Visions of Paris:

Robert Delaunay's Series

Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin

November 7, 1997 to January 4, 1998

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York,

January 16 to April 25, 1998

Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower), oil on canvas, 79 1/2 inches by 54 1/2 inches, 1911,

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Cat. no. 27, cover illustration of catalogue

"I have never in my life seen a straight line...."

Robert Delaunay

By Carter B. Horsley

At the start of the 20th Century, Paris was the unquestioned intellectual capital of the world and Robert Delaunay quickly became one of its brightest stars.

His fame was immense in the first few decades of the century, but in recent decades has been strangely eclipsed, but this great show and its superb catalogue will do much that rectify such oversights.

Delaunay combined varous influences, notably Fauvism and Cubism, into a very dynamic style with which he created some of the masterworks of the century.

In his brilliant introduction to the exhibition's large and inexpensive catalogue, Mark Rosenthal sums up Delaunay's career:

"In an inspired five-year burst of activity, from 1909 to 1914, Robert Delaunay successively synthesized the Impressionist model of series paintings, the contemporary language of Cubism, and the high-wire allure of pure abstraction. At the heart of Delaunay's series Saint Severin (1909-10), The City (1909-11), The Eiffel Tower (1909-12), and The Windows (1912-1914) is the Eiffel Tower itself, the signature Parisian manifestation of modernity. Delaunay effectively replaced the pastoral landscape of the Impressionists with a modern paen of French glory."

Although the Eiffel Tower has long since been surpassed as the world's tallest structure, it remains as the quintessential urban icon, the very symbol of construction and the embodiment of escalation, and of aspiring civilization.

Delaunay's depictions of the fabled tower are terribly exciting and invoke a vertiginous rapture with the dynamics of architecture and man-made space. They are, perhaps, the most beautiful expression of the Cubist vision. They forego the subtlety, rationality and intellectuality of the great Cubist works of Picasso, Braque and Gris and go for the jugular emotion, the awe of the monumental, the unavoidable, and the unforgetable. Delaunay would return to the Eiffel Tower as a subject time and time again in his career.

While the version shown above is a fine sample of the early series, perhaps the most striking is a very bold and large painting called "The Red Tower," that was completed in 1928 and is in a private collection and is reproduced in the excellent large catalogue courtesy of Galerie Gmurzysnka in Cologne, Germany. Here the view of the tower is from the base of one of its legs looking straight up. Only one leg is shown and the details of the tower lessen at the top. The image is not fractured and is strongly highlighted in oranges, reds, whites, browns and blues. Its complexity has been sketchily reduced, and indeed the base of the painting looks unfinished. The effect of the image, rendered slightly askew, is magnificent. Three years earlier, he painted another very narrow, vertical picture of the tower that is more detailed and full of other elements. That painting, which is in the collection of the Deutsche Bank, AG, Frankfurt am Main, is superb and very strong, but not quite as mesmerizing as "The Red Tower."

There are several wonderful earlier Eiffel Tower paintings by Delaunay in the exhibition including examples from the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum Folkwang in Essen, a private collection shown courtesy of Marc Blondeau in Paris, and yet another from the Guggenheim's own collection. In addition to these marvelous works, there are several great ink drawings that are fascinating and very powerful and the catalogue fortunately includes reproductions of a couple of important examples whose location is now unknown.

"Because it is shown from the vantage point of a window, the Eiffel Tower series combines exterior and interior spheres, and recalls a traditional, Romantic theme of the open window. In these works, Delaunay suggests that the interior represents a prosaic world of appearances, hence the window curtains, and subsequently the buildings that replace them as a framing, halo-like device, are plastic and conventional. That plane of existence is juxtaposed with the imaginative exterior, wherein the tower's upper torso bends in unnatural ways or even leans toward the viewer," Rosenthal observed.

The catalogue is a must acquisition for art-lovers because not all of the works were shown at both venues. It also includes color reproductions of several very remarkable works, not in the exhibition, by other artists whose paintings were closely related to Delaunay's such as Umberto Boccioni's 1911 "Simultaneous Visions" in the Von der Heydt-Museum in Wuppertal, Germany, Ludwig Meidner's 1913 "Burning City" in the Saint Louis Museum, Franz Marc's 1913 "Stables" in the Guggenheim's own collection and Georges Seurat's 1889 "Tour Eiffel" in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

After the Eiffel Tower, Delaunay's most well-known subject was the ambulatory of the Saint-Severin Church in Paris and the exhibition includes many fine versions. It is interesting to note the differences: in some, he indicates ceiling brickwork with a few lines, in others he has a prismatic floor treatment, and in none does he show the church's spiral columns. "In each view, the columns either bend, bow, expand, or dissolve in a highly expressive, even kaleidoscopic way," Rosenthal wrote.

"Whereas the Saint-Severin paintings were usually bathed in a blue aura, and the Eiffel Towers were usually red, yellow typically predominates in The Windows paintings....[in which] Delaunay created an overarching atmosphere of evenly distributed luminosity. Carried to the verge of pure abstraction, he left only an occasional triangle to recall the slope of the Eiffel Tower....With The Windows, Delaunay entered his 'constructive' phase, in which the exterior and interior worlds are sublimely merged on a flat surface of flickering color patches. Space, light, motif, and paint interpenetrate in these airy, allover compositions. His washes of paint, sometimes with little or no sense of a brushstroke, extend the Impressionist gesture to a new level of wispy evanescence," Rosenthal continued.

Delaunay's work was greatly admired by the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group in Munich and his influence in Germany, Rosenthal argued, "was yet more extensive if one compares his hallucinatory views of Saint-Severin to some of Lyonel Feininger's architectural fantasies, Ernst Kirchner's street scenes with churches, and Robert Wiene's film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

"Indeed," Rosenthal concluded, "Delaunay's celebration of the Eiffel Tower could have served as an example in America, too, where John Marin glorified the Woolworth building in a 1913 series. Later came Vladimir Tatlin's Monument to the Third International (1920), which was a sculptural celebration of a modern building concept. In sum, Delaunay's achievement represents a microcosm of the new millenium and its shift toward urbanization."

Delaunay presents some problems to the experts as he worked on many paintings simultaneously and "dates were sometimes added or changed years after a painting had been created" and the artist "may have wanted to inscribe the date he identified as being that of the series's original conception instead of the individual painting's execution," Matthew Drutt noted in his very fine catalogue essay, adding that "with the passage of time, it is also possible that the artist became less certain of precise dates of conception or execution" and his "later notes and essays, as well as those of his wife are rife with conflicting dates and references."

Connoisseurs and experts-to-be take note!

Delaunay was born in 1885 in Paris and studied with a theater set painter and taught himself by painting from nature. His early paintings were experiments with Impressionism and Pointilism. He became friendly with Jean Metzinger and studied the color theories of Michel Eugene Chevreul and Ogden N. Rood, who were important influences on Georges Seurat, whom Delaunay admired. In 1913, Delaunay painted a series of "Disk" paintings that experimented with color wheels and were described by Drutt in the exhibition catalogue as "the first nonobjective works created by a French artist." In 1906, Delaunay met Henri Rousseau and after his death four years late looked after his legacy. "While Delaunay never adopted any stylistic devices from Rousseau, the latter's inclusion of the Eiffel Tower, airplanes and dirigibles in his views of Paris may well have been the inspiration for Delaunay's own versions," Drutt suggested.

One of Delaunay's best paintings, indeed, is "Dirigible and the Tower," a small oil on cardboard from 1909 that is not in the exhibition but reproduced in color, courtesy of Galerie Gmurzynska, Cologne. (Another great painting not in the exhibition but illustrated in color in the catalogue is "View of Paris: Notre Dame," 1908, from the Offentliche Kunstsammlungen Basel, Kunstmuseum, Donation of Marguerite Arp-Hagenbach.)

Delaunay spent a year in military service and returned in 1908 to "a Paris that was experiencing the throes of Cubism's emergence," Drutt wrote. "Daniel H. Kahnweiler had begun showing the works of such artists as Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso the year before. By 1908, knowledge of their works began to spread though gallery exhibitions and private salons. Delaunay's awareness of Cubism was nurtured by these exhibitions and through his inclusions in gatherings at both Gertrude Stein's and Wilhelm Uhde's homes. Uhde was an art dealer whose wife, Sonia Terk, would eventually marry Delaunay," Drutt noted.

The Saint-Severin series represented for Delaunay "the passage from Cezanne to the confusion that followed and to the destructive patterns of this period," Drutt quoted Delaunay as recalling. "It was, as he was fond of calling it, his 'destructive' period, in which 'the uncertainty of earlier methods' gave way to 'the search fo another aesthetic,'" Drutt continued. "...whereas Cezanne, and Delaunay's Cubist peers, deliberated over subjects traditional to classical painting - landscapes, still lifes, nudes - Delaunay turned to an architectural monument from another era and subjected it to the language of the present. Located in the Latin Quarter, not far from where the artist's studio was at the time, the church was originally built in the thirteenth century, although the view depicted by Delaunay shows a section rebuilt after a fire in the mid-fifteenth century. The stained-glass windows, whose refracted light captured Delaunay's imagination, have been replaced since the paintings were done," Drutt points out.

Delaunay's Saint-Severin series was enthusiastically received and Guillaume Apollinaire likened one of his paintings at the 1910 Salon des Independants to an "earthquake."

Interestingly, Delaunay later expressed some disappointment over the series:

"In Saint-Severin, one sees a will towards construction, but the form is traditional. The refractions {of light} appear timid. The light shatters the lines in the arches and across the floor. The color is chiaroscuro, {and} in spite of the decision made not to copy nature objectively, it still creates perspective. As with Cezanne, the contrasts are binary and non-simultaneous. The reactions of colors convey the line. The modulation is still classical expression in the sense of expressive craft. This picture well indicates the expressive desire of a new form, but it doesn't quite get there."

From studying the exhibition and catalogue, it is true that one wishes to see just one more version that incorporates the best elements from several others into one supreme masterpiece. Still, one can never again enter a church after viewing these paintings and not yearn for his vaulting perspective and animated architecture.

One of the Saint-Severin paintings was included in the first exhibition in late 1911 of the Blue Rider Group in Munich and Drutt notes that "by 1916, German critics regarded Delaunay as 'the first known Expressionist,'" a remarkable accolade.

"The City" series is not quite as impressive as Saint-Severin, or the Eiffel Tower series, but helped bolster his reputation. They are actually very surprising for many of them are Pointilistic, but in a major- as opposed to tiny-dot fashion.

"In choosing the city as his subject, and depicting it in a way that was dynamic and erupting, Delaunay was ahead of his contemporaries ....Certain literary figures, most notably Jules Romains, venerated the city in their writings shortly after the turn of the century. In Romains's work, the city became synonymous with existence itself, which was governed by an energy he called unanimes....Romains's ideas revolved around the belief that individual consciousness becomes subsumed by the dominant energy of a place, where everything and everyone is in relation to the other....Romains's ideas had made an impression upon Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the Italian Futurist poet whose "The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism" was published in Le Figaro on February 20, 1909....However, the impact of Futurism on Delaunay, especially with respect to his Eiffel Tower paintings, which seem to borrow Futurism's vocabulary of chaos and destruction, has always been a point of contention. Delaunay himself repeatedly denied a connection to Futurism, especially when his friend Apollinaire later made the mistake of making a comparison between them. Delaunay declared, 'Futurism is a machinist movement. It is not vital.' Certainly, Delaunay's propensity for compositions that convey an atmosphere of destabilization, as many of the City paintings do, could be read as being Futurist in spirit. But as Futurist works were not exhibited in Paris until 1912, the connection to Romain's unanisme seems more germane. Given the fact that Umberto Boccioni visited Paris in ealy 1911, it is entiely possible that he could have seen Delaunay's City paintings and that they in turn had an impact on such works as his Visions simultanees (Simultaneous Visions, 1911)."

One of Delaunay's most impressive and largest paintings is "The City of Paris," painted in 1910-12 and now at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris in which he depicts the "Three Graces" in front of the city's skyline, which includes, of course, the Eiffel Tower. The huge painting was completed in just 15 days and Drutt remarks that it signaled "a shift that was about to take place in Delaunay's attempt to privilege light and color over line."

With the Eiffel Tower series, Delaunay knew he was on to something:

"Catastrophic Art. Dramatics, cataclysm. This is the synthesis of the entire period of destruction: a prophetic vision."

In another reference to the series, the artist wrote of "cosmic shakings, desire for the great cleanup, for burying the old, the past....dislocation of the successive object."

"This last comment is particularly important, for it quantifies the pictorial innovation that Delaunay introduced in these pictures: the concept of multiple viewpoints, as if more than one moment in time is captured at once," Drutt emphasized.

In the last major series, Windows, Delaunay begins to liberate himself from specific objects although traces of the Eiffel Tower are usually discernible. "In his writings of this period, Delaunay advocated an art of pure painting, devoid of representation: 'Simultaneity of colors by means of simultaneous contrasts and all measures (uneven) evolved from colors, according to the visible movement - this is the only reality which painting can construct,'" Drutt quotes the artist. The Windows impressed Paul Klee, among many others, and indeed are worthy of substantial study as their seeming simplicity gives way to a vibrancy as strong as Rothko would later develop. Some Synchronist artists obviously were well aware of Delaunay's Windows.

After World War I, Delaunay remained a major figure in cultural circles, but his bold innovations were over. He still produced many wonderful paintings, but his health began to fail and he died of cancer in 1941.

The period from the completion of the Eiffel Tower in the late 1880's to the start of World War I may well have been the most intellectually creative period in human history. Indeed, the first dozen or so years of the 20th Century are incredibly intense and vital and Delaunay was one of that period's greatest stars, no mean achievement.

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