Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern: A Life in Colour

Words by Lauren De’Ath
Animation by Lenna Stamatopoulou

In a move to redress the deplorable record of female talent headlining at international arts institutions, the Tate galleries have put together an admirable retrospective season of unsung creative women from Marlene Dumas, Barbara Hepworth, Agnes Martin and presently our subject, Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern. Since learning this, I have pondered over what Delauney would have thought of her inclusion in a program with such an overt feminist agenda. In 1978, shortly before her death, she was asked if she considered herself a feminist. ‘No!’ she replied. ‘I despise the word!’ Before adding, ‘I never thought of myself as a woman in any conscious way. I’m an artist.’

I should start by saying that I am a long-term Delaunay groupie and have had my eye on this show ever since its mastermind La Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris announced it late last year in the French capital. My love affair began in school, where Delaunay’s abstract use of colour and pattern were a slap in the face of a puritanical grammar education I grew up with; and her patchwork, deconstructed costume and print, a far cry from the moribund world of Butterick paper patterns. In short, she was and indeed is an eternal shot of colour, optimism and joy into the drab monoculture of the twenty-first century and her retrospective is long overdue.

Perhaps in lieu of this, the exhibition is a staggering twelve rooms; larger than the Lichtenstein previously committed to the same space, and with over 350 works on display. From her painted portraits of the Parisian prostitutes with whom she fraternised we learn of a young Sonia in transit in Belle Epoque Europe, flitting from a privileged upbringing in St Petersburg, onto Germany and finally settling in the artist’s paradise that is turn-of-the-century Paris. Of course, the rest of history.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in October 1917, Delaunay was cut off from her family and was forced to fend for herself. Working opposite to her beloved husband Robert, she begins to move towards applied arts, textiles and pattern design, taking on commissions for Vogue magazine, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and more commercial endeavours for Dutch and American department stores. Her famous ‘Simultaneous’ dresses and stage costumes are exhibited at the Tate in all their tactile, patchwork technicolour splendour; more like living sculptures than fashion garments. Up close we can see some are constructed with rubber and padding and are so thick they can stand upright without assistance from mannequins. The majority of the items have come from archives; few from private collectors, a case in hand as to the rarity and scarcity of Delauney’s work, but most probably a mark of how beloved they are to those few who possess a Delaunay in their collection.

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