Ukraine 1885 – France 1979
Dubonnet 1914 Materials & Technique: paintings, distemper on canvas
Sonia Delaunay was probably the first modern artist to attempt to apply pictorial notions of abstraction to objects of everyday use. This seems to have begun immediately following her marriage to Robert Delaunay (1885-1941) in November 1910, when she temporarily put aside her own painting to contend with a baby and the decoration of their new apartment. She appliquéd bed quilts, cushion covers, lampshades and curtains, made clothes and covered books, juxtaposing bright fragments of fabric and paper in a way which paralleled Robert Delaunay's paintings based on the principle of 'the simultaneous contrast of colours'. A number of her Simultanist objects were exhibited alongside Delaunay's paintings at the first Herbst Salon, at Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin in 1913.
A sketchbook doodle playing with the word 'Zone', executed late in 1912 or early 1913, probably represents her first attempt to integrate typography and the abstract inclinations of her art.1 'Zone' was the title of a poem written by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) in the summer of 1912, in which he suggested, among other things, that posters might be considered the poetry of modern life.2 Delaunay's doodle was an idea for the cover or poster prospectus of a proposed joint publication, early in 1913, of the poems of Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961) and Apollinaire. She went on, in 1913, to design Simultanist posters for a lecture on her work and that of her husband, delivered by Alexander Smirnoff at the St Petersburg nightclub The Stray Dog in July, and later in 1913 she produced a pictorial edition of Cendrar's poem 'La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France' (Prose of the Trans-Siberian, and of little Jehanne of France). With Cendrars she also planned a series of 'poster poems' based on well-known commercial brand names.
Only Zenith, the first of the series, included a poem by Cendrars; the others, for Chocolat, Pirelli, Pernod and Dubonnet, were created independently by Delaunay. In an interview in 1970 she stated that the intention of these product 'poster poems' was 'to make money and to sell the posters'.3 But none of the designs were ever shown to the companies concerned, and it may be that this initial motive was superseded by an interest in simply making works of art around images of advertising, linking the principles of simultaneity with quintessentially modernist subject-matter. The size and resolution of the Canberra painting exceeds any practical requirements for a poster mock-up.
Three works by Delaunay relate to the Dubonnet theme: a collage in the collection of the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; a painting in the collection of Elaine Lustig Cohen, New York and the Australian National Gallery's painting. While the Cohen painting closely follows the format of the original collage, the Gallery's painting effectively reverses the design so that the rounded letters 'dubo' are cradled more comfortably against the circular colour disc than the angular letters 'nnet'. The Gallery's work is the largest and most considered of the three versions and therefore almost certainly the last of the group. An early label on the back of the painting in Delaunay's handwriting dates the painting to 'Mai 1914'.
This dating of the work is slightly confused by the inscription painted along the bottom of both the Dubonnet paintings: 'ATELIERS "SIMULTANE" SONIA DELAUNAY'.4 Sonia Delaunay established the Atelier Simultané in Paris in 1924 mainly for the purpose of printing her own 'simultaneous textiles', but also for other commercial ventures and, as far as can be determined, did not use the term before this. It would seem, then, that the painted inscription was placed on the painting in 1924, and this would correspond to the sudden renewed interest in the Dubonnet design at that time.5 On 1 August 1924 Delaunay registered the design for Dubonnet at the Patent Office in Paris, reviving its commercial possibilities under the name of her new enterprise.6
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.260.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010