You really do wonder, sometimes, just how long some women artists have to be around before anyone takes notice. When asked by a callow journalist how she felt, in her 90s, at having recently become famous, the artist, Louise Bourgeois replied acerbically: “I’ve been ‘ere all along.”
That this current show at Tate Modern, by the artist, Sonia Delaunay, should be her first retrospective in the UK, despite her 60 year-long career, is surprising. Though not a household name, long before such things were au courant, she created a hallmark style as an avant-garde painter, and an innovative fashion and theatre designer. Anyone born in the 40s or 50s, whether they realise it or not, will be familiar with the influence of her abstract designs on post war fabrics. To be a woman artist during the height of modernism was something of a paradox. Modernism and its playground Paris certainly gave women new freedoms in terms of art education, living arrangements, travel and relationships. But art history has, despite inroads made in the 70s by feminist critics, been a narrative written largely from a male perspective.
Born Sara Élievna Stern in 1885, the youngest of a modest Jewish family from Odessa, Delaunay’s life reads like that of the heroine from a 19th century novel. Sent by her parents to live with her wealthy uncle, Henri Terk, she adopted the name Sofia Terk (though was always known as Sonia). Through her uncle she was introduced to the great museums of St. Petersburg, spent summers in Finland, and became familiar with European culture. At the age of 18 she went off to study art in Germany. Seeking to emancipate herself from her middle-class background she went in search of artistic freedom, reading books on psychology and philosophy, including the book of the moment, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. She also developed a passion – one shared with her contemporary the poet Rainer Maria Rilke – for all things Slavic, perhaps as a way to stay in touch with her childhood. And she started to sew.
In 1906 she went to Paris where she discovered, with the help of her first husband the homosexual gallerist Wilhelm Ude, the Fauvism of Matisse, Vlaminck and Marquet. In 1910 she married the artist Robert Delaunay and later had a child. Fluent in several languages she was in her element among poets such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendras, with whom she collaborated. Exiled to Portugal and Spain during the First World War the Dalaunays became friends with everyone who was anyone, from Diaghilev to Tristan Tzara. Ruined by the Russian Revolution of 1917, she proceeded to open Casa Sonia that sold not only decorative household items but fashion. It was a move far ahead of its time.
Such eclecticism may well have worked against her being seen as a serious painter. Yet her wonderful portraits of young Finnish girls show not only the radical influence of the Fauvists, with their dramatic colour that emphasises their primitive quality, but also her roots in German pictorial modernity. Muscular, raw and unflinching there’s more than a passing resemblance to the work of her young German contemporary, Paula Modersohn-Becker. In 1908 Sonia Delaunay painted Nu Jaune, an erotic nude infused with influences as diverse as Manet’s Olympia, Gauguin’s Tahitian figures and the provocative nudes of the German Kirchner. With its angular, almost pre-pubescent limbs painted in a sickly yellow and heavily outlined in a tubercular tinged turquoise, it must, at the time, have seemed quite shocking.
Sonia Delaunay had an instinct for the new. Her experiments with technique and material, would, with her husband’s involvement, lead to the development of the theory of Simultaneism – a utopian fusion of abstract compositions that had its roots in Romanticism and created an equivalence between emotion and colour. “Abstract art,” she claimed, “is only important if it is the endless rhythm where the very ancient and the distant future meet.” She used these abstract forms and shapes in both her paintings and her decorative objects, the elevation of which to the status of art, was seen as radical.
The innovations of the early 20th century are everywhere in her work. Electric Prisms, 1914, with its fragmented circles of colour, represents the pools of light from the new electric street lighting on Boulevard Saint-Michel. Movement, light, and energy are all there, too, in Le Bul Bullier, 1913, (the dancehall frequented by students, artists and hangers on) with its tango dancers flattened into curved forms swaying beneath the overhead lights. In her Parisian atelier Simultané, Delaunay was also producing avant-garde designs for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes productions, as well as clothes for stars such as Gloria Swanson. Excitingly this Tate show includes her huge murals: Motor, Dashboard and Propeller, created for the 1937 International Exposition in Paris, which have never before been shown in the UK.
This exhibition reveals that what made her truly innovative was that she did not create a false division between high and low art, between painting and decoration. She worked with poets to create stunning visual texts, made fabrics, wallpaper, parasols and tapestries, as well as strange baggy bathing costumes, with the same passion. She designed covers for Vogue and a bookcase for a student bedroom. Art and design permeated her life. She did not die until 1979 and was working until the end. The previous year she’d collaborated with Patrick Raynaud to design costumes for Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, playing at the Comédie-Française. In a documentary made by Raynaud towards the end of her life she said: “Everything is feeling, everything is real. Colour brings me joy”. It is fitting that, at last, her legacy should have been brought to a wider audience.
Until to Aug 9th, 2015
Simultaneous Dresses (The three women) 1925
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
© Pracusa 2014083
Yellow Nude 1908
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes
© Pracusa 2014083
Electric Prisms 1913
Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, Gift of Mr. Theodore Racoosin
© Pracusa 2014083