I finally saw the well deserved retrospective of Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern just before it closed. Much seems to be made of the rehabilitation of modernist women artists by Tate over the past year, but it seems unhelpful, almost regressive, to highlight their gender; one hopes they would have been deemed worthy of exhibition regardless. (Indeed I don’t remember a retrospective of Robert Delaunay’s work on this scale in my lifetime, so it’s hardly as if Sonia has been badly done by). Overlooking any curatorial bias, it is a well designed presentation of a remarkable artistic career.
Sonia’s early work, such as ‘Yellow Nude’ (above, 1908), shows her absorbing the profusion of modernist styles that burst forth in the early years of the 20th century. In ‘Yellow Nude’ the angular dark outlines and acidic colours of the German Expressionist ‘Die Brucke’ artists are a clear influence; in others, the cloisonniste colouration of early Gauguin and Emile Bernard jumps out, or the pure Fauvist hues of Matisse and his use of patterned textile backdrops in ‘Young Finnish Woman’ (above left, 1907).
Sonia’s interest in using an array of media and crossing the boundaries between art, craft, literature and performance can be seen from early on in her career. A patchwork cradle cover of 1911 and a painted coffer are equally effective manifestations of her experimentation with colour theory and an increasing abstraction of form, while her friendship with the poet Blaise Cendrars led to illustrated prose poems in 1913.
It is at this point, as the exhibition begins to explore her developing abstraction through an exploration of colour contrasts, that Sonia’s husband Robert should have made an appearance. The couple met in 1907 and married in 1910, and together evolved the theory – or two man movement – known as Simultanism (or later, Orphism). Nevertheless, the space is amply filled by Sonia’s large canvases, with standout works such as ‘Bal Bullier’ (above, 1912-13) and ‘Electric Prisms’ (below, 1914).
The Delaunays went to Spain when war broke out in 1914, and it was in Madrid four years later after the Russian Revolution cut off support from her Russian family that Sonia opened her shop, Casa Sonia. Here, the large gallery devoted to her textile and fashion designs is a treasure trove of original designs, fabric samples, garments, archive photographs and film. The designs themselves are deceptively simple but extraordinary in repetition, and must have made a bold impact in post-war Europe. The influence of her work with graphic design and her friendship with Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, are both evident.
Some of the monochrome designs seem to anticipate Bridget Riley’s Op Art by several decades. The wool-worked swimsuits however, though beautifully sewn, look rather impractical. Back in Paris, Sonia showed her designs at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925, from which Le Corbusier coined the term ‘Art Deco’ – and she appears an ideal figurehead for this modern and urbane style.
Considering her disregard of boundaries between the art forms, it should have been no surprise to learn that Sonia was closely associated with the Dada movement at this time, collaborating with its poets to produce ‘dress-poems’, their words incorporated within her dress designs. Costume and set design – of ‘Le Petit Parigot’ in 1926 for example – were a natural progression for an artist so allied to the performative element in art.
In 1937 the Delaunays were given the opportunity to work on a larger scale than ever before, producing panels to decorate the ‘Pavillon des Chemins de Fer’ and the ‘Palais de l’Air’ for that year’s Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris. For the latter, three enormous murals depicting a propeller (above), an engine and an instrument panel were created, here displayed in their own gallery where their colour still has the power to astonish. The combination of such bold flat colour planes with mechanical forms outlined against them strongly foreshadows pop art, especially calling to mind Patrick Caulfield and Michael Craig-Martin.
Robert died in 1941 in the South of France, and Sonia’s paintings after this blow returned to the abstract geometric forms of simultanism, though the palette alters. First lighter pastel colours emerge, then darker and more opaque pigment from the 1950s, and new elements are introduced as the concentric circles are diminished to make way for rectilinear forms and curving lines – the last most overtly in ‘Syncopated Rhythm known as the Black Snake’ (above 1967).
Considering how well suited her work is for reproduction it is astonishing that Tate has produced not a single postcard; Sonia, with her excellent commercial sense, would surely be dismayed by this failing.