A joyful testament to Sonia Delaunay’s fruitful and happy years on the Iberian peninsula, Marché au Minho I is a riotous cacophony of color, movement and light that immerses the viewer in the raucous, sensual atmosphere of the sun-drenched Portuguese marketplace. Painted in the challenging new medium of wax, this work is a superb example of the pictorial experimentation that led the artist and her husband Robert Delaunay to attain new means of expression during their exile in southern Europe during World War I, taking inspiration from their new surroundings to blur the lines between the figurative and the abstract, creating a veritable visual tour de force.
Born in 1885, in the corner of the Russian Empire that would become modern-day Ukraine, Sarah Ilinitchna Stern, as she was first known, displayed early talent for drawing and was sent to art school in Germany at age eighteen. Having changed her name to Sonia, in 1905 she moved to Paris and a few years later met Robert Delaunay, who was to become not only the love of her life but her artistic soulmate for the next three decades. Together in the pre-war years they would develop a new form of Cubism that Guillaume Apollinaire would dub "Orphism," exploring the power of pure color and form to elicit effects on the viewer’s senses.
In 1914 the couple were invited by a friend to visit Spain, convinced that the sunshine, fresh air and sea-bathing would be beneficial for their young son Charles. They first traveled to Madrid, then to the Basque town of Fuenterrabia, where they heard the news of the outbreak of the war. They thus decided not to return to France until the political situation stabilized, and when Robert began to find the Spanish heat too excessive to paint, their artist friends Sam Halpert and Edouardo Vianna led them to the cooler climes of northern Portugal, to a picturesque coastal village called Vila da Condo. The village had a lively community of artists and intellectuals and the Delaunays were instantly made to feel welcome by their new circle of friends.
The isolated, rustic beauty of the place particularly captivated Sonia. She found the colors of the village and surrounding countryside intoxicating and painted tirelessly from dawn to dusk. The traditional peasant culture brought back memories of her Russian childhood, and she took inspiration from the shapes and hues of the local costumes, pottery, vegetables, flowers and animals to put into practice the conceptual experiments she had begun before the war in Paris. The celebrated series of the Marché au Minho was the culmination of this process of synthesis. She painted the theme at least fifteen times, striving to combine figurative elements within swirls of pure color that evoke the sensory overload of the bustling marketplace: “I tried to express the light, the richness and the strength of the colors of the women, of the the local vegetables and fruits, before finally focussing on a single subject: the market teeming with life, color, people, animals, vegetables, with the viaduct rising in the background. I made multiple sketches to base my impressions around a strict composition, in order to best express what I felt. At the time, I was using hot wax paint: the paintings were made on local canvases, and the studies on paper. What mattered was the greatest purity and strength of the color. As a consequence, these artworks did not fade, and their colors are as bright now as on the first day” (Sonia Delaunay quoted in Michel Hogg, Robert et Sonia Delaunay (exhibition catalogue), Musée national d'art moderne, Paris, 1967, p. 152).
The resulting series exemplifies Sonia Delaunay's work in the mid-1910s, when she was transitioning from figurative imagery to the purely abstract. As Arthur Cohen has observed, the Marché pictures, "seem to hark back towards Fauvism; though freed from involvment with chiaroscuro and no longer depending upon outline and formal arrangement, they are still color in loco. The watermelons, the fruit, the pottery, the women, the animals, the aqueduct, even though they are composed of circles, bands, patches of color, are not totally abstracted. The pictures are not recidivist but they are a surrender to joy and contentment, a kind of pictorial celebration of the enfleshment of abstraction, the circles and spirals, the colored movements once more returning to natural incarnation” (Arthur Cohen, Sonia Delaunay, New York, 1975, p. 70).
The artist presented one version of the Marché au Minho to the Musée national d’art moderne in Paris and another today hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The present large-format study in wax on paper laid down on canvas remained in her own private collection until 1968. It was later acquired by the Portuguese collector Jorge de Brito and was a treasured highlight of his collection for several decades, in a fitting tribute to the country and people that inspired this jubilant composition.
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