Robert Delaunay, Eiffel Tower (1911), oil on canvas, 79-1/2 x 54-1/2″; courtesy The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
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“Been there, done that” may or may not be the adage that best summarizes the climate of cultural life in the waning days of the 1990s. It does, however, capture the ennui felt by many who concern themselves with the world of contemporary art. As hackneyed as it has become to link events to the turn of the millennium, such a moment does lend itself to historical overview. Given the status quo in the art world, how could one not be glum? As artists endeavor to trample aesthetic boundaries which have long ceased to matter, the illusion of a viable avant-garde is nevertheless maintained. Such a pursuit is a self-perpetuated scam and old news. Yet the need to grasp on to an avant-garde is a vestige, however diminished, of the original modernist impulse. “Shock” and “innovation” have come down to us—and not without reason—as attributes of the twentieth-century artist. But does anyone believe that what is deemed shocking and innovative today constitutes a revitalization of art?
Those wanting to experience the electricity that results when a genuine shift in artistic practice occurs are referred to the exhibition Visions of Paris: Robert Delaunay’s Series at the Guggenheim. In Delaunay’s paintings, it is possible to feel the unruly, trailblazing spirit of the avant-garde. One may justifiably wonder whether it is possible fully to appreciate the freshness these paintings had for someone seeing them in 1910. After all, Delaunay’s work has been, as Auden put it, “tidied into history.” Yet viewers with an eye for painting will find them evocative of an era when radical art could be created and discussed without aspersion. This aura of daring is due, in part, to the associations we bring to prewar Paris, a city Delaunay depicts here as both fractured and immovable. But it is the pulse of the paintings themselves that recalls the heady atmosphere of early modernism. They put us in touch with a world whose possibilities were boundless and bewildering.
Or so it seemed. That this world was short-lived—and, in retrospect, so optimistic as to be naïve—should not put us off the rigorous pleasures found in Delaunay’s art. Visions of Paris focuses on five years of the artist’s development, from 1909–1914. It is divided into four sections, each concentrating on a particular body of work: paintings depicting the church of Saint-Séverin, views of Paris as seen through a window, the Eiffel Tower, and, finally, the “Windows” series. The exhibition stresses Delaunay’s role as a pioneering modernist. One is led in a straight line from the self-described “destructive” period to the all-over synergies of Delaunay’s near-abstractions. We see him take apart the art of painting and put it back together again. It’s an exciting trip. Yet the exhibit’s dialectical approach is constricting. By the time we reach A Window, Study for Three Windows (1912), the final painting in the show, we want to see where Delaunay will go with his experiments in color. It doesn’t happen. Instead, Delaunay the innovator is given precedence over Delaunay the artist. The former should not be dismissed, for his influence was crucial to many artists, among them Kandinsky, Chagall, and Klee. But Visions of Paris stops short of a full account of the artist’s work.
If the show posits Delaunay as a hit-and-run innovator, it also reveals a tenaciously inquisitive painter. Delaunay’s was an intellect primed for the uncertainties and pace of the twentieth century. Like many of his generation, he worked his way swiftly through several stylistic approaches. His knack for penetrating and acting upon the revolutionary changes in art, whether it be pointillism or Cubism, is astonishing. Even when he’s dismantling—or, rather, restructuring—pictorial conventions, his grip is sure. These are ferociously lucid paintings and they register the foment of the era. Even the work of the greater artist Fernand Léger, currently the subject of a retrospective at MOMA, can’t match Delaunay’s paintings for conveying their historical moment. Léger’s gusto, albeit refracted in the power of the machine, is part and parcel of the man. Delaunay, in contrast, was less a personality than a conduit through which the modern era passed. The work is piercing, but distant. Delaunay inspires respect, not passion.
The artist that emerges from Visions of Paris is a problem solver, not a fully rounded painter. This distinction should not be taken as derisive: as a problem solver, Delaunay was brilliant. Think of him as an investigator of form, confident and focused. The Saint-Severin paintings, for example, are subtle and dramatic exercises in the reordering of pictorial structure. Delaunay thrusts the space of the painting forward while depicting the Gothic church’s receding interior. They are strange paintings, hypnotic in their distortions. In the Eiffel Tower series, the title structure is simultaneously celebrated and razed; Delaunay was, one feels, taken by the spectacle of the tower’s architectural sweep, but skeptical of its pretensions. His splintered spaces acquire a jagged sculptural presence. These (in the artist’s words) “visions of catastrophic insight” smack of, if not sarcasm, then irony. “This is your icon of modernity?” Delaunay asks as he expertly shuffles the tower into the ether. Today the paintings may strike us as a mite dated, but they do retain their brawn some ninety years on. The hulking Red Eiffel Tower (1911–12), for instance, has the propulsive muscle of a power forward in the N.B.A.
The Eiffel Tower paintings are the best known of Delaunay’s works, and there is much about them that is definitive, both iconographically and formally. But it is the City series that comprises his strongest efforts. Here Delaunay paints Paris as seen from a window, complete with curtains that “frame” the vista. The architecture of the city is worked into an irregular grid delineated by pointillist brush strokes. The grid tempers Delaunay’s compositions, but the space of the paintings nevertheless shifts, condenses, expands, and tilts, sometimes precariously. The underlying geometry of Paris isn’t revealed so much as it is agitated, all but losing its foundations. Looking at the tousled buildings of The City No. 2 (1910), we can understand why Delaunay was dubbed, by one critic, as “the first Expressionist.” Yet there isn’t an iota of angst to be found in the paintings; this is an artist preoccupied with rhythm and space, not navel gazing. In the most thrilling (and complex) of the series, The Window on the City No. 3 (1911–12), Paris is broken up into a kaleidoscopic field of pattern. The painting flickers and blurs, a light-filled mosaic with an almost cinematic cadence. Steadfast and unstoppable, The Window on the City No. 3 is a masterpiece. If it isn’t one of the hallmarks of twentieth-century art, then it should be.
The largest part of Visions of Paris is given over to the Windows paintings. Delaunay described this phase of his work as “constructive” and, after the turbulence of the earlier work, they suggest a grand synthesis. Bordering on abstraction, the Windows series remains tethered to (and anchored by) the slope of the Eiffel Tower. It is with this series that Delaunay’s use of vibrant color comes to the fore, as does the notion of “simultaneity.” In his essay “Light,” Delaunay wrote that simultaneity was “the living movement of the world” and “the color rhythms which gave birth to Man’s sight.” Predicated in the color theories of Michel Eugène Chevreul and the spatial interrogations of Cubism, simultaneity connoted (broadly speaking) the dissolution of particular experience into a harmonic, universal rapport. Exemplary and ambitious goals, yet something vital was lost in Delaunay’s “representative harmony.” In a letter to Kandinsky, Franc Marc wrote that Delaunay “relies too much on complementary colors and prism effects; but his things are definitely talented and … full of great intentions.” He’s right: the Windows are fine paintings, but somewhat pat. They are less a synthesis of Delaunay’s ambitions than a compromising of them.
The one glorious exception is Windows in Three Parts (1912), a painting that has the sparkling translucency of a stained-glass window. Here Paris unfolds like an intricate piece of origami, its rhythms as orchestrated and organic as nature itself. The conceit of simultaneity sounds trite on paper, but with Windows in Three Parts it makes beautiful sense. That is as it should be. But is Visions of Paris the best way to present Delaunay? While succinctness is a virtue, particularly in an age of obfuscation, I wish that Visions of Paris were less streamlined and more inclusive—in other words, a full-scale retrospective. Admittedly, the name “Delaunay” does not have the marquee value of a Picasso or a Matisse. We can hope, however, that some intrepid curator will have the gumption to follow through on this exhibition’s trial run. Such an exhibition may simply confirm that Delaunay was little more than an accomplished and important technician. Or it may reveal something more. In the meantime, devotees of twentieth-century painting have an exhibition that is well worth repeated visits.
© 1998 Mario Naves
Originally published in the April 1998 edition of The New Criterion.