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The Art of Analogue Modernism

Artist Sonia Delauney moved to Paris from the Ukraine in the early 1900s where her art was hugely influential…

When we think of the defining features of twenty-first century life, the increasing dominance of digitised technologies must be right near the top. These ‘soft’ technologies are virtually(!) non-physical and are often said to exist in what we airily describe as ‘the cloud.’ Unsurprisingly, the course of contemporary art has been strongly influenced by digitisation, too. Sometimes that influence is forward-looking and original. But at other times, digital art treatments can be backward-looking and laughably kitschy. For instance, in projecting digital images of nineteenth century Impressionist paintings onto vast blank walls, destroying any sense of painterly texture, true colour and scale.

What is modern art?

The term ‘modern’ as applied to art (and anything else) is entirely subjective. What’s happening now is undeniably ‘modern’ simply because we all happen to be here now. But what defined being ‘modern’ in 1937 was a whole lot more analogue than today. It was a world of pulsating physical energy, friction and wires, often measured by circular dials with quivering needles.

Back in 1937 ‘the cloud’ was somewhere that you actually ventured. Strapped inside a roaring, dangerous, bone-shaking, winged metal box: a primitive aeroplane by today’s standards. But considering that powered flight had existed for barely 25 years, a pioneering single-winged, propellor-driven plane that could fly at 550 km per hour (340 mph) – such as a ‘new’ Hawker Hurricane – was a wonder of the modern world.

Sonia Delaunay’s ‘modern’ art

Among the artists of the 1930s who expressed the dynamism of the modern analogue world was Sonia Delaunay. Born into a Jewish Ukrainian family in Odessa in 1885, she was sent to live with her mother’s more affluent family in St Petersburg as a youngster. Sonia’s imagination was stimulated by visits to the great art galleries of Europe. She became intensely curious and forward-looking. Moving to Paris, she was obsessed with modern movements in art and design. She achieved fame with her own individual painting style and theatrical costume designs. Her work explored the interplay of wedges and curves of flat bright colours. Her inspiration came from  contemporary Cubism and Geometric Abstraction.

In 1937, she was commissioned to create a series of murals for the Palais de L’Air at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et des Techniques dans la Vie Moderne, hosted in Paris. One of her remarkable and large murals – 8.5 m x 3 m or 28 ft x 10 ft – was titled ‘Tableau de Board’ (or ‘Dashboard’). This ‘modern’ mural still looks utterly striking 85 years after its creation. In the Geometric Abstract manner, it embodies Delaunay’s characteristic use of intense flat colour and curves (rather than recognisable objects) to generate feelings and meanings in the viewer.

Curves, colours and cockpits

But for this purposeful commission, Delaunay adds something new to her art. Some definite and instantly recognisable ‘real world’ elements, including dials and gauges set into an aircraft instrument panel or dashboard. The strong horizon line, with more muted colours below, delineates the inside of the machine from the outside world. Yet the continuation of the curves connects the machine and its environment. The central circular elements suggest both the control wheel inside the plane’s cockpit and the spinning propeller just beyond it. To the top left and right of the mural we can see daytime on the right and approaching night in the left. All within the curved and layered colours of the sky. Viewed as a whole, it is a wonderfully unified modern visual concept. And without a ‘cloud’ in sight.

Sonia Delaunay narrowly avoided the lethal deportations of French Jews during the German occupation of the 1940s. She continued to be a successful artist after the war. In the latter part of her life, she was feted with a retrospective of her works at the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne at the Pompidou Centre. She was the first female artist to be celebrated with a retrospective exhibition at the Louvre Museum. She became an Officer of the Legion of Honour in 1975. After a spectacular career, Sonia Delaunay died, aged 97, in Paris in 1979.

By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…

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