After initially training in the studios of the theatre designer Eugène Ronsin, Delaunay taught himself to paint after discovering the work of Cézanne, which led him to Neo-Impressionism and then Cubism. Tired of deconstructing subjects through the medium of lines, the young painter, newly wed to the Russian artist Sonia Terk, opted instead for a new form of pictorial expression based on a single and unique component: colour. “At this point, around 1912-1913, I had the idea of a painting that depended only on colour and contrasts of colours but that would develop in time and be perceived all at once. To describe it I used Chevreul’s scientific term Simultaneaous Contrasts” (Du Cubisme à l'art abstrait, p. 81). From then on, Robert and Sonia Delaunay devoted themselves to transcribing light and rhythm through colour, experimenting with different mediums. They proclaimed that this was the beginning of Simultanism, a global aesthetic movement and a way to live and reconstitute modernity in the context of the first twentieth-century avant-gardes and the origins of pictorial abstraction.
Unlike some other pioneers of abstract art such as Wassily Kandinsky, Delaunay freely alternated between subjectless paintings (Disque. Premier Disque, 1913, private collection) and major figurative works (L’Equipe de Cardiff, 1913, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris ; see also the many portraits painted during the 1920s). The artist only turned definitively towards abstraction in 1930, masterfully revisiting the themes he had developed in 1912 and conferring to colour a new architectonic dimension. The series Rythme. Joie de vivre is the perfect illustration, the extension and development of the research undertaken before the war on the dynamic of colours initiated by the circular form and the law of simultaneous contrasts. One of the three paintings, executed in 1930, is in the collection of the Musée national d’art modern – Centre Pompidou thanks to a donation by Sonia and Robert Delaunay in 1964 (Habasque, No. 273). Another painting, also executed in 1930, is now in a private collection (Habasque, No. 272). The third is the present painting, of a similar format to the two previous works and dated 1931 (Habasque, No. 278).
The composition of Rythme. Joie de vivre is arranged around a large concentric disc that occupies the background of the painting: recalling Formes Circulaires and Disque from 1913, here Delaunay dispenses with any reference to the external world in favour of a pure, musical game of colours. The concentric circles of the large disc, divided into four equal segments, distribute non-complimentary colours such as yellows and oranges, and different shades of green, blue and red. This succession of colours, that are close to each other in the chromatic prism, appear to make the surface of the canvas vibrate. In the foreground, four slightly decentred chromatic circles float, each one subdivided into four segments of distinct colour, presented on their diagonal axes. The discovery of the law of simultaneously contrasting colours led Delaunay to distribute and juxtapose colours in relation to whether they are complimentary and to their form : two non-complimentary colours placed side by side create an optical dissonance that disturbs the eye; a sensation of rhythm that can be amplified by the format, triangular or circular, that contains them. Conversely, two complimentary colours juxtaposed together create a visual harmony and emit a slower rhythm. On the whole, greens, reds, yellows and oranges, applied with varying degrees of thickness, dominate this composition. The blacks and whites (two non-colours introduced with grey in 1930), and the blues and pinks form dissonant colours that are rendered mobile by the brilliant touch of the oranges.
Bernard Dorival (Robert Delaunay, 1975) was one of the first to point out the relation between the composition of the Rythme. Joie de vivre paintings and the combination of distinctly formed circles in the Locmariaquer megaliths: after a trip to Carnac with his friend Jean Arp, Robert Delaunay had become passionate about the book by Marthe and Saint Just Piquard and Zacharie Le Rouzic entitled Corpus des signes gravés des monuments mégalithiques du Morbihan (1927). From this possible source of inspiration, Delaunay adopted a vocabulary unique to the non-figurative art of the 1930s, by progressively eliminating all traces of subject matter. In contrast with his earlier works, painted with a looser, more sensual style, here the touch is cleaner, the contours of the composition more stylised and the palette more restrained, only a few variations in tone remain. These characteristics bring Delaunay in line with those groups who were advocating geometric abstraction: Cercle et Carré, created in 1929 at the initative of Michel Seuphor and Joaquin Torrès-Garcia, Art Concret, born in 1930 under the direction of Theo van Doesburg, and finally Abstraction-Création, an association led by Auguste Herbin and Georges Vantongerloo from 1931 with which the Delaunays were briefly aligned from 1932 to 1934.
However the lyricism of this painting, far removed from any mathematical order, and the cosmic rhythm of the composition that has the appearance of a constellation of planets orbiting the sun, draw Delaunay away from the rigid tendencies of geometric abstraction. So much so that an attentive eye will detect several gaps in the composition and the distribution of colour planes, notably in the centre and in the lower section where the segments are not strictly delineated. For the painter, “Living abstract painting is not composed of geometric elements because the novelty lies not in the distribution of geometric figures but in the mobility of the rhythmically coloured constitutive elements of the work” (Du Cubisme à l’art abstrait, p. 95). While the blacks and whites create an unprecedented chiaroscuro effect, the rest of the palette offers rainbow colours dispersed in the gyratory direction of the disc, that produce a sensation of infinite movement and vertigo. The impression of lightness and fluidity that emanate from the painting come, according to the painter, from “the harmonies created by the circular forms in their contrasting and dissonant relations, in their severest and purest expression. A study of colour expressed by the discs, the only element of the painting that carries in itself, through colour, poetic expression, creates the atmosphere of the painting. Colour is seen in force, in quantity, in modules. The harmonisation of these modules creates rhythm, this is the introduction of time into the very structure of the painting. (We could compare the colourful Rythmes by Delaunay with, in music, Bach’s fugues… )” (Du Cubisme à l’art abstrait, p. 42).
The dynamic of the small discs superimposed against the large circular composition heightens the flickering effect created by the vibrant orange tones, and is also suggestive of the twinkling lights of the city, a modern subject matter that had fascinated Delaunay since 1910 as demonstrated by works such as La Ville de Paris (1910-1912, Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris) and the series Fenêtres (1912-1913) that specifically led the painter to abandon subject in favour of colour-form. The blinding, burgeoning rhythm of modern urban life would prove equally bewitching to Piet Mondrian when he arrived in New York (Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-1943, New York, Museum of Modern Art). The circular format of the composition also creates a game of mirrors with the gaze of the spectator, whom Delaunay wishes to place “in direct view of the agitation of the real.”
In 1930, Doctor Paul Viard, who had commissioned a group of decorative panels to adorn the dining room of his apartment at 100 Boulevard Pereire in Paris, asked Robert Delaunay to create a large composition for his drawing room. The room had already been decorated with a large carpet and cushions by Sonia Delaunay. The resulting canvas, Formes Circulaires (1930, private collection, Habasque n°271), combining the themes of the helix and the disc, heralded and already contained our Rythme. Joie de vivre in the right side of its composition. This work is emblematic of this new style of painting, refined and solar, abstract and lyrical. While Delaunay was experimenting with new materials and techniques, mixing paint with plaster, sand, cement and cork (see the Reliefs series), he also tried to work with monumental formats, a quest that had begun in the 1910s and had begun commonplace among Modernists in the mid-1920s: breaking free from the limits imposed by easel paintings, that were at the time confined to decorate middle-class interiors. Created for the general public to adorn large architectural structures, mural painting became synonymous with the new social art that would soon be promoted by the Popular Front government. This move towards murals and large-scale décor found its first complete expression in Rythme. Joie de vivre which was probably painted with a view to an ambitious artists’ commune project conceived by the painter, as the inscription on the reverse of another of the canvases from this series would suggest (Habasque, n°272): “les disques soleil, detail of la joie de vivre, composition for the wall of the valley of artists 1930”. In 1929, Delaunay had bought some land in Nesles-la-Vallée with some fellow artists and collectors (including René Delhumeau, Jean Arp, Marc Chagall, Joseph Delteil, Alberto Ciacelli, Emmanuel Gondouin, Albert Gleizes, Paul Viard and Jacques Heim), with the aim of founding an “Ideal Artists’ Village”. For the visionary painter, who had announced the era of the “Modern Age”, the village would have welcomed one hundred or so artists including “artisan-painters” living in a cooperative comprising a university campus, artists’ studios and houses, gardens and pavilions, a golf course, a hotel, a garage, an aerodrome, a retirement home, a public transport network, an open air school and a museum of decorative arts.
Through this audacious project, that never came to fruition, Delaunay reaffirmed the importance of the “profession”, an “absolutely new principle in all of the possible developments (posters, fashion, textiles, furniture, architecture, urbanism) [that] will regenerate or give life to all that is visual” (Du Cubisme à l’art abstrait, p. 202). Integrating the arts, experimenting with new materials and media, striving for a monumental and social dimension in art, Delaunay’s commitments at the dawn of the 1930s foreshadow and explain the central role he and his wife occupied in the program of large scale decorations for the International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques in Modern Life in 1937. It is no coincidence that the gigantic panel Air, fer, eau peint destined to adorn the Pavillon des Chemins de Fer (Musée national d’art moderne – Centre Pompidou) contains at the heart of its composition a combination of two of the Rythme. Joie de vivre, including our painting. “This art”, wrote Delaunay, “marries perfectly with architecture and can identify with it, it carries within itself the laws of architecture and of colour. A painting creating an architectural order and hanging on the wall, not making a window or a hole on the surface or the proportion of the monument, this is the definition of the characteristics of art and of its utility in modern life, its representation in new architecture…” (Du Cubisme à l’art abstrait, p. 42)
The culmination of the first Formes Circulaires, Rythme. Joie de vivre marks a happy synthesis between the quest for a refined form of abstraction, in which all direct allusions to the real have been erased, and a quest to liberate language, by transcending all dogma, a flourishing of form expressed by the sub-title of the series: "Joie de vivre". The artist’s new visual vocabulary consists of spatial dimensions, asymmetry, superimposed, perfectly circular discs, and geometric shapes that have been simplified but are by no means monotonous due to the contrasts of warm and cool colours and the rhythm and musicality of the composition. Filled with a renewed lyricism, the artist who claimed that “I have life in me and colour in the world (Robert Delaunay. Rythmes sans fin catalogue, 2014) delivers an optimistic vision of modernity, of the union of the new world and the old, in harmony with nature. This painting bears witness to Robert Delaunay’s faith and passion, to his desire to communicate with the masses, and above all to his need to create on a dynamic and exceptional scale, a need he had shared with his wife for twenty years, throughout which colour, a conveyor of rhythm and of life itself, was a source of inspiration and joy.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.