When Sonia Delaunay wrote her autobiography in 1978, aged 93, she titled it ‘We Shall Go Up To The Sun’. Jack Watkins visits a new exhibition at Tate Modern, devoted to this artist and designer whose works radiated colour and life.
In the infant decades of the last century, progressive young artists almost everywhere were eagerly hitching a ride on the back of Cubism. It was a revolutionary style for those of an intellectual bent – all angles and odd, elongated shapes and distortions. Many people outside avant garde art circles simply looked on with puzzled, pained expressions, but for young painters who wanted to stay at the forefront of the game, Cubism was, for a considerable time, very much the In Thing.
There was one big problem with much of this new stuff, though. Arresting, if baffling, though much of it was, you sometimes had to wonder if the painters had left their palette boxes at home. In concentrating on form, they seemed to have forgotten about colour. You were probably in danger of being labelled a philistine or an intellectual chump if you suggested you didn’t care much for Cubism in highbrow circles around this period, but, honestly, weren’t some of those canvases a teensy, weensy bit drab?
Step forward Sonia Delaunay, whose blazing celebrations of light and colour are the subject of a thorough new exhibition at Tate Modern. This formidable talent was both an outsider and an insider, the daughter of a foreman in a nail factory, as far removed initially from West European fashionable art circles was it was possible to be, who went on to become a fixture in the Parisian design scene until her death in 1979. In Britain, she’d have been a Dame by that time. In France she just plugged gamely on, writing an autobiography whose title, Nous irons jusqu’au soleil (We Shall Go Up To the Sun) seemed to sum up her life philosophy.
Born in 1885, her parents were Jewish and her name at this time was Sarah Stern. At the age of five, however, she was adopted by a wealthy uncle, and took on what was the second of three names in her youthful years, becoming Sofia Terk – though known then, and for ever afterwards, by the diminutive, Sonia. Suddenly introduced into intellectual circles in St Petersburg, her interest in art grew rapidly, and by the time she was twenty-one, she had studied it in Germany, before moving on to continue her learning in Paris.
In this pivotal era in the development of European art, it’s apparent from early works in the Tate show that she gravitated quite heavily towards the work of Paul Gauguin. The portraits of friends and family she produced in this period were bold and blocky. Some look as if they could have been carved from wood. They are simple, yet incredibly effective. They’re easy to like and admire, yet probably would have been disparaged at the time for their roughness.
In 1907 Sonia met Robert Delaunay, marrying him three years later, thus leading to the last of her name changes. The union brought about changes in her art, as well. Like her husband – hailed as one of the early masters of abstract painting – she increasingly focused on abstract subjects. Equally, she ditched the customary art hierarchy which placed painting at the apex. Instead, she began her patchwork fabric constructions which were to become integral to her later clothing and interior designs. In 1909 she produced a lovely piece of wool on canvas embroidery called Foliage – all subdued greens, browns and serenity, and unusually muted in its effects for her – but her first abstract patchwork was a coverlet made for her new born son in 1911. This quilted piece was inspired by the traditional needlework she remembered seeing in the homes of Russian peasants.
Sonia’s portraits had already demonstrated her predilection for colour, and in Robert, she’d met a like soul. “In Robert Delaunay I found a poet. A poet who wrote not with words but with colours,” she later reflected. Together they developed the idea of Simultanism, the notion of experimenting with colour contrasts and shapes, and if you haven’t a clue what that was supposed to mean, join the club – but it did look nice. It even led to a ‘simultaneous book’ being published in 1913 in which an attempt was made to express spoken words through colour. If it was a commercial flop – ask yourself how many books have you ever seen which express spoken words through colour? – but let’s at least mark it down as a noble try.
Sonia’s interest in movement and modern life fitted in well with many of the other ‘isms’ of an age which proliferated with them. Her Electric Prisms (1914) explored the effects of electric lighting, something we take for granted now, but which was a radical new invention back then. Her observations arose from watching the streetlights on the Boulevard Saint-Michel – haloes of reflected lights, like a serious of mini-suns with prismatic spectrums of colour. Spending some years in Portugal and Spain, her interest in prismatic designs was carried over into her paintings of flamenco singers, Large Flamenco and Small Flamenco, to remarkable effect. The idea was to make the colours ‘sing’ through alternating contrasts which evoked the syncopated rhythms of flamenco.
By the 1920s, the Delaunays were back in Paris in an apartment furnished with Sonia’s designs. Photos show it as a low-ceilinged, ‘modern’ sort of place, with zig-zaggy curtains which repeated the patterns on her own garments. She was now a clothes designing businesswoman with a boutique, a workshop and a fitting room for customers. Among the Tate Modern exhibits is a coat she is thought to have designed for Gloria Swanson, embroidered in ten different shades of wool. Sonia’s belief was that fashion items must be made entirely by hand, and she employed a team of Russian embroiderers, while marketing her products as wearable art pieces.
The show even includes a flickering old colour film from 1925. How timelessly stylish her designs, as well as her models, seem… and then Sonia’s head appears briefly at the end, a rather ordinary-looking woman smiling shyly from behind an array of fabrics.
Her contacts seem to have been all embracing. She even worked with the Dadaists, producing costumes for their performances, as well as ‘dress poems’ and ‘curtain poems’. Then, after she was forced to close her business when the Depression of the 1930s hit, she and Robert took part in an International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life, in Paris in 1937. She designed radiantly coloured large-scale murals for the show’s Air Pavilion, depicting propellers, engines and control panels. One perceptive journalist wrote of the Delaunay’s works in the show: ‘The abstract character of their art symbolises the advance of a technique increasingly removed from man and nature. But its dynamism affirms faith in a progress that transcends man’s being crushed by the machine.’
Robert Delaunay died in 1941 after years of ill health, but Sonia just went on and on, holding faith with geometric abstractions, even if sometimes it seemed the colours were now a little darker. She was celebrated with a major exhibition in New York in 1955, and then in Germany in 1958. She illustrated poetry books, and produced tapestries which were manufactured by the prestigious workshops of Gobelin and Pinton. When she died in 1979, aged 94, she had long been recognised as the essential reference point for younger generations of abstract artists, and Tate Modern have paid ample tribute to her enduring legacy with this meticulously curated exhibition.
‘The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay’ is at Tate Modern until 9 August
see www.tate.org.uk for more information