TATE MODERN in London has made a concerted effort in recent years to give international modern female artists the recognition they have long been denied. None was a greater pioneer of abstraction, nor more overshadowed by a famous husband, than Sonia Delaunay. A dazzling new retrospective now restores the Ukrainian-Russian artist to her rightful place at the centre of the 20th century’s avant-garde.
From the early 20th century until her death in 1979, Sonia Delaunay painted, designed fabrics and clothing, ran shops as well as a textile design company, and collaborated with poets Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars and Tristan Tzara. She played gender games, was a polyglot, danced the tango, translated Kandinsky, and was a thoroughly modern woman artist in a man’s world. She was indomitable.
Born Sara Stern to a Jewish family in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1885, the artist lived with her well-to-do aunt and uncle in St Petersburg from the age of five. Intellectually well-versed, she studied painting in Germany and, by 1907, was working through the influences of Gauguin, German expressionism and the Fauves, whom she had seen in Paris. Her early paintings look as if they want to break free.
Her marriage to the gay German art critic and dealer Wilhelm Uhde in 1908 allowed her to settle in Paris. Uhde had visited Picasso’s studio in Montmartre and had seen his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He also showed the work of Henri Rousseau and gave Delaunay her first exhibition the following year, where she showed a tense, sexualised and confrontational reclining Yellow Nude, with coruscating blue shadows, the sinuous body offset against a background of juddering angular patterns.
n 1910, she divorced, to marry the aristocratic, avant-garde (the term meant something then) painter Robert Delaunay. She stopped painting, turning to needlework and embroidery instead. In 1912, she gave birth to a son. This might look like the typical story of the talented wife subsumed by the sovereign demands of the male genius. It isn’t.
Sonia Delaunay is now rightly seen as a stronger and more complex artist than her husband, who died in 1941. Although the Delaunays were regarded as collaborators in a single artistic project, the truth was never so simple. The major retrospective at London’s Tate Modern, which comes here from Paris, is wonderful – and something of a relevation. Far from retreating into the applied arts and stereotypical “women’s work”, Delaunay sought instead to extend art into the everyday and the broader material culture.
Her first purely abstract work seems to have been a sewn patchwork quilt, designed as a cradle cover, whose wonky rectangles and triangles of clear colour recall both cubism and Russian folk art. She made abstract book bindings and decorated a wooden box for her son’s toys. She also started making clothes and adapting the fashionable garments of the day into what she called “simultaneous dresses”, whose geometric shapes and slivers of coloured fabric accentuated the sway and movement of the body. These were paintings to be worn.
She made clothing for Robert and the two of them would step out to such burgeoning Paris nightclubs as Le Bal Bullier, quintessentially modern places alive not just with music but with electric light. Delaunay’s clothing subsumed their wearers in the overall atmosphere. Just like clubbers today, they could get lost in the music, the light, the rhythms and atmosphere. Tango and foxtrot were the grooves.
By 1913, she was painting again and her Electric Prism works – along with a frieze-like, four-metre-wide canvas depicting Le Bal Bollier – syncopated modern life. The dancers dance and your eye dances, too, caught up in the painting’s stop-start, relentless tango rhythms. That same year, she collaborated with Cendrars on the publication of a poem describing a trip from Moscow to Paris on the Trans-Siberian railway, in which Cendrars’s text is shifted this way and that by Delaunay’s colour. Her rhythmic, abstract images and patches of colour sway like the train, and give us flashes of the world hurtling by the windows. The whole thing is a delight. Typeset text and painted words vie with one another, and Delaunay used the optical effect of simultaneous contrast (by which the juxtaposition of different colours affects how we perceive them) with great energy, subtlety and vitality. She grasped the constant disruption and speed of modern life and gave it form.
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