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enjoy picks: Robert Delaunay

mumok collects

Robert Delaunay

Relief blanc, 1936

Plaster, casein on metal, 204 × 109 cm
Acquired in 1962

In the exhibition Revue Moderne (curated by Heike Eipeldauer), as part of Enjoy—the mumok Collection in Change, a work by Robert Delaunay is currently on view that entered the mumok collection already under founding director Werner Hofmann.

In the 1936 work Relief blanc (Relief in White), Robert Delaunay created an image based entirely on light, with no additional colors. The differentiated structure of this relief consists of areas of depth, lines, bulges and hollows, zones with rough graining and smooth areas, and delicate cracks. Bright concentric circles and arches are defined by fine grooves. The play of light on the roughly grained areas creates darker patches that are both a part of the circles and yet also set themselves off against them. The composition of forms that touch, cut through, and overlap each other along a precise diagonal axis is determined by a harmonious dynamism that is typical of Delaunay’s paintings. There are neither figurative motifs nor clearly outlined geometrical shapes. Instead the forms are like sources of light that appear to be both autonomous and defined by their rhythmical interplay.

Delaunay had already painted works representing nothing but the color fields of which they were constituted back in 1912 and 1913. He and his wife, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, were among the pioneers of non-figurative painting. They worked closely together and developed circular compositions based on the principle of the simultaneous contrast of colors. “Simultaneity” was a very fashionable and influential term in the period directly after World War I. Cubism focused on the simultaneity of a number of different approaches, while Futurist painters and sculptors, and artists like Marcel Duchamp, worked on simultaneous depictions of successive states of motion. Robert Delaunay wanted to go a step further. His was a holistic vision, a combination of all the elements of the visually perceived world in one all-encompassing unity. In this he wished to use neither the aid of lines nor the representation of geometrical shapes in a virtual pictorial space. The contrasting relations between simultaneously perceived color fields alone should create rhythm and movement in painting. Delaunay was a passionate modernist. He believed that technical innovations would lead to social progress, and he was fascinated by the processes of acceleration that people were experiencing in the first years of the new century. He wanted his painting to capture the movement and rhythms of modern life. In the chords of his color contrasts, Delaunay gave expression to his humanist vision of constructive and harmonious social cohesion.

Stressing the constructive element inherent to colors and contrasts, Delaunay wrote of an “architecture of colors” in his texts on his art. In 1930 the painter began to experiment with new techniques, creating variations in texture and coloration. To achieve this he mixed materials like sand, cork, gypsum, casein glue, and sawdust into his paints. The sometimes multicolor and sometimes monochrome reliefs that Delaunay was working on from the mid-nineteen-thirties should be seen in this context. This sculptural dimension to his work indicates a new artistic interest, as also do the large formats that he began to use around this time. He wanted to integrate painting, sculpture, and architecture. “I am doing revolution on the walls,” Delaunay proclaimed in his many writings, meaning more than just transgressing the borders between artistic genres. The synthesis of different methods and forms was intended to help painting to enter into public spaces where it could unfold its transformative effects and “express a great collective idea.”

The play of light on the surface of Relief blanc follows the same principles which Delaunay used to construct his abstract color compositions. In place of color contrasts, here the relationship between differently configured surfaces comes to the fore. These various textures enter into mutual relations. Hard cuts with their dark and precise shadows create axes around which the segments of circular shapes are arranged. The intersections of these circle systems result less in an illusion of them being placed in front of or behind each other in a space whose depth can be ascertained and rather in an indeterminate atmospheric impression and a dynamic relationship between the different shapes. Cut off at the relief’s margins, these circles seem to be part of a larger whole, a comprehensive force or energy. They thus represent the expression of relational rhythms that run through the whole cosmos.

Michael Wonnerth-Magnusson

From the catalogue 55 Dates, edited and shortened text (Ed. by Jörg Wolfert, Publisher: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König Köln 2018)