For numerous decades, the most famous part of Sonia Delaunay was her surname. Traditionally overlooked alongside her more celebrated husband Robert, she has long found herself bracketed under the Delaunay ‘brand’, now synonymous with the origins of Simultanism. But as a key figure during the avant-garde movement of Paris, a new retrospective at the Tate Modern uncovers the astonishing breadth of Sonia’s talents in her own right – and her colours are fully awoken.
Born as Sarah Stern to Jewish parents in 1885, she had a privileged upbringing among the intellectual bourgeoisie of St. Petersburg. Seeking a more unconventional path – ‘a vibrant life abroad’ – she attended art school in Germany and then in Paris, as and where the first Fauvist exhibition was heralding a new direction for art. Having decided to become an artist, she entered a marriage of convenience with the art dealer Wilhelm Uhde (again, always defined by her husbands): he was homosexual, but helped her set up her first exhibition. She later married Robert, the start of an artistic collaboration which shaped the modern movement, and painted quite literally until the rest of her life – she died at 94, found with her hands still covered in the paints she had used that morning.
In fact, for an artist whose work lives and breathes the modern aesthetic, it’s remarkable that such an exhibition has taken so long. Her art epitomises and celebrates the spirit of the times. The dazzling lights of Paris in Electric Prisms, for instance, captures the incredible energy of city life at the turn of the twentieth century. In Palais de l’Air, her abstract depiction of a propeller and its machine parts reflects an excitement about new technology. Even in the Yellow Nude of 1908, her contrasting of bright colours and dark contours creates the sense of rhythm and vibrance that characterised the age.
Everywhere in Sonia Delaunay, from her early sketches to her later works, colour is the force of life – she called it ‘the skin of the world’. Along with Robert, she was fascinated by how the positioning of certain colours alongside one another in their paintings could build a dynamic movement. Part of their work was influenced by 19th century chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreu, who developed a theory that our perception of colours would alter depending on how they were contrasted or aligned. Rhythme, 38 and Syncopated Rhythmn illustrate Sonia’s experimentation with these ideas, and are iconic of what became known as Simultanism.
Her paintings of flamenco dancers also demonstrate how Simultanism changed the representation of form and movement in the world of art. ‘It was a tradition to represent a dancer frozen in a chosen position, like a snapshot,’ Sonia states. ‘I broke away from this tradition by superimposing postures, blending light and motion and scrambling the planes.’ As in Flamenco Singer (1916) and Flamenco Dancer (1916), the motion of the dancers is depicted in concentric circles and their different layerings of colour.
But while Simultanism is a constant presence and influence in Sonia’s work, the most remarkable thing about her oeuvre, which this exhibition more than affirms, is its sheer diversity. Beyond abstract painting, her art is multifarious, spanning textile and costume design, pottery, interior decoration, architecture and her own fashion houses. She established a clothing range, making outfits for American socialites and French film stars; she built the stage sets for films, theatre productions and the avant-garde Ballet Russes.
Her work also expands into the everyday, as she sought to incorporate art into every area of contemporary life. She created clothes for herself and Robert; she designed the furniture in their home, from gouache wallpapers to lamp shades made of variously cut fabrics to create different lighting effects; she even redecorated her Citroen B12 in 1925. When her son was born in 1911, she created a patchwork quilt for his crib – a century later it hangs in the Tate Modern, now known as Cradle Cover, the design that prompted Sonia’s first experiments with the arrangement of colour.
‘For me there was no gap between my painting and what is called my “decorative” work,’ Sonia says. Indeed, to make such a distinction would be to undermine her almost omnipresent influence on contemporary art, and more importantly, her passion for creativity. But true to the manifestos of modernism, she’s also an artist who closes the gap between art and life, blurring the boundaries between separate forms and devising a more authentic representation of experience. For Sonia Delaunay, art is not just a skill or a profession: it is a mode of living which she fully embraced.
It’s ironic that such a progressive female personality has, since her death, been held back by the kind of gender-oppressive forces she transcended during her own lifetime. This is what is so welcome about the Tate’s exhibition – that it succeeds in celebrating the ‘Sonia’ without the ‘Delaunay’. It’s a tour de force of talent, reinstating the unique importance of an artist who remains utterly modern, and empowering her legacy with even brighter colours.