Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
“Color Moves: Art & Fashion by Sonia Delaunay”

Courtesy of Private Collection

“Color Moves: Art & Fashion by Sonia Delaunay,” The Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (March 18-June 19, 2011) was one of the best shows I have attended. Ironically, most of the show’s visitors were “spill over” from the “Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels,” concurrently on view at the museum’s ground floor. The dazzling blockbuster downstairs produced substantial foot traffic for the more esoteric exhibit upstairs. Those who braved the trek uptown to the Cooper-Hewitt’s somewhat remote location were in for a treat: Excess.

Delaunay’s excess is very different from the carats of diamonds and colored stones of Van Cleef & Arpels but it is equally, if not more powerful. I am referring to her excessive use of color; the excessive invention of new hues and tones; and the excessive pairing of her colorful creations with powerfully articulated descriptions. At the same time medium and message, color and language formed Delaunay’s vocabulary and prose.

The Russian Revolution interrupted Delaunay’s privileged background of Imperial Russia and her insouciant artist’s life in Paris and turned her into a designer of clothing, interiors, and ballet costumes based in Madrid. Palpable talent, hard work, and early success led her and her husband Robert (also a painter) back to Paris, where she founded her own business, Maison Delaunay, in 1925. When the crash of 1929 deprived her of her wealthy clientele, Sonia focused entirely on textile design.

The overwhelmingly rich production of paintings, drawings, textiles, costumes, and clothing over the course of her lifetime is an experiment in excessive and luxurious color, with the sole intent to reach out to as broad an audience as possible. Her partnering with the Metz & Co Department store in Amsterdam allowed her to penetrate all social strata—even though it was primarily the avant-garde who embraced her production. They were not necessarily super-rich but they were certainly intellectual and daring.

This was a well-articulated point in the show with the help of other works by Sonia’s contemporaries who were also designing for the Metz & Co Department store. The visitor got a glimpse of Sonia’s production methods and business strategy as well as a detailed profile of Sonia’s ideal client, a person who lived by the principles of 1930s modern art. The pairing of her artistic methodology with Sonia’s social context was a brilliant way to exhibit her work.

Contrary to the sterilized idea of Modernism that has been communicated through art historical writings and shows ad nauseam, this exhibit celebrated the excessively and vibrantly intellectual presence of those who lived during the interwar period in Europe and who wished for themselves a practical but in no way deprived way of life. For those who missed the exhibit, the accompanying catalog is a great contribution to the literature on European Modernism.

© Thomaï Serdari