Sonia Delaunay. Étude de couleurs, Paris, 1913.
Sonia Delaunay. Étude de foule, boulevard Saint-Michel, 1913.
Sonia Delaunay. Étude de lumière, boulevard Saint-Michel, 1913.

Lights on the Boulevard: Sonia Delaunay, 1885–1979

by Paul P.

Among the works in Sonia Delaunay’s exhaustive retrospective at the Tate Modern in London, The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay, are several very slight drawings rendered in colored crayon on paper titled Étude de lumière, boulevard Saint-Michel; Étude de couleurs, Paris; and Étude de foule, boulevard Saint-Michel. Musical and ephemeral, they are examples from a lesser-known series, or perhaps the totality of a small series. Within an exhibition spanning more than seven decades of radical, protean, and iconic creation, from juvenilia to her inevitably dissipated final works—still beautiful because of her indefatigability—these anomalous pieces and their fervid marks show an artist just entering into the consciousness that would define her career. They are delicate summations of her oeuvres essentials: light, vibrant color, jazzy rhythm, and unexpected recurrent harmony.

Dated 1913, when Delaunay was twenty-eight, these drawings must have been executed en plein air on the boulevard within the span of a few minutes, probably no longer. They are transcriptions of place, but also of time. Her aesthetic shorthand is a temporal illustration whereby the action of drawing has been matched to the tempo of looking. The time spent by the artist in scribbling the vertical marks can be regained by tracing—with the eye or with a mimicking gesticulation of the hand by the viewer—those short bursts that yielded each colored component. That acute readability, taken alongside the artist’s youth and the works’ epoch, evoke restlessness and modernism just as it shook and beat through the Parisian streets before the advent of World War I. Delaunay, born in Russia, studied art in Germany and was led, in 1905, to Paris’s Left Bank, a place where bohemianism (the true spiritual home of her era’s artist) then presided. These abstractions capture the aura of the boulevard, but they are also schema for the transfiguration of a Paris atmosphere into the psyche of its astounded denizen.

We see dancing incandescents battling crepuscular black and blue, the rhythm of people, music, life—squalid and luxurious, commingling existential loneliness with this-is-where-it’s-at cosmopolitanism. Paris’ twin sensations are pleasure and melancholy, each at turns fleeting and persistent. The city is chaos in nuances, an emotional hall of mirrors where the inky veil of l’heure bleue is followed by dense night perforated by lamplight; the hypnotic flash of sunlight on gilded ironwork encircling parks; the motionless chug of the Styx called the Seine; vistas that supersede nature. The price that Paris exacts for a life amid its ambiance is that one either allows oneself to be subsumed into the beautiful dream, to become another of the myriad colors on the boulevard, or one offers to reflect Paris back to herself, and in flattering her is allowed to maintain autonomy. This is the bargain that Delaunay approaches on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. Perhaps catalysts, these drawings were produced on the cusp of discovering the radiating arcs and circles that would become her signature motifs in painting. They are a wonderful paradox simultaneously describing both a fleeting moment of Parisian life and foreshadowing an entire artist’s life to come.

Paul P. is a Canadian artist living in Paris.

The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay is on view at the Tate Modern in London through August 9, 2015.