Sonia Delaunay @ Tate Modern

What a fabulous show! The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay brings together over 100 paintings, lithographs, designs, fabrics, dresses and scarves and shoes, photos and films to present a sumptuous summary of the extraordinary life and art of a twentieth century great, Sonia Delauney.

Life summary

She was born Sonia Terk in 1885 into a cultured Jewish family in the Ukraine and as a young girl was sent to her uncle who brought her up in an atmosphere of art and galleries. She showed early promise, taking art lessons before going to Germany and on to Paris to study. She took to the bold anti-realistic colouring of the Fauves and, aged just 22, in 1907, was exhibiting her paintings alongside Picasso, Dufy and Derain.

Sonia married the French artist Robert Delauney and the pair applied new ideas of colour contrast, the notion that colours react off and against each other rather than referencing the modern world, creating a universe of abstract shapes and designs. (A notion fully explored in the National Gallery’s recent exhibition on Making Colour.) She and her husband christened this ‘Simultanism’ and the name stuck for decades; after the war she called her workshop after the movement, the Atelier Simultané and critics and journalists used it liberally to describe her designs.

But she didn’t only make wonderful bold paintings: she was already collaborating with avant-garde poets to create poem-paintings, poem curtains, poem doors ie objects covered in words interacting with her exuberant designs.

Sonia Delaunay, Yellow Nude (1908) Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes  © Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay, Yellow Nude (1908)
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes
© Pracusa 2014083

The first room contained a lot of these wild fauvist portraits all of which I really liked:

Sonia moved quickly from the wonderful portraits shown in the first room of the show, to develop the juxtaposition of vibrant colours in primary shapes, generally focusing on circles and sections, which was to dominate her vision for the rest of her very long life. Initially you can discern figures in them – for example the couples dancing at the fashionable Bal Bullier, depicted in a big rectangular painting – and the next few rooms fascinatingly show how images of dancing people are slowly absorbed into the design as her vision progresses to complete abstraction.

Sonia Delaunay, Prismes electriques (1914) © Pracusa 2013057 © CNAP

Sonia Delaunay, Prismes electriques (1914)
© Pracusa 2013057
© CNAP

But she was a world class designer as well. Back in Paris after the Great War Diaghilev, no less, asked her to design costumes for a ballet about Cleopatra, and this exhibition includes photos of the original production with the dancers posing in their costumes, and a couple of the costumes themselves.

She set up a highly successful boutique selling clothes and accessories of her own design. The centrepiece of the show is an enormous room showing scores of paper designs and then how they were converted into dresses, skirts, coats, hats, shoes, bags, scarves, swimsuits and a lot more, as well as numerous photos of models modeling them and some rare colour footage of high-class skinny 1920s ladies showcasing them.

In fact, it’s worth visiting the exhibition just to see the large number of brilliantly evocative, arty black and white photos which capture the style and energy of the Jazz Decade and show how seamlessly her art and design wasn’t limited to painting and high art, but overlapped and brightened every aspect of life.

Sonia Delaunay, Coat made for Gloria Swanson (1923-24)  Private Collection © Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay, Coat made for Gloria Swanson (1923-24)
Private Collection
© Pracusa 2014083

It may be a trivial detail but I noticed how most of her paintings and designs are roughly finished, deliberately leaving white patches between the loose edges of the colour shapes; but the manufactured clothes and objects can’t afford to be so ragged-edged: the shapes on the clothes and fabrics tend to be more precise and geometric. And so, because I like harsh Modernist lines, I found I often preferred the finished clothes to the looser designs and paintings.

My favourite items were a pair of turquoise court shoes.

Thus the exhibition not only features the rather wonderful dress she made for the impossibly glamorous Hollywood movie star, Gloria Swanson (made from 10 different shades of brown wool, shown above) but also a painting which features it in a very ‘simultanist’ context (below).

Sonia Delaunay, Simultaneous Dresses (The three women) (1925) Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid  © Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay, Simultaneous Dresses (The three women) (1925)
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
© Pracusa 2014083

Dropped into the middle of the show was one room dedicated to three enormous, really vast, wall-sized paintings created for the 1937 Paris Exhibition which had a strongly technical theme. They took two years to conceive and create and, although featuring the bright bold colours of her other works, are very unlike it in the draughtsmanlike precision of their depictions of bits of contemporary airplanes.

Sonia Delaunay, Propeller (Air Pavilion) (1937) Skissernas Museum, Lund, Sweden © Pracusa 2014083 Photo: Emma Krantz

Sonia Delaunay, Propeller (Air Pavilion) (1937)
Skissernas Museum, Lund, Sweden
© Pracusa 2014083
Photo: Emma Krantz

Along came another war when Sonia and Robert were forced south into Vichy France where Robert died in 1941. After the war she worked to promote his work and memory but continued to evolve her own style of abstraction. With the dominance of abstract expressionism she found herself feted as a pioneer, and again at the forefront of international art, with regular shows through the 1950s and her first retrospective in Germany in 1958.

Sonia Delaunay, Rhythm Colour no. 1076 (1939) Centre National des Arts Plastiques/Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Paris, on loan to Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille © Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay, Rhythm Colour no. 1076 (1939)
Centre National des Arts Plastiques/Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Paris, on loan to Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille
© Pracusa 2014083

Her post war works feature more black. One of the final rooms brings together gouaches from this period which seem darker and denser, not precise, exactly (note the shapes are still not ruler-straight and often feature crevices of white between the colouring); but the shapes themselves are more discrete and don’t bleed into each other so much as back in her early works.

She continued working, producing paintings, gouaches, illustrations, lithographs as well as tapestries, collaborating with writers and poets as she always had, producing striking and vibrant works into advanced old age. She made this when she was 83.

Sonia Delaunay, Syncopated rhythm, so-called The Black Snake (1967) Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France  © Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay, Syncopated rhythm, so-called The Black Snake (1967)
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France
© Pracusa 2014083

What a woman! What a life! What an inspiration!

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