Written by Ludovica Colacino,
images sourced from Tate.
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Sonia Delaunay is an exhibition currently featured at Tate Modern, and it will be displayed until the 9th of August. A glance around the first room is all we need to be sent back in the history of arts, to the first decades of the last century when the post impressionist movement was seeing its last years. Sonia Delaunay lived in the old Russian Empire (Ukraine today) and in Germany before settling in Paris in 1905, finding her greatest inspiration in the style of Paul Gauguin and the fauve (from the movement of “fauves” – which translates to “wolves”) Henri Matisse. At the beginning of her painting career she was still strongly bounded to the impressionist movement, starting with the use of figurative art: her inclination to modern art was strong already, but we can see how she retained strong references to the human features at first, through a series of portraits. As we can see in Yellow Nude (1908), the colours are unnatural and the lack of an highlights and of black make the painting appear overall flat – this evident lack of perspective may be easily related to Henri Matisse’s bi-dimensional style.
Her art could be intended as the point of conjunction between post-impressionism and the cubism movement. The walk towards abstraction was characterized by a great change of her style: the brush strokes became more unorganized and far less compact as they were during the time she painted portraits, and also, Sonia started working with ink and its thin texture, rather than just oil paint. Looking at her progression we understand how she wasn’t scared of experimenting various techniques: she is indomitable as she starts sewing patches of fabric and creating new geometric patterns, which, at first, don’t seem to follow a precise order – but they were actually thought as studies of colours. The portraits started to lose their facial features and begun to follow the concentric and rhythmic pattern of vibrant colours, which could be considered Sonia’s fingerprints in the world of graphic arts – as it will be present until the end of her career.
Her success hit its peak when she started designing textiles: Sonia created her own fashion signature: Simultané – which brought her to international popularity and demand until 1929 due to the economic crash, but she kept undertaking commissions anyway. Her husband Robert Delaunay, even though he was a modernist painter himself, didn’t seem to be open to the international popularity his wife managed to acquire. Nevertheless, he was invited with Sonia to contribute to the decorations of “The International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life” which was intended to celebrate international scientific innovations in Paris, year 1937. It took them two years to design and paint large scale panels; during the exhibition, the judges rewarded them with a golden medal (unfortunately part of those panels have not survived, but three of them are still intact and displayed in Room 9 of the exhibition in Tate Modern).
When Robert died, she introduced a large and invasive use of black, significantly darkening her palette. Her already geometric patterns became even more sharp and precise, as she does a stronger use of symmetry. Although the vibrance of the colours remained pretty much the same, we can see how her style became more rigid. This important change will accompany her in her later years, until her death in 1979.
This Tate Modern exhibition doesn’t just consider her artistic career and skills, but it also explores the cultural surroundings of Sonia during the first half of the 20th century.
Polyglot, creative, open minded – and a dear friend of the then influential writer Émile Zola – Sonia managed to hit the national and international audience even through war times – showing how untameable and determined she was. Personally speaking, I strongly recommend this exhibition to those who are interested in the history of art, design, fashion, and painting.