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9 Apr 20

Dancing On the Edge: Sonia Delaunay and Harriet Whitney Frishmuth


Although Sonia Delaunay and Harriet Whitney Frishmuth never met, if they had they would have found much in common. Both artists were highly educated, multilingual and visually astute. Determined to push the boundaries of their craft, both drew inspiration from the liberating influence of modern dance.

Sonia Stern (later Terk, then Delaunay) was born in Ukraine into a working-class Jewish family. She was adopted around age six by a wealthy uncle in St Petersburg and raised by governesses who taught her German, English, French and Russian. After studying art for two years in Karlsruhe, Germany, she arrived in Paris in 1906 determined to make her mark in the world. While in Paris she met Wilhelm Uhde, a gay German art collector and dealer with whom she entered into a marriage of convenience in 1908, rapidly finding herself at the centre of modernist art circles in the French capital. The year before marrying Uhde, however, Sonia had met French artist Robert Delaunay, an event that was to change her life forever. They soon fell in love and married in 1910 after Uhde amicably agreed to a divorce.

Robert was obsessed with the perception of light and colour, and together the couple developed an offshoot of Cubism that focused on pure colour rendered in abstract forms. The style was dubbed Orphism in 1912 by the critic Guillaume Apollinaire, but the Delaunays called the juxtapositions of light-filled slabs of colour in their new art Simultanism, arguing that pure play of colour could create a sense of movement, simulating the rhythms of music and dance. As art historian Cécile Godefroy has argued,

Synonymous with the name Delaunay, Simultanism was a term associated with ideas of restlessness and dynamism engendered by the immediate reality of the modern era: technological innovations and urban developments, the invention of fast-moving machines for the conquest of sky and space, new lifestyles based on action, sport and speed, cosmopolitanism.1 Cécile Godefroy, ‘On the origins of Simultanism’, in Marta Ruiz del Árbol, Sonia Delaunay: Art, Design, Fashion, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 2017, p. 27.

While both Delaunays created brilliantly coloured abstracted paintings from 1912 onwards, Sonia’s vision was, from the outset, more ambitious in scope. Looking back to the traditions of Russian peasant handicrafts, she began to create painted and sewn coverings for everyday objects, beginning with covering the lampshades in her and Robert’s apartment with ‘simultaneous’ fabrics. She also branched out into advertising and poster design in works like Chocolat, 1914. An abstracted depiction of a newspaper boy standing before a billboard, Chocolat captures the dynamic current the Delaunays and their Simultanism practice brought to contemporary art. Inspired by the costumes of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Sonia soon began to place as much emphasis on fabric and needlework in her artistic practice as oil on canvas, breaking down the walls between high and low art, and art and craft. The French Surrealist poet René Crevel said of Sonia’s work, ‘I want to thank her … for having suppressed hierarchic prejudice in favour of abundantly loving life, magnificent life, and for offering us masterpieces that embellish our daily gestures’.2 Arthur A. Cohen (ed.), The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, trans. David Shapiro & Arthur A. Cohen, The Viking Press, New York, 1978, p. 189.

In the early 1900s, Sonia became caught up in the feverish excitement of ‘dansomania’, which swept through Paris before the outbreak of the First World War. The African-American cakewalk dance had crossed from the US to Paris in 1902, taking hold in the city’s numerous music halls. This was followed in 1907 by the arrival of the Argentinian tango, which, by 1913, had become a worldwide craze condemned as immoral but nevertheless embraced by women who enjoyed wearing the more loose-fitting clothing the dance’s free movements demanded. During this time, Sonia was drawn to the Bal Bullier. On Thursday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, dancers would throng to this cavernous dance hall on the avenue de l’Observatoire in the Latin Quarter. Marjorie Howard, writing in a July 1914 Vanity Fair article, described the ballroom for her American readers:

Here is the true young Paris, amusing itself after its own fashion, unstage-managed … oblivious of the tourist … The men are students, artists, writers, clerks, mostly French, with a sprinkling of Argentines. Some are workers, some are loafers, several wear uniforms, as they are doing their military service. The costume of the workers has been conventionalized in the last decade, and most of them wear a neat veston complet [suit]. The women are artists’ models, mannequins from the smart shops, dressmakers’ assistants, and the better class of shop-girls, interspersed with some whose dreary profession it is to do nothing but amuse.3 Marjorie Howard, ‘The vanishing bohemia of Paris and the Bal Bullier, its last stronghold’, Vanity Fair, July 1914, p. 30.

As Howard noted in her article, all the action at the Bal Bullier took place between nine in the evening and midnight, in a whirl of turkey trot and tango. It was into this energetic (but monotonously dressed) crowd that Sonia Delaunay introduced her new creation, the robe simultanée, or ‘simultaneous dress’, fashioned from a patchwork of brightly coloured swatches of diverse fabrics. In 1914, the critic Guillaume Apollinaire, a friend of the Delaunays, told readers of the fashionable journal Mercure de France:

You have to go to Bullier’s on Fridays and Sundays to see the painters M. and Mme. Robert Delaunay, who are involved in reforming fashion. Simultaneous Orphism [Simultanism] has produced new clothes that are impossible to ignore. M. and Mme. Delaunay are innovators. They do not bother with imitating old fashions, and as they want to be contemporary, they do not try to innovate in the cut of clothes; they follow today’s fashions, but seek to influence things by using new materials, infinitely varied in colour … Here is a description of a simultaneous dress worn by Mme. Sonia Delaunay: purple suit, long purple and green belt and, under the jacket, a bodice divided into areas of bright, soft or faded colours, where old rose mingles with deep orange, stylish blue and scarlet red … all on contrasting materials, such as plain cloth, taffeta, tulle, flannelette, moiré and ribbed silk.4 Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘La vie anecdotique. Les réformateurs du costume’, Mercure de France, vol. 108. no. 397, 1 Jan. 1914, p. 219.

Sonia’s gowns must have made a stunning impact at the Bal Bullier, with their flashing colours providing visual syncopation against the foxtrots and tangos being danced by fevered patrons at the ball. The dress dissolved the forms of the female body, transforming its wearer into a moving, liquid colour spectrum – a particoloured column of light.

In Madrid, where Sonia and Robert lived during much of the First World War, Sonia expanded her fashion and design practice further still, designing costumes for Serge Diaghilev’s revival of Michel Fokine’s 1909 ballet, Cléopâtre, at London’s Coliseum Theatre in 1918. The same year, the couple opened a fashion and interior design store, Casa Sonia, on Madrid’s Calle de Columela.

The Delaunays returned to Paris in 1921 and, in 1924, Sonia opened Atelier Simultané, a dedicated outlet for fabrics and clothing. The following year she opened her fashion house, Sonia, and set up her Simultané interior design boutique at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. To coincide with this world’s fair, she also published her coloured pochoir portfolio, Sonia Delaunay, ses peintures, ses objets, ses tissus simultanés, ses modes (Sonia Delaunay: her paintings, her objects, her simultaneous cloth, her fashions), 1925, which celebrated her ambition to liberate colour and modern design from the confines of easel painting. As Juliet Bellow has noted, ‘here Simultanism escaped the confines of art and participated fully in the world’.5 Juliet Bellow, ‘On time: Sonia Delaunay’s sequential Simultamism’, in Sonia Delaunay, The Tate, London, 2014, p. 102. The portfolio contained twenty coloured pochoir (stencil) plates illustrating Delaunay’s interior decoration ideas and ‘simultaneous’ dresses, objects and fabric designs from 1912 to 1925. It was graced by an introduction from the Cubist artist and theorist Albert Gleizes and featured texts by avant-garde writers such as Guillaume Apollinaire. Delaunay’s robe simultanée was paid homage to in the portfolio by four poets: Tristan Tzara, Joseph Delteil, Philippe Soupault and Blaise Cendrars. The copy of the portfolio in the NGV Collection is a presentation copy dedicated by Delaunay to Cendrars and contains the inscription, ‘Au poête du poême sur ma première robe’ (‘To the poet who wrote the poem about my first dress’). This was a reference to Cendrars’s 1914 poem, ‘Robe simultanée’ which opened with the reality-inverting line, ‘Sur la robe elle a un corps’ (‘She is wearing a body on her dress’).

While a world apart from Delaunay’s, geographically, the art of US sculptor Harriet Whitney Frishmuth was equally informed by the liberating rhythm of modern dance.

After her parents separated in 1888, eight-year-old Frishmuth moved with her mother from Philadelphia to Europe, where she went to school in Paris and Dresden, and learnt to speak French and German fluently.6 Thayer Tolles, ‘“Art as the true expression of life”: Harriet Whitney Frishmuth to 1940’, in Janis Conner et al., Captured Motion: The Sculpture of Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, Hohmann Holdings LLC, New York, 2006, p. 13. While holidaying in Switzerland in her late teens, she was introduced to the plastic arts by the American sculptor Lucy Brownson Hinton, who encouraged her to experiment with plasteline, a German-made soft modelling clay similar to plasticine.

Frishmuth’s language skills enabled her to move fluidly from one European capital to another. At nineteen she briefly studied under Auguste Rodin in Paris, and followed this with study at the Académie Colarossi under the tuition of leading sculptors Henri Désiré Gauquié and Jean Antoine Injalbert. In 1903, she relocated to Berlin and studied for a year with the prominent sculptor of public monuments, Cuno von Uechtritz-Steinkirch.

Frishmuth returned to the United States in 1904, at age twenty-four. She settled in New York and found employment as a studio assistant to the Austrian-born sculptor Karl Bitter. She also undertook further studies at The Art Students League of New York under the renowned American sculptor Gutzon Borglum. Perhaps inspired by her father, uncle and grandfather, who were all physicians, Frishmuth studied anatomy and dissection for two years at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, an unusual and ambitious undertaking for a woman at the time. Through this study, she advanced her understanding of the human body’s forms while in motion.

Around 1910, Frishmuth started earning a modest income by modelling utilitarian objects that she felt might have sales potential, such as ashtrays and bronze bookends featuring nudes, nymphs and fishermen. She then expanded into outdoor sculpture, fashioning sundials, birdbaths and fountain figures to adorn the gardens of well-to-do clients.

A landmark change in Frishmuth’s art came in 1916 when she met Desha Delteil, a Slovenian-born dancer who had recently immigrated to the United States and was soon to become a star ballerina in Michel Fokine’s American Ballet Company. A perfect and unselfconscious model, Delteil liberated Frishmuth’s sculptural vision, striking poses to music that brought a new freedom and grace to Frishmuth’s compositions:

One week I had her pose … and as neither of us knew exactly what we wanted, I put a record on the Victrola. It was L’Extase by Scriabin. Desha started dancing and one pose intrigued me. I carried it out and called the finished bronze Extase after the music … Desha was an unusually interesting model and simply perfect for my work. She could take exactly the same pose from one day to another with no variation. This is a remarkable quality in a model and especially valuable for me in creating dancing figures.7 ‘Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, American sculptor’, Syracuse University Library Associates Courier, vol. 9, no. 1, Oct. 1971, pp. 23–4.

Thayer Tolles, curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, has observed of Frishmuth’s fascination with Delteil:

Desha’s athletic figure was ideal for Frishmuth’s preferred female form: a long torso, elegant arms and neck, small breasts, and narrow hips. The dancer’s lines redirected the sculptor’s developing aesthetic and her personality inspired a livelier tone. Sometimes the resulting works had specific references to dance, but more often than not, they emphasized ebullience, motion, and lithe form.8 Tolles, p. 28.

Understandably given the times, Frishmuth was not open about her sexuality in press interviews of the day, although according to Tolles she was same-sex attracted, her partner Ruth Talcott having lived with her from the 1940s until Frishmuth’s death in 1980.9 ibid.

This may account, in part, for her obsession with Delteil, who posed for the majority of her sculptures. In contrast to Sonia Delaunay’s ‘simultaneous’ clothes, which hid the female body, cloaking it beneath a shimmering carapace of rhythmic colour, Frishmuth’s numerous sculptures of Delteil dancing celebrated feminine nudity in an uninhibited, yet non-voyeuristic, manner. Frishmuth’s Delteil sculptures appealed to a United States that embraced body culture and naturism in the late 1920s and 1930s,10 The American League for Physical Culture, founded in 1929, and the American Gymnosophical Association, founded around 1930, both promoted nudism or naturism as essentially democratic and humanitarian in nature. See Maurice Parmelee, Nudism in Modern Life: The New Gymnosophy, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1931. and they sold in the hundreds. Her most commercially successful work, The Vine, 1921, depicting a nude Delteil with her back arched in inebriated delirium, encapsulated the spirit of the Roaring Twenties perfectly. Frishmuth sold five life-size bronze versions of The Vine, along with a staggering 396 casts of the reduced-size bronze.

The spirit of modern dance also lay behind Frishmuth’s Speed, 1921 (cast 1922), a small sculpture in the NGV Collection now recognised as an Art Deco icon. Marion Couthouy Smith, writing for The American Magazine of Art in 1925, noted, ‘the famous “Speed” figure … combines a classic dignity with its straight flash of breath-taking swiftness’.11 Marion Couthouy Smith, ‘The art of Harriet Frishmuth’, The American Magazine of Art, vol. 16, no. 9, Sep. 1925, pp. 474–9. Speed’s winged, nude female, streamlined and shown rushing forward in sleek flight, owes its origins to Frishmuth’s study of the Russian male dancer and choreographer (and Delteil’s employer at the American Ballet Company) Michel Fokine, as Frishmuth herself recalled:

I was in a theater watching Michel Fokine dance. I was making a portrait of Fokine at the time. The big curtain was down and I saw this vision of a figure pass across the great screen and I could hardly wait to get back to the studio to model it. I made a sketch of it and then I got this very lovely English girl, Blanche Ostreham, to pose for it.’12 Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, quoted in Joseph G. Dreiss, ‘The sculpture of Harriet Whitney Frishmuth and New York dance’, Syracuse University Library Associates Courier, vol. 29, 1994, p. 38.

Speed can also be read as a personal symbol of Frishmuth’s ambition to transform contemporary American sculpture as a woman artist in the 1920s by channelling the influence of free modern dance, in a similar way to Sonia Delaunay with her robe simultanée.

Delaunay would certainly have appreciated the spirit of Frishmuth’s Speed. In the mid 1920s she designed ‘simultaneous’ driving caps for female motorists and was invited to decorate the body of one of Citroën’s new B12 automobiles with ‘simultaneous’ patterning based on one of her fabric designs. (The cars were unveiled at the Paris Motor Show in October 1925.) In their own ways, the work of both artists exemplified the contemporary zeitgeist of modern women on the move.

Notes

1

Cécile Godefroy, ‘On the origins of Simultanism’, in Marta Ruiz del Árbol, Sonia Delaunay: Art, Design, Fashion, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 2017, p. 27.

2

Arthur A. Cohen (ed.), The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, trans. David Shapiro & Arthur A. Cohen, The Viking Press, New York, 1978, p. 189.

3

Marjorie Howard, ‘The vanishing bohemia of Paris and the Bal Bullier, its last stronghold’, Vanity Fair, July 1914, p. 30.

4

Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘La vie anecdotique. Les réformateurs du costume’, Mercure de France, vol. 108. no. 397, 1 Jan. 1914, p. 219.

5

Juliet Bellow, ‘On time: Sonia Delaunay’s sequential Simultamism’, in Sonia Delaunay, The Tate, London, 2014, p. 102.

6

Thayer Tolles, ‘“Art as the true expression of life”: Harriet Whitney Frishmuth to 1940’, in Janis Conner et al., Captured Motion: The Sculpture of Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, Hohmann Holdings LLC, New York, 2006, p. 13.

7

‘Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, American sculptor’, Syracuse University Library Associates Courier, vol. 9, no. 1, Oct. 1971, pp. 23–4.

8

Tolles, p. 28.

9

ibid.

10

The American League for Physical Culture, founded in 1929, and the American Gymnosophical Association, founded around 1930, both promoted nudism or naturism as essentially democratic and humanitarian in nature. See Maurice Parmelee, Nudism in Modern Life: The New Gymnosophy, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1931.

11

Marion Couthouy Smith, ‘The art of Harriet Frishmuth’, The American Magazine of Art, vol. 16, no. 9, Sep. 1925, pp. 474–9.

12

Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, quoted in Joseph G. Dreiss, ‘The sculpture of Harriet Whitney Frishmuth and New York dance’, Syracuse University Library Associates Courier, vol. 29, 1994, p. 38.