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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2002


A real sound and light show

Special to The Japan Times

Ever go to an exhibition and think, "Hey, I can do that"? If the passivity of being an art gazer is getting you down, you might want to join the kids enjoying the latest innovation at the Urawa Museum of Art, a hands-on drawing room.

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The works of Sonia Delaunay, including the 1946 "Rhythme colore" (top) and "Composition, No. 127a" (above) of 1943, inspire viewers to produce their own artistic response, as this drawing (below) by a young visitor to the Urawa Art Museum.
News photo

After viewing the current display of colorful abstracts by Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), you can get your creative juices flowing by picking up pencil, crayon, scissors and glue to express whatever it is you've just absorbed. Or maybe, like one little girl, you'd just prefer to draw your favorite bunny.

This is the second time the museum, which serves a younger demographic than most in central Tokyo, has provided this excellent service. The first time was the "Forms and Movements in 20th-Century Art" exhibition last year, which featured such giants of abstract art as Kandinsky, Mondrian and Jean Arp.

Sonia Delaunay doesn't quite occupy the same heights in the abstract-art pantheon, but, in partnership with her husband Robert (1885-1941), she played an important part in the early history of abstract art -- and has even been cited as an inspiration of '60s Op Art, which used geometric patterns to create optical effects, such as the illusion of movement.

In 1912, two years after they married, the Delaunays, along with other artists dissatisfied with the austere intellectual aesthetic of Cubism, founded a new movement. The French Symbolist poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) soon christened it "Orphism," a reference to the lyricism they tried to bring into their art through the use of shimmering chromatic effects. (Orpheus was a poet-musician fabled in Greek myth for his lyrical powers.)

Although Robert has traditionally been viewed as the prime mover in their partnership, and was indeed the more technically gifted of the two, Sonia, reviving memories of the brightly-colored peasant costumes and folk art of her native Ukraine, played an equal role in developing their avant-garde theories of color. They saw color as the dominant element in the creation of form and equated it, as Kandinsky did, with sound and music.

Sonia also devoted herself to the application of their aesthetic beyond the realm of fine arts to the decorative arts, expressing her vivid geometric shapes not only through paintings, but also through her influential designs for stage costumes, fashions and fabrics. Her affinity with fabric designs is revealed most strongly in "Eclipse" (1970), a large wool hanging with warm, glowing colors that are enhanced by the fuzzy texture of the material.

The brightness and simplicity of her vibrant blocks, circles and rainbowlike rings of color are ideal for stimulating the creative urges of children. Curator Mami Yoshimoto explains: "When children see classical art it's like a lecture at school -- especially in Japan. It's very reverential. But when they see modern or abstract art, their feelings can respond more freely. Because Sonia designed clothes as well, teenagers also feel she is very close to their lives."

Delaunay's work, despite its apparent simplicity, remains enigmatic. It is perhaps even willfully esoteric. Although she was a Jewish fugitive who survived World War II in Vichy France, there is no indication of trauma in her work. All we get from this period are bright, baffling, optimistic splashes of color like her fruity "Composition, No. 127a" (1943).

The titles of many of Sonia's works employ musical terminology, such as the impressive "Colored Rhythm" (1946). If a computer program could translate these sweeping curves and colors into notes and harmonies, this work actually looks like it would make quite a listenable piece of music. Barring that you can always use your aural imagination.

Perhaps, to get the best out of this exhibition, you need to be a synesthete -- someone whose senses are scrambled to the extent that they can "hear" colors -- or an impressionable child with a thirst to scribble.

"Sonia Delaunay -- La Moderne" runs till April 10 at the Urawa Art Museum (048) 827-3215, a 7-min. walk from Urawa Station, Saitama. 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Mon. & Feb. 12, open Feb. 11. Admission 840 yen, students 520 yen, junior high and elementary school students 210 yen.

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