Let me start from the beginning. I never travel into the center of London by car, who, in their right mind, would? The public transport system, outside of rush hour, is more than adequate. Anyhow, I find myself with a walk (over the Millennium Bridge) from St Pauls’ station to the Tate Modern…if you haven’t done it I recommend it. As you step onto the bridge you are faced with the drab, but imposing, brick edifice that is Tate Modern, venture further, look to the left and the skyline is dominated by ‘The Shard’ ! Soaring above all around it but look further down the Thames and there you view the magnificent Tower Bridge; take a moment to savour it then turn 90 degrees to look from whence you came, lo and behold the beautiful (in the sunshine) dome of St Pauls’ Cathedral in all its splendour. Oh what a joy to be in London when the sun shines and the chatter of tourists assaults your ears….’Enough of the perma-tanned travelogue!’, I hear you shout…
Sonia Delaunay, where to start? Before we get into her art I think a soupcon about her life would be in order, trust me; it is worth it !
She was born in 1885, in Russia, of working parents and Christened: Sasha Ilinitchna Stern. She was however, coveted by her aunt and uncle and went to live with them. Her uncle, Henri Terk, was a successful lawyer and took the young Sasha on extended European holidays, introducing her to art galleries.
Eventually the Terk family adopted Sasha, against her mothers’ wishes, and she changed her name to Sofia Terk. During her schooling a teacher was impressed enough by her latent artistic talent that he recommended her to an art school in Germany and in 1903 she began her studies at The Academy of Fine Arts in Karlsruhe. After two years, in 1905, she moved to Paris where she enrolled in The Academie de la Palette in Montparnasse. This, as they say, is where things took an interesting turn…
She became disillusioned with the strict, critical teaching at The Academie and spent more and more time in galleries, viewing, and being influenced by, the post-impressionists, including Gaugin, Van Gogh and Henri Rousseau. Gaugin’s’ influence can be clearly seen in her early, figurative work, as shown below.
Yellow Nude, Sonia Delaunay, 1908
During her gallery travels she met a man, Wilhelm Uhde, a gallery owner of German descent who also happened to be homosexual. She married him in 1908, ostensibly to appease her parents who were pleading for her to go back to Russia, but more as a ‘marriage of convenience’, which suited both parties. A very avant-garde step for a woman in those times. Little is known of their ‘relationship’ but her first exhibition was in the gallery owned by Uhde.
A regular visitor to the Uhde gallery was the Comtesse de Rose, whose son, Robert Delaunay, caught the attention of Sonia. Shortly after meeting they started an affair, which was understandable, given her marital circumstances. Uhde and Sonia divorced in 1910 and, whist already pregnant with Roberts child, they married in the November, the child being born the following January.
‘Cradle Cover’ Sonia Delaunay, 1911
It’s fair to say that this was no ordinary woman; she had behaved in a fashion more redolent of the 1960’s than early 1900’s. The partnership with Robert Delaunay was not only an emotional connection but also one of great artistic vision and innovation.
This exhibition charts her artistic life in great detail, the remarkable collaborations between her and Robert and her multi-faceted abilities through all mediums. There is a great amount of differing works on display, a testament to her virtuosity.
The patchwork quilt, ‘Cradle Cover’, made for the birth of her child, was I believe the catalyst for everything to come. Sonia was fascinated by the interaction between the shapes and colours, similar to Seurat used in ’Pointillism’. She and Robert began to explore this genre and created, between them, ‘Orphism’, a melding of Cubism and colour, often called Orphic Cubism.
The quilt, made in traditional Russian style, was clearly the start of the drive for Robert and Sonia, who previously had been more figurative in her work.
Their combined efforts eventually morphed into, what Robert decided, was ‘Simultaneism’, abstract composing of vibrant colours and definitive shapes. An iconic example of which is ‘Electric Prisms’
Electric Prisms, Sonia Delaunay, 1914
Sonia however, was far more than just an artist; she was fervently interested in designing all forms of geometric shapes and turning them into fabrics, clothes and shoes. With her customary drive and talent she designed her own fabrics, for Metz & Co and Liberty. Taking this a step further she also uses the geometrically radical fabrics to produce scarves, shoes, hats and swimming costumes, latterly designing costumes for The Ballet Russe.
Buoyed by this success she began her own daring clothing designs. And, in 1918 opened a boutique “Atelier Simultane’ in Paris, throughout this period she designed many pieces from sketches and paintings.
Simultaneous Dresses (The Three Women) Sonia Delaunay, 1925
During the 1920’s Sonia as very much in demand, she designed and manufactured clothing for some very notable figures. The most high profile of these was Gloria Swanson, a movie star of high regard.
Coat for Gloria Swanson, Sonia Delaunay, 1923/24
With Robert alongside, Sonia developed more and more designs for fabrics. She also branched into furniture, rugs and ‘installations’.
The most impressive of which, in union with Robert, was the display for her materials; the vertically rotating display was designed by them both to highlight the fabrics and her patterns. Common place now but highly innovative at the time.
Sonia Delaunay was a visionary who took her inspiration from the world around her, this was a ‘Golden Age’ of technological advancement and she tapped into that. Although criticised for moving away from ‘fine’ arts toward ‘applied’ (she had to keep herself, her husband and child) she was accepted as an artist in her own right.
Robert, unfortunately, died in 1941 and their last accolade together was an invite to provide works for The International Exhibition of Arts and Technology. Sonia produced a tryptic celebrating the advancement in airplanes: Propeller (shown at the beginning), Aeroplane Engine and Dashboard. To see these huge paintings in the same room is breathtaking.
Aeroplane Engine, Sonia Delaunay, 1937
This exhibition is full of Sonia’s Fabric designs, artworks, clothing, shoes and film of models showing her creations. There are some two hundred plus items through twelve rooms. To do justice to them all would tempt me to ramble in a small book and bore you rigid with my enthusiasm for Sonia and her works.
The woman is a prolific, multi talented creative with drive to succeed. I am enamoured and have been for some years, I recommend this exhibition to any one with a slight interest in art, design, innovation or fashion. A distinct line through Sonia Delaunay and ‘modern’ clothing designers can be drawn through her influence on them.
She is finally, after 100 years, getting the exposure and recognition she deserves.
The Sonia Delaunay exhibition runs until 9th August.
Visit this feast for the eyes before it’s too late !