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Sonia Delaunay: Artist of the Lost Generation

Sonia Delaunay: Artist of the Lost Generation

by Axel Madsen

Sonia Delaunay, wife of painter Robert Delaunay, and co-founder of the Orphist school in 1910, was the center of a brilliant circle in Paris. Madsen offers a rich and compelling look at this fascinating and influential woman, the first living female artist to have a retrospective show at the Louvre.



Sonia Delaunay, wife of painter Robert Delaunay, and co-founder of the Orphist school in 1910, was the center of a brilliant circle in Paris. Madsen offers a rich and compelling look at this fascinating and influential woman, the first living female artist to have a retrospective show at the Louvre.


Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Russian-born Delaunay (1885-1979), nee Stein, a pioneer of modernism in the Paris of Picasso and Matisse, commands attention as an artist and a feminist by example (if not in word or posture). Her radiant canvases, with their sun-like disks of swirling color, brought a warmth to cubism missing in the work of Braque or Gris. After the Bolsheviks confiscated her adoptive uncle's wealth during the Russian Revolution, Delaunay, already in Paris, was forced to earn a living. Her abstract textiles and graphics, and the jazz-age clothing she designed, helped define art deco. For decades, this expatriate supported herself, her son and husband, French cubist painter Robert Delaunay, portrayed here as a hopelessly impractical enfant terrible. At age 67, after restoring her late husband's eclipsed reputation, she broke out of his orbit to experiment with form and color. In this gossipy, wonderfully evocative biography, Madsen, biographer of Malraux and Sartre, juggles an astonishing cast of luminaries as he re-creates the bohemian artistic-literary circles of Paris. Photos. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“In this gossipy, wonderfully evocative biography, Madsen, biographer of Malraux and Sartre, juggles an astonishing cast of luminaries as he re-creates the bohemian artistic-literary circles of Paris.” —Publishers Weekly

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McGraw-Hill Companies, The
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Sonia Delaunay

Artist of the Lost Generation

By Axel Madsen


Copyright © 1989 Axel Madsen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-0851-8


July 9, 1944

The soldier left the motor running. The canvas flap at the back of the truck was flung open and six soldiers jumped down. Four others followed. A military car squealed to a halt. From where she was sitting she could see two black-uniformed officers get out.

"Gestapo," mumbled someone at the bar.

"They're getting nervous," one man sneered under his breath.

The two officers came straight toward their café. Behind them, soldiers fanned out toward the other cafés surrounding the railway station.

Men on the café terrace leaned forward to get identity cards out of back pockets. A woman fumbled with her purse. Behind the counter the owner kept wiping the same glass.

Mute like the rest of the customers, she held on to her traveling case. A prison van drove up and stopped in the middle of the square. The owner bit into his cigarette butt and squinted at the Germans. A tall man fumbled for his papers.

"Allez, dépêchez!" The soldier at the door made an impatient gesture with his machine gun, while a second, older Gestapo officer eyed the customers at the counter. Silently, the tall man handed over his ID.

For her, it was the second surprise check since yesterday. Before boarding the train in Cannes, a Frenchman had pulled a militia badge on her and asked to see her carte d'identité. She hated people examining her papers, the several names that life's itinerary had given her.

The militiaman had scrutinized all six pages of the foldout document, taking his time.

"Religion?" he had asked.

"Russian Orthodox."

"Not Israelite?"

"Why do you ask, Monsieur?"

"Your maiden name."

She had stared him down and haughtily launched into her routine. He could call the commissariat, if he wanted. She had lived in Grasse for three years, ever since she had become a widow. Without a word the man had shoved her papers back at her and continued down the platform.

The Resistance kept blowing up railway track. It had taken her twenty-four hours to get from Marseille to Toulouse. At Nîmes, a German soldier had wanted her and six other civilians to give up their compartment. The way he pulled at her sleeve had been just too much, and when he shouted to his comrades to come and help him, she had spoken up—in German.

"You know how to talk as though you're one of us," one of them had answered suspiciously, "but in reality you're for the Allies."

In the end, she and the six other civilians had been kicked off the train. This morning's BBC broadcast said the Allies were advancing toward Rennes.

The older Gestapo officer began working his way down the counter. A couple standing between their suitcases had their IDs ready. The owner kept wiping the same glass.

Suddenly, she saw Willy, her former husband, standing at the far end of the counter next to a butcher in full smock and apron. He looked different with his gray hair, but it definitely was he! How could he be in Toulouse? How could they have chosen the same café next to the Matabiau station?

Fear, instinct, and memories of an impassioned year long ago made her get up. Clutching her bag, she moved toward Willy.

The Gestapo officer gestured for the couple with the suitcases to show their papers. The husband mumbled that they were on their way home to Malause: "That's the station after Moissac."

She was fearful of even whispering Willy's name. To make him notice her, she held up a 100-franc note and asked the owner how much she owed.

Willy recognized her. Neither he nor she acknowledged the other. Their eyes met. He was reading her mind because a thin smile creased his lips.

The owner snapped the 100-franc note from her fingers.

The officer took the papers from the man next to the butcher.

She was not afraid of a perfunctory glance. Her carte d'identité gave her married name first, in big bold letters. But even if the Prefecture de Cannes stamp neatly smeared Gradizhsk, U.S.S.R., as the place of birth, close scrutiny would reveal the "née Stern, Sarah." She wondered whether Willy carried fake papers. So many people did. Surely his ID wouldn't say that he was born in Friedeberg in der Neumark.

The owner dropped her change in a porcelain saucer and shoved it in front of her. She might be on her way to Auschwitz or Buchenwald, but she dutifully calculated how much she should tip. Only the butcher stood between her and the Gestapo officer.

She sensed the German somehow knew that this exercise was futile, that the person they were looking for had probably slipped away. She couldn't help staring at the skull-and-bone emblem on the Gestapo lapel as the officer took the butcher's papers. She could smell the uniform. With his two-day beard, frayed uniform, and fat neck, the German looked like a Georg Grosz caricature. Why had she believed it would be safer here in the café than in the station waiting room?

It was her turn.

"Nationality?" the Gestapo man asked.

"Russian-born," she managed.

With a funny smile, he asked her if she knew Kiev and Kharkov.

She wondered if he had seen the Ukraine as a combatant, when suddenly an officer appeared in the doorway. From the street came shouts in German and French. Two Frenchmen were being dragged toward the prison van. One protested vociferously while the other, a stocky, bald-headed man, looked subdued, as if he knew he was condemned. The Gestapo officer turned and, with the rest of them, watched the two men being pushed into the van. Everybody knew what it meant.

The Gestapo officer drummed her folded ID against his fingers, watching her for a second before he handed the papers back and looked past her at Willy. It was a long, sharp squint, but a second later he wheeled around and walked out of the café.

The van left.

The Gestapo officers climbed into their car.

When she turned back again, the bistro owner spat out his cigarette butt in the direction of the street. The Germans took off.

"The bald one is Quevastre," someone said. Around them the small talk picked up again. She glanced up at Willy. He suddenly looked even older, she thought. He still had the pinched aristocratic mouth and high forehead that Picasso had captured so well in that portrait of him, but the eyes looked tired.

The bistro owner eyed them suspiciously, maybe sensing they were foreigners. During the other war, people had suspected her of being a German spy.

She was still clutching her change when Willy and she walked out into the noonday heat. They crossed the canal without a word, not knowing where to begin. The spire of the Saint-Sernin basilica cast its Romanesque shadow on the Old City. When had she seen him last? In 1938, she realized. In his gallery. She had found him old even then, but as passionate as ever about art.

They were halfway down a street called Rue Bayard when he said he had his bicycle over by the park.

"A bicycle?" she asked, as if to have one were something extraordinary.

"Belongs to Cassou, actually."

They spoke careful French. He asked about her life since Robert, about her son Charles. She asked where he was living.

"Cassou is running the entire Combat, Libération, and Franc-Tireur network; I'm staying with him, Tzara, and Céline and Paul Dermée."

Cassou had been the first curator to bet on the name Delaunay. She had had no idea he was a resistance leader.

"And you?" Willy asked.

She told him she was planning to go south, down to St. Gaudens or maybe Tarbes. The closer to the Spanish border the better. "I mean, how long can it last?"

"The BBC said this morning ..."

It felt odd being alone with him after all these years. She didn't care to remember how long ago it was that she had first walked into his little gallery in Rue de Notre Dame des Champs. Her life had turned out different from what she had imagined when the two of them had gone to London to get married.

She told him about Grasse, about Jean Arp, a widower now, and about Alberto and Suzi Magnelli, about the Springers and Céline Weiss, whose villa had been a refuge these last months. René Weiss was a Gaullist and a resistance leader, and the house was half-empty anyway.

Jean and Sophie Arp had invited her to come and stay with them after Robert died. For one happy year they had all formed a little colony of their own. "We refused to give in to the war's insanity, but when Sophie got sick she managed to use her Swiss nationality to get not only herself and Jean to Zurich, but Ferdinand and Iréne Springer as well."

The hot July sun beat mercilessly on the near-empty Rue Bayard.

"The Gestapo confiscated the Springer paintings I bought from him eight years ago," Willy said.

"The Magnellis were the last to go into hiding," she continued, lowering her voice. "Alberto thinks they are safe, but Suzi was born Gersohn ..."

Whether it was the emotions of having escaped the Gestapo sweep or feelings of pity for her, he suddenly turned to her and said, "Why don't you come and stay with us? Cassou has this abandoned château near Grisolles."

She had no idea where Grisolles was, but she had known Jean Cassou since before he became the curator of the National Museum of Modern Art, when he was a journalist. The way Willy explained it, Cassou was the nominal renter of this castle with its medieval tower and formal garden overlooking the Garonne River. There were more rooms than any of them had bothered to count. Tzara had a whole wing to himself, Florent Fels and the Dermées occupied one floor.

"The last time I saw Cassou, Robert was still alive," she said. She could still see Le Corbusier and Fernand and Jeanne Léger on the podium, trying not to let the Communists write off surrealism and cubism and impose realist art as the only valid one. Robert had shouted, "So what the Party wants is that we all return to the uninspired old crap!" Abstract painters had loved Robert, and in derision, chanted, "Rem-brandt!" "Ru-bens!" from the floor. On the way out she had run into Cassou, all flustered and embarrassed. He wanted everybody to pull together, now that socialists were in power. "It's silly to split when we should unite," she had told the curator. "But the free choice of colors is what counts. The liberation of colors is the new realism, not figurative art."

"And Fernand and Jeanne?" she asked Willy. Fernand's wife had a teasing, mocking quality, but she could be terribly funny.

"They're in America. Fernand is teaching at Yale University, if you can imagine."

They were at the bicycle, an old black contraption with a big metal rack behind the saddle.

"You'll be safer than at any hotel in St. Gaudens or Tarbes," Willy insisted. "The Germans are rounding up all the time."

"But do you have enough food?"

"We have everything. Even a greenhouse you can use as a studio."

It was a long and hot twenty-five kilometers on Willy's baggage rack. People smiled at the sight of a tall, lanky fellow in a summer jacket puffing and pedaling and a chunky woman in a print dress on the baggage rack hanging on to him. Each breezy downhill and panting uphill brought them deeper into the heart of a Gascony still strewn with half-abandoned castles from which the Three Musketeers had sallied forth and which now served as havens for a good number of people who, having little desire to be known to the Gestapo, led very discreet lives.

Instead of going on the route nationale where they might run into militia roadblocks, Willy took the old départémentale along the Garonne River. On the long Blagnac uphill, they both got off and walked. At the top they rested in the shade of a huge oak. She remembered the summer they had spent in Chaville, on the western outskirts of Paris, and the Saturday evening he had taken her to meet Gertrude Stein and her friend Alice. The two American ladies were used to seeing Willy show up with tall, blond good-looking young men who clicked their heels and stood at attention all evening.

"Gertrude Stein thought I was conventional, I remember," she said.

Willy smiled. "She was sure I was marrying you for your money."

It all came back to her, her own rectitude, her youthful naïveté. For her, marrying this spiritual art lover had been an end-run around her adoptive parents' repeated arguments that a young woman could not live abroad, alone and free. And it had worked between them, in their own way. Her own sensuality had been sublimated, her fervor concentrated in tubes of color and stretches of canvas. She had believed he might learn to love her.

"The Magnellis told me Gertrude Stein and her friend are in hiding somewhere near Annemasse," she said.

"They never left, like us."

"The Guggenheim Foundation sponsored us to come to America."

He sat up. "So what happened?"

"By the time the papers were ready, Robert was too ill to travel."

The castle at the end of a poplar lane was even lovelier than Wilhelm Uhde's description, and the greetings of Jean Cassou, his wife, and the others brought tears to her eyes.

The stage operetta château with its medieval tower was perched on the bank of a fairyland tributary to the Garonne. It was surrounded by a French garden and by chestnut, pine, birch, and age-old walnut trees.

In the courtyard, dogs barked, and Tristan Tzara embraced her. Cassou came running. Instead of listening to Willy's story of how the two of them had met in the middle of a Gestapo raid, they swung her around as if appraising a fashion model, hugging her and shouting for the Dermées and Fels to come out.

"God, just to see you," Tzara repeated.

She had forgotten how small the neurotic inspirer of surrealism was. She had known him since his name was Sami Rosenstock, and she had illustrated his first Parisian poems. She still thought Robert's portrait of Tzara was one of his best paintings.

The Dermées came out. She had known Paul Dermée, the Belgian surrealist poet, and his book-editor wife, Céline Arnaud, since 1923. Céline had lost nothing of her dark beauty.

As they all escorted her in and offered her the entire Tudor wing, she could only marvel at her good fortune. The view from her room was of a landscape of abrupt slopes and hardwood forest, and on the other side of the stream, a red-tiled village and a tiny railway station.

The dinner that night in the enormous kitchen was as magnificent as it was unexpected. Cassou, who was some fifteen years her junior, was at the head of the table. They were in the land of foie gras, of goose cooked in a hundred ways, he said. In her honor they insisted on Armagnac wines.

The electricity went out in the middle of Cassou's clafoutis. Dermée found four huge church candles. They sat and listened to long, drawn-out rumblings, faint and muffled, and wondered whether it was distant artillery or marquis sabotage. She had always loved the way candles gave high relief to the human face.

Cassou regaled her with his picaresque tangles with the Vichy government during the first months of the German occupation. It was not sensible to name him director of the reopened Museum of Modern Art, he had told his superior, but the man convinced the Vichy leaders otherwise.

Cassou smiled over his glasses. "My boss told the government people that the fact I'd been a Popular Front socialist and agitator for Republican Spain, that my wife was Jewish, should not be an obstacle to my nomination. They even pretended that Marshal Pétain himself acquiesced; there should be no retaliation because of my prewar politics."

"How naive can you be?" Tzara asked with mock horror.

"I was told my nomination had been accepted," Cassou continued. "I went home, turned on the radio and heard a newscaster say 'the Spanish Jew and Free-Mason Jean Cassou has been named director of the Museum of Modern Art.'"

That was the end of the nomination.

The conversation was upbeat. The Allies were almost at Nantes and Orléans. Cassou announced he was already writing about the postwar era. Fels hoped that he could find finances to start a magazine again, and Willy that he would be able to recover most of his paintings. It was the second time he had lost all his paintings. In the first war, the French had considered him an enemy alien, and confiscated his entire gallery. This time the Germans had called him a traitor and seized everything. The Gestapo was still trying to arrest him for having signed the exiled Germans' anti-Nazi manifesto.


Excerpted from Sonia Delaunay by Axel Madsen. Copyright © 1989 Axel Madsen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Axel Madsen authored twenty-two books, including sixteen biographies. His most notable works include an in-depth look at the life of a legendary fashion icon, Chanel: A Woman of Her Own, and an investigation of the relationship between Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy, Gloria and Joe: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy. Madsen began his journalism career as a legman for columnist Art Buchwald in Paris, and later wrote one of the first books on television’s longest-running news magazine show, 60 Minutes: The Power and the Politics of America’s Most Popular TV News Show. As a 20th Century Fox publicist, he handled Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and George C. Scott, and was fired off Myra Breckinridge for siding with director Mike Sarne against producer Robert Fryer. His Hollywood biographies include the life stories of directors William Wyler, John Huston, and Barbara Stanwyck, as well as an examination of Golden Age Hollywood’s gay underground in The Sewing Circle. He wrote and produced the ITV documentary version of The Sewing Circle. Over the years, Madsen interviewed scores of movers and shakers, from legends like Goldwyn and Selznick to directors like Howard Hawks, Louis Milestone, and Rouben Mamoulian. Madsen died in 2007.

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