Provisional Government to repair the Railway and re-built all 5,772 miles correctly. Even today, the prospect of riding nearly six thousand miles on a famous railroad is tempting and in the early twentieth century, the journey was a luxurious one–if one had the money. Certainly, the feat of modern engineering fired the imagination of the Russian poet Blaise Cendrars, who wrote Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France, a long folded expanse of text designed and decorated by his friend Sonia Terk-Delaunay. Produced through a combination of Linotype printing and the use of colored stencils (pochoir), this is a truly remarkable poem because its sheer size and length mimics the long railway itself. Because we usually see this “poem” as a small colorful illustration in a book, the explanation of the Tate Museum about the impressive size of this work of art is helpful:

(The poem was) produced in Paris in 1913 and published by Cendrars’s own self-financed publishing house, Éditions des Hommes Nouveaux (New Man Publishing). The text and artwork was printed on a single sheet of paper, folded accordion-style to form the twenty-two panels. When unfolded it is two metres tall. The original print run was intended to be 150 copies, which, if laid end to end, would be the same height as the Eiffel Tower, however only sixty editions were printed. Due to its large scale, Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway only functions as a readable book when it is fully open. Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway stages the unification of text and image and is a key example of the ‘simultaneisme’ (simultaneous theory) developed by Delaunay with her husband, fellow artist Robert Delaunay…Delaunay’s artwork was not an illustration of Cendrars’s narrative, but a visual equivalent, intended to be seen in unison. She transcribed the poem in colours, as she heard it being read out..

In this wonderful stream of consciousness poem, the narrator travels which his companion, Jehanne, described “a young proletarian,” who keeps asking: “Blaise, tell me, are we far from Montmartre?” And the poet answers: “For pity’s sake, come here and I’ll tell you a story Come into my bed/Come to my heart/I’m going to tell you a story..” In the Delaunay couple, we have two artists who celebrate the modern innovations of the new century with their art. In fact, in this poem, Cendrars, who lived in Paris, wrote of the impact of electric lights. “Is raining electric globes/Montrouge Gare de l’Est Métro Nord-Sud ferries on the Seine world/Everything is halo/Depth.” The text was done in four different typographies with upper and lower case, in four colors–green, blue, red and orange. The design keeps the story unfolding, leading from “page” to “page” as sixteen-year-old Blaise tells the story of his experiences in 1905 on the Railway.

Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrers.

Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France (1913)

In her article, “Mass, Pack, and Mob,” Poggi made the interesting observation that, after the War, “this quasi-abstract approach to depicting the city, and of the masses that inhabit it, would come to seem outdated, even decadent.” Post-war artists, she observed were interested in the “politically organized crowd” in contrast to “modern spectacle and entertainment.” But the Delaunays were not in Paris after the War. They had fled to Spain and from there to Portugal where they lived the war years. The Revolution put an end to Sonia’s Russian income, and she, the practical one in the family, opened a chain of shops, from Bilbao, Madrid and Barcelona, which sold her fabrics and her fashions, all designed by her, using patterns and colors inspired by her paintings. The couple stayed in the Iberian Peninsula for seven years before they returned to Paris. By the mid-twenties, Paris was in the midst of Les Années folles and the pre-war rivalry Robert had felt for Pablo Picasso was long ago and far away, in another time. According to Histoires de Paris,

Dès son arrivée dans la capitale, l’écrivain américain Henry Miller écrira : « La première chose qu’on remarque, à Paris, c’est que le sexe est dans l’air. Où qu’on aille, quoi qu’on fasse, on trouve d’ordinaire une femme à côté de soi. Les femmes sont partout, comme les fleurs.

For Sonia, these flower-like women were her target audience and she began her business anew in a city mad for new fashions. Unlike Robert, who had to reestablish himself, she had a place in the post-war world through her designs. As her biographer, Axel Madsen, wrote,

Sonia’s flair for adventuresome decorating, theater costume and book design, led her to adapt her bold color compositions, geometric designs, and swirling patterns to abstract dress designs. The result was a style that was different, a fashion that was decidedly avant-garde. This kind of haute couture could only be worn–and appreciated–by women who wanted to be noticed. Her clientele, therefore, included women who were known for their character and eccentricity, actresses and rich foreigners. To wear SoniaDelaunay was not, like wearing Chanel, to adopt a “look.” It was to make a statement.

Sonia was the main source of income for the couple who held court in their Paris apartment which was both decorated by painted poems by their friends and visited by the new Surrealist community. But their evenings and their dinner parties were not exclusively French. The Delaunays, in contrast to the rest of Paris, were happy to entertain Germans, including the Bauhaus architects. For Robert, the Bauhaus idea of joining art and industry was simpatico and for Sonia, the poems on the walls made their way into her architectonic dresses. In his book, Sonia Delaunay: Artist of the Lost Generation, Madsen reported on how the couple went from being hounded by bill collectors to being well-to-do, once they were established. They owned a dashing car, a Talbot, and were among the first artists in the 1920s to possess a telephone and own a radio. But this was on her earnings.

Sonia Terk-Delaunay’s designs for cars and clothes

In 1925, Art Deco was introduced to the French and to the world in an exhibition, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, from which the new Style Moderne took its name. Art Deco, the preferred name, was introduced later, but in 1925, it became clear that the Cubism that had dominated before the War had become an applied art, incorporated into design after the War. Given the male-dominated character of the group, the fact that Sonia Terk-Delaunay took the heady concepts of Orphism and Simultaneity and made these terms buzz words for fashion. There was a simultaneous car, a simultaneous dress, coat, shoes and so on, popularizing Cubism at its most scientific and most esoteric, making the style into a luxury consumer good.

Simultaneous Dresses in 1925

It was the 1925 exhibition that made her reputation while Robert was still trying to find his artistic feet. Apparently, Robert’s first post-war exhibition in 1922 at the Galerie Paul Guillaume was not successful, but he began a new series on the Eiffel Tower. Two years later, Delaunay returned to another pre-war theme, athletics, in his Runner paintings, which were far more conservative than the earlier paintings he did before the War. It seems that Robert, who was never inclined towards hard work, preferred to drive his fancy Talbot and entertain his friends to contributing to the family income. When the Delaunays needed money, he would make or sell art, and the paintings of the twenties and thirties were reiterations on his previous themes.

Robert Delaunay. Runners (1924-26)

However, in 1937, Robert Delaunay, in collaboration with his now famous wife, Sonia, got a chance to shine, one more time. He was invited to do the murals for the Palais des Chemins de Fer and Palais de l’Air at the Paris World’s Fair. Here the preoccupations of decades for the couple–the fast trains, the Trans-Siberian Railway and the glamor of air travel, going back to Louis Blériot–came to fruition. The World’s Fair was a futile gesture of hope in a Europe sinking back into another world war. The next and last post on the partnership between the leading art couple between the wars will concentrate on their murals in the Pavillon de l’aviation in Paris.

Robert Delaunay. Disques reliefs (1936)

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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