Striking, colourful and innovative, the work of Sonia Delaunay has been uncelebrated for too long; Kyra Sian reviews the retrospective at Tate Modern
Sonia Delaunay was an artist, mother, designer, a polyglot and successful businesswoman, yet in Taschen’s comprehensive guide, Art of the 20th Century, she is referred to simply as “wife” of Robert Delaunay, who only influenced him in his later years when his paintings “became flatter, more ornamental”. Despite an impressive artistic career spanning 60 years, Sonia Delaunay fell victim to a patriarchal version of twentieth century Modernism that wrote women out of history or downplayed their contributions. In this new retrospective, Sonia Delaunay is finally being given the gallery space she deserves.
As the catalogue for Tate Modern’s current exhibition explains, when her work was exhibited at the German Salon d’Autumne in 1913 visitors were “baffled” by her objets d’art and critics dismissed her work as “decorative”. Yet it is precisely this multifaceted approach to art which took her abstract, geometric designs off the canvas and in to the world of fashion and interior design, which make her a central figure of the Parisian avant-garde.
Early on she proved a defiant character challenging the gendered expectations of patriarchal, bourgeois society by marrying the homosexual German art collector Wilhelm Uhde, which gave her the artistic freedom she desired free from financial constraints. It was through Uhde that Sonia met the love of her life Robert Delaunay, whom she married in 1910. At the outbreak of World War One Uhde’s art collection was confiscated by the French government, yet he continued to champion the arts, surviving World War Two under the shelter of the French Resistance leader Jean Cassou.
Sonia and Robert’s marriage was a union of creative minds – together they developed a theory of simultaneous colour contrasts known as Simultanism, whereby an image is composed out of colour and each colour looks different depending on the surrounding colours. This was later termed Orphism by French poet Apollinaire. Yet while the Delaunays invented this new pictorial language together, Sonia developed it in an original way and applied it to everyday life.
Delaunay was influenced by les Fauves, considered the first avant-garde artistic movement to flourish in France, whose prime concern was to liberate colour. Through her dynamic patterns and bold use of colour she created a language with which to communicate her vision of the world. Her work responds to a city in flux, while the Delaunay trademark concentric circles celebrate technology and the female form. Her interest in abstraction was closely linked to the female body.
The exhibition begins with her early interest in portraiture. On entering the exhibition the eye is immediately drawn to ‘Nu Jaune’ (Yellow Nude, 1908), the striking image of a prostitute with jutting hips, in contrasting yellow and turquoise with a heavily rouged face and downcast eyes. In most of these early paintings the subject looks away from us so that we are forced to map the sitter’s emotional state and body language through the variations in colour and tone.
In later work she liberates the body from the rigid black outline of ‘Nu Jaune’, instead depicting the female form at harmony in her surroundings – whether it’s women shopping at a bustling Portuguese market or Flamenco singers on stage or lovers dancing the Tango in Parisian dancehalls. Delaunay’s rippling concentric circles envelope these bodies which appear in a perpetual state of dynamism, not constrained by their environment or gender but fluidly moving through it. Delaunay transcribed the sounds and sights of the city with a palate pulsating with colour. ‘Le Bal Bullier’ (Bal Bullier, 1913) depicts the heady scenes of Parisian night life at the ballroom, where artists, writers and students congregated. In it one can make out the curvaceous figures of couples as they dance across the expanse of canvas under the glow of electric globe lighting.
Delaunay’s switch from traditional portraiture to abstraction saw her responding to the technological advances of her time, including the introduction of electric street lighting. The sequence ‘Prismes Électriques’ (Electric Prisms, 1913-1914) celebrate a city spiralling out of the shadows of the past with a new found vigour. Figures emerge under the radiating disks as if moths drawn to a flame. This optimistic response to technology would be fully articulated in the 1937 Paris International Exposition. Her mural paintings for the Palais de l’Air inject the dull mechanical structures of an aeroplane with an intensity of colour and the cogs and propellers are drawn with a neat precision.
During this time she designed clothes for herself and her husband. Her simultaneous dress of 1913 created a dynamic silhouette by patching together fabrics of varying shapes. I can imagine the greens, golds and purples shimmering under the ballroom light, signifying her transformation into a “living simultaneous sculpture”. Through fashion, Delaunay dissolved the boundaries that reserved art for galleries and private collections. For Delaunay art could be worn, should be enjoyed in public spaces (she decorated a theatre, Dadaist bookshop and apartments) and should weather with use – on show are a toy box and cradle cover, lovingly decorated for her son.
The Delaunays’ home became a blank canvas on which to test out their theories of Simultanism. The Delaunays weren’t interested in washed out pastel colours; they were searching for bold colours which could capture the rhythm of life around them. It’s this use of contrasting or simultaneous colours to intensify their paintings which make this exhibition such a treat for the eyes.
A particularly stunning piece on display is her collaboration with poet Blaise Cendrars: ‘La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France’ (‘Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France’, 1913). Here her arcing coloured stencils respond to the language of Cendrars’ poem about an imaginary journey from Moscow to Paris taken by a young French prostitute named after Joan of Arc. Colour is intensified and diluted to interpret and reflect the emotional undercurrents that run throughout the poetic text seeping into the gaps between the stanzas.
In the largest room of the exhibition Delaunay’s early preference for needlework demonstrated in the ‘Foliage embroidery’ of 1909 comes to the fore in meticulously embroidered coats and accessories made using traditional craft techniques rooted in Russian culture. Her Russian identity “positioned her to attempt a unique redefinition of gender expectations within the eruptive field of the Parisian avant-garde.” Liberated from the corset, her cascading patterned dresses allow for the freedom of movement she captured so often in her paintings.
In 1925 Delaunay registered Simultané as a brand and her sophisticated designs were sold internationally by Metz & Co, a luxury department store in Amsterdam. Arthur Cohen describes how Delaunay’s modern, abstract designs offered a “liberation from the frills and flowers of conventional 1920s fashion.” There is an overwhelming abundance of pattern, dynamic zigzags and mosaics of interlocking squares and diamonds. Her designs feel entirely modern and exciting – particularly when the fashion world of today can’t seem to shake the perpetual trend of spots and stripes.
The final rooms of the exhibition situate Sonia Delaunay as an artist absolutely dedicated to her craft – right up until her death in 1979 she was reinterpreting previous forms, experimenting with colour and perfecting the language of abstraction which her and her husband had pioneered decades earlier.
Yet despite the efforts of the Tate there are still critics bemoaning the absence of Robert Delaunay’s work to compare the two – as if he hasn’t occupied enough of the limelight. It is a shame that so many great female artists are effaced from a history they fully participated in – their achievements attributed to the men they worked alongside. Yet at long last women are re-entering the canon of Modernism and Delaunay arrives with a brilliant vibrancy and energy which is sustained throughout her career and carries you through the exhibition. Sonia Delaunay was an originator and innovator across all mediums she chose to work in – she made no distinction between life and art – living fearlessly and fully in both. No longer consigned to the footnotes of history, she is free to influence a new generation of abstract artists and feminists alike.
The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay is showing at Tate Modern until 9 August 2015.
The images all show work by Sonia Delaunay and are used with permission – all are © Pracusa 2014083.
Image 1: Sonia Delaunay ‘Electric Prisms’ 1913, Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, gift of Mr. Theodore Racoosin. A piece of colourful abstract art, with an image made out of circles and lines and a rainbow of colours.
Image 2: Sonia Delaunay ‘Yellow Nude’ 1908, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes. A painting of a reclining woman wearing only stockings (or socks or boots?) and a hair ribbon. She is yellow; the background is a colourful pattern of purples, oranges and green.
Image 3: Sonia Delaunay ‘Syncopated rhythm, so-called The Black Snake’ 1967, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France. Abstract art that is mainly colourful blocks but with a few more fluid, darker lines running down it.
Image 4: Sonia Delaunay ‘Simultaneous Dresses (The three women)’ 1925, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Three women with no facial features or hair, drawn abstractly, with different skin colours and three similar but different coloured dresses; the background is colourful and patterned, mainly with checks.
All quotations apart from those in the first paragraph are from the exhibition catalogue.