Robert Delaunay
Year, Birthplace 1885, France
Year, Place of death 1941, France
Robert Delaunay discovered painting through Charles Damour, the uncle who brought him up and was an ex-student of Fernand Cormon. His passion for art superseded his studies and at seventeen he started working at a studio for theatrical decoration. This experience with the decorative arts, using pure colour, and breaking from traditional perspectives was later of value to him. He dedicated himself to painting in 1903, and set himself the task of investigating each of the movements that had stemmed from impressionism, from Paul Cézanne to Paul Gauguin. He was a frequent visitor to the studio of Henri Rousseau, ‘the customs officer’, who influenced him greatly. He first met Rousseau at his mother's house (she owned the painting La Charmeuse de serpent [The Snake Charmer]). In 1906 he met Jean Metzinger, who guided him towards divisionism in the style of Henri-Edmond Cross, whose wide brush strokes were reminiscent of mosaics. The following year he was introduced to Fernand Léger and Guillaume Apollinaire, and began to exhibit at Berthe Weil's gallery alongside Metzinger. He began a relationship with a Ukranian painter, Sonia Terk, whom he married. He started moving in the circles that frequented Le Bateau Lavoir and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's gallery and quickly discovered the early cubist works of George Braque and Pablo Picasso. Delaunay then began his sequence of different series, creating several paintings around a single theme that explored an artistic perspective by disintegrating and dislocating the forms: in Paris, the church of Saint-Sévrin, the city, the tower of Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower seen from the terrace of the Arc de Triomphe, and then the Eiffel Tower itself and the Laon Cathedral towers. This ‘destructive’ phase ended with the series Fenêtres (Windows) in 1912, which coincided with orphism, a style of painting based on colour contrasts (without values, lines or perspective) and a theoretical reflection on an autonomous artistic existence that was unrelated to reality. Apollinaire, a witness to all this, described it as pure painting. In parallel to this personal experimentation, Delaunay came across three abstract works by Wassily Kandinsky in the Salon des indépendants and exchanged ideas with Paul Klee, who was visiting Paris at the time. He maintained an epistolary relationship with Kandinsky, and took part in the Blaue Reiter exhibition at the Moderne Galerie of Heinrich Thannhaüser in Munich at the end of 1910 which was very well received. In 1911 he joined forces with Albert Gleizes, Metzinger, Henri Le Fauconnier and Léger as part of the Section d'Or collective from the Groupe de Courbevoie and Puteaux suburbs of Paris. Now at the core of the avant-garde, Delaunay was invited to participate in the Valet de Carreau group in Moscow, Der Sturm in Berlin, and the Moderner Bund in Zurich. Discussing Delaunay in relation to simultaneism, Apollinaire stated that he had preceded the Italian futurists, which stirred up controversy over the foundations of the movement. In 1913, after painting circular forms inspired by the solar globe and then coloured discs, Delaunay arrived at abstractionism. When war was declared, Sonia and Robert Delaunay took refuge in Spain and Portugal and stayed there for seven years, both developing their own artistic trajectories, particularly in the field of the decorative arts (he was involved with the Ballets Russes and she created a clothing range and interior decoration projects.) After his return to France in 1921, Delaunay – for financial reasons – returned to figuration, painting still lifes and nudes in a more naturalist style. After this period of hesitancy, which ended in 1930, he returned to abstract forms with works like Rythmes sans fin (Endless Rhythm) and more decorative works. This phase culminated in his monumental works for two pavilions at the 1937 Paris International Exposition for Art and Technology in Modern Life. After three years of illness, Delaunay died in 1941 at fifty-six. Despite the importance of his work after 1912, Delaunay is less recognized than Kandinsky, Kasimir Malevitch or Piet Mondrian as a pioneer of the abstract movement. Critics and historians of abstraction such as Michel Seuphor and Dora Vallier were uncomfortable with the artist's return to figuration between 1914 and 1930. Notwithstanding, the route that Delaunay took to abstraction is certainly one of the most interesting. AC