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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Sonia Delaunay - painter, pioneer, perenially modern

There is nothing quite like a gallery visit for a visual jolt to the senses, and this post
Electric Prisms (1914)
celebrates the work of an artist whose work continues not only to  resonate among devotees of vintage Art Deco and fans of the current 1970s fashion revival, but also  those of us curious about creative inspiration. 

Like so many pioneers, the life of painter and designer Sonia Delaunay
is as fascinating as her work. But unlike her creative contemporaries, the young Russian art student who arrived in Paris in the early 1900s has not always been fully recognised as the key figure in Modernism she truly is. This is now boldly put right in a strikingly diverse exhibition at Tate Modern showcasing a career spanning most of the 20th Century. 

That diversity lies in her freedom of expression across art and design, inspired by what she regarded as the  relationship between abstraction and how we see the world. Although a painter first and last, there were no borders in Sonia's artistic output, and she moved easily from canvas to textiles in her aim to integrate art into every element of life. She worked across the applied arts, in fashion, costume, theatre and book design; in tapestry, stained glass and mosaics. And if her work remains startlingly modern today in it's dynamic geometric patterns and vivid colours; to the Paris of the early 1900s it was a shock to the system alongside that of Picasso and Braque. 

Born Sara Stern in 1885 to Jewish parents in Odessa, her humble beginnings were exchanged for a priviliged upbringing when she was adopted by a wealthy uncle who moved among the artistic and intellectual circles of St Petersburg . Fluent in four languages, and brought on trips throughout Europe, she translated all that she saw into her art. The early portrait paintings, with their bold lines and  vivid planes of colour,  show the influence of German Expressionsim (as a teenager she attended the Art Academy in Karlsruhe) and the Fauves.
Simultaneous designs (1925)
By 1906, she had moved to study in Paris and to a world where she further broke free from academic convention to fully embrace abstraction. She married her gay friend, art dealer Wilhelm Uhde, who staged her first exhibition in his gallery in 1908. After they ended their marriage of convenience, she married painter Robert Delaunay, who, like her, was influenced by Cubism and abstraction. 

Dress designs (early 1920s)

Both were fascinated by how perception of colour changes when placed beside varying tones, and they developed a theory of simultaneous colour contrasts which they called Simultanism. Her inspiration ranged from the Russian folk art of her childhood to the advance of technology. After the birth of her son in 1911, she made a patchwork cover for his cradle combining traditional Russian peasant design with abstract patterns. One of the large works in the Tate is Electric Prisms, a dynamic, pulsating swirl of colours depicting the new electric street-lighting rapidly changing 1914 Paris. She was equally fascinated by the colour and movement of the tango dance craze sweeping through the city in those pre-war years. 
Danseuse (1914)

During the war, the couple moved to live in Spain and Portugal. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 brought the funding from her family in Russia to an end. It was the catalyst in the setting up of Casa Sonia in Madrid the following year as a means to supplement sales of painting with fabric and fashion design. Several projects for Vogue followed, as well as a commission from her friend Sergei Diaghilev to design costumes for his Ballets Russes.
Multi-panelled coat for Gloria Swanson
On the couple's return to Paris in 1921, their apartment became a hub for writers and artists as well as Delaunay's studio and boutique. Her artistic reputation and her career blossomed as commissions for work flowed in, such as the multi-patterned coat she designed for film actress Gloria Swanson and shown as part of the Tate exhibition.

Then came the Second World War, followed by the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940. With her Jewish ancestry, the city was no longer safe for Sonia. Robert was also terminally ill. They travelled south to Grasse, staying with close and trusted friends, including her longtime pal, Wilhelm Uhde. 

Robert died in 1941. Sonia survived the war, and continued to bring her passion for abstraction to the applied arts. In her later years, she explored her lyrical geometric forms and dramatic colours in large scale paintings such as Syncopated Rhythm (the Black Snake).
Thoroughly modern Sonia
Sonia Delaunay died in her beloved Paris in 1979.

Artistically acclaimed and commercially successful - her fabric designs were greatly sought after by Liberty - this retrospective not only celebrates a central figure in early 20th century art but an inspirational woman whose work remains defiantly modern.

Catch the EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern, 15 April - 9 August 2015
Jigsaw are currently paying homage with their Delaunay competition for free tickets

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