Like many artists of the Parisian avant-garde, Delaunay was disrupted by the sudden eruption of hostilities that totally changed the art world. Delaunay decided to not serve in the military and went to a neutral nation, Spain. For four years, he and Sonia Terk-Delaunay attempted to practice as artists out of their customary space. Speaking in hindsight, Sonia Terk-Delaunay said, “Nineteen twelve, thirteen and fourteen, what rich and explosive years for Robert and me! Robert is prophesying and could not be stopped. Before the outbreak of the war, Robert was shooting off rockets in all direction. Back on earth, I gathered the falling sparks. I tended the more intimate and transient fires of everyday life.” In ways that are largely forgotten today, Delaunay was a very colorful and prominent figure on the scene, compared to the relatively subdued artist, Braque and Picasso, who simply tended to their experiments. The Delaunays were a glamorous couple, a Franco-Russian romantic story, famous for their soirées. They–especially Robert–cut a wide swarth and Orphism stood on its own in relation to Cubism. Orphism gained followers and converts, especially American artists, Patrick Henry Bruce, Arthur Frost, Staunton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell. In 1913, their circle of acquaintances widened to include a Russian speaking Swiss expatriate Frederic Sauser (1887-1961), a writer and poet, who renamed himself, “Blaise Cendrars” (glowing embers and ashes). Cendrars was working on an extraordinary poem, “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jeanne de France,” but he had written “Easter in New York” in 1912, which he shared with his friends. This was a poem so impressive that it silenced Guillaume Apollinaire when he read it. The Delaunays were equally taken with the poem and were allowed to keep the poem overnight. This is a very long thin poem that dangles down and down for pages and pages, ending at last with
I think, Lord, of the hard times . . .
I think, Lord, of the gone times . . .
I no longer think of You. I no longer think of You.
When Terk-Delaunay returned “Easter in New York,” she had made an illustrated hardcover booklet, made of cardboard covered in suede upon which she had pasted triangles of paper and fabric–red, yellow, blues and gold. According to Axel Madsen in Sonia Delaunay: Artist of the Lost Generation, “The cover for Pâques à New York began Sonia’s career as a designer of book covers.” When the poet completed another very long poem, she and Cendrars collaborated on yet another poetry-as-design project. According to Madsen this prose-poem—moving from poetry to prose–was something new and Terk-Delaunay proposed that she “decorate” the poem. “I’d love to transcribe it into colors, make it vibrate, poetry and painting together.” The result was described by the Tate Museum as
“..an artistic collaboration between Sonia Delaunay and the poet Blaise Cendrars comprising a twenty-two-panel illustrated poem. Each panel features a portion of text on the right and a watercolour by Delaunay on the left. The watercolours are predominantly abstract, built up of blocks or sweeps of colour, which range from cool pastel tones to bright indigo blue, vermillion, purple, yellow and green. Delaunay’s paint work also spills onto the right side, filling in the space between Cendrars’s stanzas, which were printed on a letterpress in a variation of colours, sizes and typefaces. Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway 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. It is usually exhibited unfolded and laid out in a vitrine, or shown hung as a wall piece..”
On her website, Modern and Postmodern Poetry and Poetics, Marjorie Perloff noted that in a newspaper article in 1914, Apollinaire wrote about this work of art, something that we today call “an artist’s book:” “Blaise Cendrars and Mme Delaunay-Terk have carried out a unique experiment in simultaneity, written in contrasting colors in order to train the eye to read with one glance the whole of a poem, even as an orchestra conductor reads with one glance the notes placed up and down on the bar, even as one reads with a single glance the plastic elements printed on a poster.”
According to Claire Kelley of Melville House, “Cendrars as poet and publisher and Delaunay as painter were interested in achieving what they called simultaneisme, or a ‘simultaneous book.’ They wanted to create a form of art in which painting and text could be united in expression. Delaunay painted the left column of color and abstract shapes guides us through the text, which is set in various typefaces, allowing for movement as the reader mimics the journey across the page as described in the train ride in the poem. She ended her article on the display of this famous poem at the Museum of Modern Art in 2013 with Cendrars own explanation of the poem in a 1913 issue of Der Strum: “Literature is a part of life. It is not something “special.” All of life is nothing but a poem, a movement… Here is what I wanted to say. I have a fever. And this is why I love the painting of the Delaunys, full of sun, of heat, of violence. Mme Delaunay has made such a beautiful book of colors that my poem is more saturated with light than is my life. That’s what makes me happy. Besides, think that this book should be two meters high! Moreover, that the edition should reach the height of the Eiffel Tower!”
This collaboration of a poet and a painter is an early demonstration of art becoming design and design becoming art. This successful experiment with another artist would not be forgotten when the Delaunays moved to Spain and then to Portugal during the Great War. They made the acquaintance of Sergei Diaghilev and the principle artists of the Ballets Russes, stranded in Spain in 1917. In Portugal, Terk-Delaunay opened her own business, Casa Sonia, where she sold exclusive artist designed products to wealthy clients. Although, she and Delaunay did not return to Paris until 1920–a six year absence–Terk-Delaunay had anticipated the next act of Cubism: applied design. She opened Maison Delaunay, where she sold a variety of items, hats, scarves, coats, dresses, and so on under the trademark of “Atelier Simultané.” Her most important work, the basis for her products was her textile designs, artistic and aesthetic plays on her paintings. In many ways, while Delaunay continued an extension of his pre-war paintings, it was Terk-Delaunay who pushed ahead, forging new pathways for Orphism with her work as an important designer.
For one hundred years, Sonia Terk-Delaunay’s position in both pre and post-war Cubism was marginal, because she was a woman and a wife, and because she worked in the applied arts. Finally, in 2015, the Tate Museum gave the artist her due in an important retrospective which called attention to her role in designing new clothes for the new woman. In Terk-Delaunay’s vision, this new woman had an active life, she moved, she was athletic, she wore very daring and brief swimsuits, and she was confident enough to wear simply cut dresses made of strongly patterned, unique artist-designed fabrics. After a decade of being overshadowed by the males of Cubism, the Russian artist Terk-Delaunay became famous in 1925 when a furrier, named Jacques Heim asked her to place her fabrics and clothing items, designed with simultaneity in mind, in his shop window. This was not just any shop window, this Boutique Simultanée was a window styled for the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, the exhibition that gave Art Deco its name. Here, at this Exposition, is where Terk-Delaunay made her mark.
For this artist, it was but one step from taking the Orphist colorful shapes out of her paintings and putting them onto fabric or applying the configurations to objects, from automobiles to dinnerware to swimwear. But how she applied her art to her design was a careful and complex process. As her husband stated, in the past, fabric had been designed but the designer did not have to consider how the material would be used. As she said, “Construction, the cut of a dress, is to be conceived at the same time as its decoration.” In other words, Terk-Delaunay made the point that her designs were independent of her paintings and that she did not, unlike other artists, simply take her paintings and overlay them upon functional objects. In her discussion of Terk-Delaunay, Mary Lynn Stewart wrote in Dressing Modern Frenchwomen: Marketing Haute Couture, 1919–1939, “..Sonia Delaunay was a painter before, during and after her foray into clothing design from 1923 to 1931 and her longer venture in fabric design. Her couture experiments with startling color and texture contrasts grew out of her prewar experience with the ‘gay colors’ of her homeland, her status as a founding member of the group of early abstract painters known as Orphists, and her and her husband Robert Delaunay’s simultaneous color theory about bright and unexpected color combinations giving an impression of life and movement. Her bold geometric patterns expressed her interest in and knowledge about geometry. One of her technical inventions was an embroidery stitch that enhanced the motility of dresses. Her commitment to fluid fabrics meant that she treated dresses as a form of moving painting and expressed the modern agenda of greater mobility for women–an agenda that Delaunay, like other designers, attributed to changes in the lifestyles of modern women.” Stewart remarked that the artist, like many women did not receive the deserved attention in the art world, and she was also not given serious consideration in the fashion world because she was not experimenting with the cut or the design of the garment. “Of course, fixating on cut ignores the fact that Delaunay had no need to alter the basic structure of dresses, because straight lines and flat surfaces, without complicated seaming or construction, served her artistic agenda. Indeed, her agenda was too avant-garde for haute couture and major fashion magazines in the allegedly groundbreaking 1920s.”
When Terk-Delaunay designed her fabrics, she was also in charge of the destination for the design—the female body or even the body of an automobile. There had to be a carefully considered balance between the shape of the garment which had to be simple, almost without embellishments, such as a belt, so that the design could dominate but at the same time not overtake the wearer. The woman who wore a Terk-Delaunay design was a woman of confidence and she would be a personality quite different from the woman who purchased Chanel, who always used neutral materials, like jersey, silk or tweeds, which allowed the cut of the clothes to speak for itself.
No matter how attractive adventurous women, such as American movie star, Gloria Swanson, found her clothes, Sonia Terk-Delaunay was not just a fashion designer. She was a designer of vivid colors and lively shapes that would be printed and then cut into simple garments. The fabric designs themselves were the fashion statements. Employing technologically modern approaches to mass produced clothes, Sonia Terk-Delaunay used the tissu patron, a process in which the pattern could be cut at the same time the fabric was printed.
Many of the photographs of Terk-Delaunay’s work did not communicate the color but her sketches show how she used bright and contrasting colors or sometimes a softer palette of earthen hues, printed under her supervision at the Atelier Simultané. Highly sophisticated, Sonia Terk-Delaunay knew the most intellectual people in Paris, incorporating the poetry of Dada and Surrealist poets, Tristan Tzara and Philippe Soupault, in her clothes, implying that the wearer was part of a high level of creativity, both visual and verbal, in the world of art and culture. According to Terk-Delaunay, her designs, and there were over 2000, for the Dutch corporation, Metz & Co, were “exercises in color,” which taught her about the life of color and educated her about her paintings. However, as Terk-Delaunay continued to create patterns for fabrics and designs for textiles, the distance between her increasingly loose and free form decorations and the geometry of Cubism itself increased.
In her book, Classic Chic: Music, Fashion, and Modernism, Mary E. Davis wrote of the impact of Cubism in general upon fashion in general, leading with Vogue magazine, which in 1921, identified “..Cubist painting with cutting-edge couture intensified in the early 1920s when Cubism itself was on the wane but Chanel’s designs were ascendant. The magazine reflected on haute couture’s continuing attraction to this brand of modernism in an article published in the French edition of January 1921: ‘after the complete failure of Cubism in art,’ the author proposed, it was ‘amusing to study its decorative possibilities in women’s fashion.’ The Cubist impulse in dress, according to the article, was driven by a general need ‘to return to lines, after years of impressionism and imprecision.’ The author spiked the discussion with an idea to which Vogue’s readers surely warmed, positing that Cubism was a transatlantic style, a blend of (French) classicism’s linearity and American ‘taste for the mechanical and vast iron horizons:’ New York City skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Greek sculpture all contributed to this expression of everyday ‘exuberance and excess.’ Essentially modern as its was, Cubism thus fit neatly into the vision of Franco-American culture that Vogue was invested in promoting, and it remained a prominent topic in the magazine’s coverage of culture through the 1920s, the subject of numerous illustrated articles devoted the the ‘great chic to be found in the modernistic art,’ and the style most often showcased on its covers.”
Terk-Delaunay herself became an influential spokeswoman for combining art and design and fashion with the contemporary time. Speaking at the Sorbonne in 1927 on “The Influence of Painting on the Art of Clothes,” she said, “A movement is now influencing fashion, just as it overtakes everything that is not subject to this new principle which painters have spent a century seeking; we are only at the beginning of the study of these new color relationships, still full of mystery to unravel, which are at the base of a modern vision…There is no going back to the past.”