Sonia Delaunay Tate Modern Retrospective
This first UK retrospective at Tate Modern of the groundbreaking and extraordinarily varied sixty year career of Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979), finally rights a long standing wrong. Sonia Delaunay was a key figure in the Parisian avant-garde and at the very forefront of abstraction. Yet – until just recently – she has been marginalised in the familiar story of institutionalised sexism. This major exhibition rescues this important artist from the deadening shadow of her more famous artist husband Robert Delaunay, and constitutes a long overdue radical reassessment. At last Sonia Delaunay is fully recognised for her originality and creativity, not only in painting but also in the many applied arts that she successfully and influential engaged with.
Sonia Delaunay Paris – Crucible of Art
Born in Odessa and a Ukranian/Russian Jew by birth, Sonia Delaunay (née Stern, then Terk) first trained in Germany, then came to Paris in 1906 to join the emerging avant-garde. There she met and married the artist Robert Delaunay, and together the closely collaborating husband and wife team became a key part of the Parisian creative world. That cosmopolitan world included artists, poets, writers, musicians and other intellectuals, who together ensured that Paris became the beating heart of the newly emerging modern art scene.
The Delaunay’s astonishing experiments with colour at a time when cubism was largely monochromatic, placed them very much on the forefront of the avant-garde – which in 1912 actually meant something. What’s more, their fascination with colour was consistently pursued throughout their professional lives. And it was this that inspired their friend the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire – with whom the Delaunays often collaborated – to coin the term Orphism (1912). Named after the musician Orpheus whose music of love ‘transcends all national borders’, the idea was that, like the international language of music, colour could also be harnessed to speak to people. It’s perhaps no coincidence that about this time, Sonia was cultivating a friendship with Zamenhof, the inventor of the international language of Esperanto.
Robert and Sonia Delaunay preferred however to label their work ‘Simultaneism’, a utopian theory about how ‘Visual art was called to become the most important of all means of expression for future humankind.’ If the language of that ‘visual art’ was to be colour and abstraction, the method by which it would be harnessed was to be visual and instinctual rather than intellectual and learned. Sonia picked up this idea from Robert who insisted on a direct observation of nature. She soon threw away her Schopenhauer and Kant – and all the other books – and devoted the rest of her life, as this exhibition clearly shows, to honing her colour and abstraction skills to magnetic effect.
Sonia Delaunay Paintings – The Language of Colour
And it is the joyful and energetic shock of colour and dynamism of form – consistent throughout her long career – that first strikes you as you walk around this exhibition. Many iconic examples of these experiments with colour are brought together at Tate Modern, including Bal Bullier 1913 and Electric Prisms 1914. In 1972 – a few years before she died – she expressed her profound connection with colour:
‘Everything is feeling, everything is real. Colour brings me joy.’
But apart from its visceral delights, there was of course a deeper ideological relationship with colour: ‘The real new painting will begin when people understand that colour has a life of its own, that the infinite combinations of colour have poetry and a language much more expressive than the old methods. It is a mysterious language in tune with the vibrations, the life itself, of colour. In this area, there are new and infinite possibilities.’
What also stands out is her distinctively dynamic language of abstract forms that gave shape to her response to the fast changing modern world of technology and progress. One moment she’s celebrating the birth of the electric light bulb, the next it’s trains, planes and the Eiffel Tower. Her engagement with technology is particularly evident in her iconic Prose of the Trans-Siberian—the “simultaneous poem” jointly produced in 1913 with poet Blaise Cendrars. A long folded sheet, this work merges image and text to weave stories of the individual caught up in the heady throes of modern life. But she wasn’t just a reconstructed Futurist, as her worldview – though equally utopian – was much wider than the macho Italian Futurists’ fascination with smoke belching factories and mind bending speed. It was a worldview that embraced nature, the everyday life of people, their future, but also – rather critically – their past.
And here’s the curious paradox, that although Sonia Delaunay as a pioneer of abstraction has been annexed to modernism as one of its founders, her worldview was much closer to what we now call post-modernism. ‘Abstract art is only important’ she explained, ‘if it is the endless rhythm where the very ancient and the distant future meet.’ Her far-sighted vision predicated on modernity not modernism and seemed to predict the cul-de-sac at the end of a worldview that pointlessly sought to eradicate the past.
It’s one thing to say that Sonia Delaunay was a pioneer of abstraction – one among others – but this rather anodyne statement conceals a more exciting truth, that she is a contender for having produced the very first abstract work. Between the two wars, the art world was preoccupied in a very real contest to determine who had produced the first abstract painting. And this coveted prize was eagerly sought by various male artists. Wassily Kandinsky for example wrote to his New York gallerist Jerome Neumann in December 1935, to reassure him once again that he had painted his first abstract picture in 1911. Difficult to prove though, as he’d left it behind in Russia.
Mothers of Abstraction
Similarly, when Malevich produced his iconic Black Square in 1915, he believed it was the very first abstract painting and this moment is often described – even by the Tate at their recent retrospective – as ‘art’s zero hour’. Perhaps to ensure his innovation, Malevich even backdated the painting to 1913, justifying this revision on the grounds that the idea for the Black Square had emerged two years earlier. Unbeknown to Malevich however, far away in Paris, Sonia Delaunay had produced her first abstract work in 1912, a year before Malevich even conceived the idea. Of course we now know that another woman, a Swedish painter by the name of Hilma af Klint had created an abstract painting in her Stockholm studio in 1906. How ironic that sidelined and marginalised, these women, the unwilling subalterns of the art world, had themselves quietly invented an artistic theme of enduring importance – the twin mothers of abstraction!
If Sonia Delaunay has been overlooked till now because she was a woman, she has also been overlooked because she was perceived – at least in the Western mind – as having been preoccupied with ‘women’s work’. Her embroidery, patchwork, couture, textile creations, interior and furniture designs have – until recently – been largely dismissed as merely ‘decorative’. But apart from being intrinsically unjust, this was also based on a misunderstanding. That’s because Sonia Delaunay’s work has to be understood as a fusion of west European and Russian culture, both of which she embodied. She was never cut off from nor disinterested in her Ukranian/Russian past, and indeed the majority of artists walking though the Delaunay’s doors on their regular salon-Sunday’s were Russian. The Russian folklore revival among Russian artists meant that the medium of say embroidery, patchwork, tapestry, textile design etc was conceived of as being of equal importance to painting. Her espousal of such ideas prefigured the concerns of Bauhaus, with its aim to democratise art, giving equal weight to both the applied and fine arts. It also long prefigured our acceptance today of the equality of genius of say Alexander McQueen and Anselm Kiefer.
Sonia Delaunay Art Deco Doyenne
There is a thrilling room in the Tate Modern exhibition, full of vitrines – some of them in motion – encasing her highly innovative textile and fashion designs.
What emerges is that Sonia Delaunay was the inventor of abstract designs for fabrics, and her materials were the rage among fashionable circles in the Art Deco era. She made clothes for herself and her husband that they wore to the fashionable Bal Bullier ballroom where they went to dance the Tango – the latest craze to hit the Paris of their day. She made radical geometric waistcoats for grateful Surrealist poets. She dressed the Hollywood goddess Gloria Swanson and the fashionable socialite Nancy Cunard, as well as the wife of the Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer. She designed interiors in collaboration with the Paris architect Mallet-Stevens, and made an immersive art installation of their own apartment, that became a complete Simultaneous environment. She created costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, that was at the catalytic epicentre of modern art in Paris, as well as for Dadaist theatrical productions and the early films of Marcel L’Herbier. She created a Simultaneous fashion label and stitched poems on to Simultaneous clothes. Sonia Delaunay textiles were sold by the most exclusive department stores in the world. Jean Cocteau and Blaise Cendrars wrote about her fashion designs. Whilst many of her prints look forward to Op Art, her extraordinary scarves are known to have influenced the work of Paul Klee.
Art as Instrument of Revolution
Sonia Delaunay’s forays into fashion, textile and interior design can’t be understood as a capitalist attempt to commodify her work. She can’t be compared to the conceptualists of today like Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin, who take pride in such commodification as reflective of the superficial materialism of contemporary culture. She was in fact very uneasy about the commercial side of her activities. These activities must really be seen in the context of her utopian convictions. She really did believe that the world could be changed through the visual arts and her polymorphic activities were an utterly sincere attempt to fashion a brave and exciting new world grounded in Simultaneism. Why should the new visual language be imprisoned by a canvas frame or an art gallery? She took it out onto the street and into the real everyday world. This was the practical application of radical ideology. And one that was intended to bring about a revolution in culture and communication. Her idealism, sincerity and commitment are not dissimilar to those of her contemporary and compatriot Malevich. But then again she was a Russian after all.
When another of her contemporaries and admirers, the similarly polymathic Jean Cocteau was asked what title he would lay claim to: film-maker, poet, artist or author. He identified poetry as the unifying thread saying
“I have been accused of jumping from branch to branch. Well, I have, but always in the same tree.”
Her branches may have been painting, needlework, fashion, textile, interior and furniture design, but the tree for Sonia Delaunay was always Art, fertilized by the addition of her utopian ideology, Simultaneism. But risking deeply risible irony, I would say that failure is the inevitable fate of all dogma, whether it’s religion or atheism, communism or capitalism, modernism, Suprematism and its Black Square, or Simultaneism. Although Sonia devotedly pursued her beliefs with admirable dedication from one end of the 20th century to the other, she must – by the end – have privately conceded defeat.
Utopian disappointments notwithstanding, the long threads of Sonia Delaunay’s life-affirming and optimistic experiments in art reach out from her needlework – and all her other multifarious activities – to help rethread our world, even if it’s not quite in the way she had anticipated: the pioneering mother of abstraction, post-modernism (even as modernism was being born), Op Art and Bauhaus. But I believe she also prefigured the art theories of Joseph Beuys, who advocated taking art outside of the boundaries of the art system, and opening it up to multiple possibilities, bringing creativity into all areas of life. Like Delaunay long before him, Beuys battled the notion of “restricted entry” into the art establishment by removing all boundaries between life and art. And now at long last she herself has overcome false restrictions and entered our consciousness and visual imagination, as the innovative and inspiring trailblazer that she was.
The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay is curated at Tate Modern by Juliet Bingham, Curator International Art, with Juliette Rizzi, Assistant Curator. It was organised by the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris-Musées and Tate Modern, and was realised with the exceptional help of Bibliothèque nationale de France and Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou.
The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay (020 7887 8888, tate.org.uk until 9 August 2015) is the first UK retrospective to assess the breadth of Sonia Delaunay vibrant artistic career, from her early figurative painting in the 1900s to her energetic abstract work in the 1960s. This exhibition offers a radical reassessment of Delaunay’s importance as an artist, showcasing her originality and creativity across the twentieth century.
‘Sonia Delaunay’ Edited by Anne Montfort
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue. This beautifully-produced publication seeks to throw new light on the multi-faceted work of this prolific artist. The catalogue features over 250 illustrations, ground-breaking essays and a detailed chronology of Sonia Delaunay’s life and career.