Review: Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern

Art Art & Lit

Sonia Delaunay’s work crackles with the electric charge of modernity. Hers is a world of garish streetlights, Paris ballrooms, high-speed trains, the frenetic crash of a new urban life. Born in Russia in 1885, Delaunay spent most of her working life in Paris before her death in 1979; in what seems a strange oversight, she has only now been given a full retrospective in the UK.

After floating through a room or two of early-career paintings (some with muted, Fauvist palettes), I was struck by a bright advertisement from 1913, boldly proclaiming cities’ names: ST PETERSBURG! PARIS! NEW-YORK! BERLIN! Delaunay makes modern life glimmer and pop as few others can. Her interest in modernity drove her to experiment restlessly, rejecting traditional artistic strictures; the curator, Juliet Bingham, tells us that her work with fabrics offered a way to escape conventional academic restraints on art. In a captivating early piece called La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, Delaunay collaborated with the poet Blaise Cendrars; the work presents Delaunay’s stencilled abstracts alongside Cendrar’s vivid modernist verse on a single very tall, narrow ream of paper. In a typical display of ambition, Delaunay ensured that the print run of 150 copies would, laid end-to-end, stretch to the height of the Eiffel Tower – a symbol of modernity that the artist found inspiring enough to put on her headed notepaper even when she was living in Spain and Portugal during the First World War.

Delaunay worked in many media, as this exhibition delights in showing. The influence of advertising and graphic design can be seen in her paintings, but also in her designs for the cover of Vogue magazine; a 1911 patchwork cradle cover for her son Charles is by her own description “cubist”, but was made according to a traditional technique from her native Russia. Most captivating are Delaunay’s designs for clothes, where the sharp edges of her distinctive abstract designs are brought to bear on the smooth contours of the human body. This contrast is shown strikingly in one room, where a painting called Robes simultanées (Les trois femmes) is exhibited next to a dress of Delaunay’s design that closely resembles one of the patterns in the picture.

Delaunay makes modern life glimmer and pop

This room, called ‘Fashion and Textiles’, dominates the exhibition. There are rolls of fabric, items of clothing, photographs, a film projection, and an extraordinary reproduction of the ‘Vitrine Simulané’, a sort of dynamic display case for patterned designs that Delaunay’s husband built in 1924. The fabrics, which span from the early 1920s through to the 1960s, eloquently illustrate the way an aesthetic can trickle from rarefied intellectual and bohemian circles into high fashion, then mass production; the same abstract geometry that animated Delaunay’s canvasses from 1914 can be found adorning a scarf woven in 1969.

Delaunay’s work in textiles is brilliant and fascinating, and could almost certainly form an entire exhibition in its own right. But I can’t help wondering if, here, it might have been better for the exhibition to focus on a few representative examples; instead, the room is crammed with more than a hundred items, which is pretty hard going for the viewer, especially given the scarcity of explanatory notes.

This is not the only aspect of the expensive exhibition – £12.70 for concessions – that is open to question. Its approach is neither consistently chronological nor thematic, but walks an uneasy line between the two; the first four rooms cover Delaunay’s work from 1907 to about 1920, but then the curation becomes more thematic, with timescales overlapping. A room called ‘Rhythm and Abstraction’ shows a range of work from 1938–46, but is immediately followed by ‘Paris 1937’, which centres on the International Exhibition of that year. And after the enormity and excitement of some earlier selections, the room given over to Delaunay’s gouaches (1953–66) feels almost banal.

By and large, this exhibition offers a useful overview of an artist whose long working life and consistent versatility make her difficult to reduce or simplify. It may not make much sense of Delaunay’s work, but at least it will help a large number of visitors to discover it.