Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) was an artist who broke with convention in all sorts of ways. A leading figure of the Paris avant-garde, she rejected the hierarchy that placed painting above other art forms, working with fashion and textiles, set design and interior decoration, architecture and advertising. The current exhibition at Tate Modern explores this beautifully.
Her early figurative paintings show influences from Gauguin and German expressionists such as Ernst Kirchner. Her first abstract work (1911) was actually a textile – a patchwork cradle cover for her son Charlie. Combining traditional Russian peasant techniques with modernist abstract design, this piece seems to have marked a turning point.
Together with her husband Robert, whom she had married in 1910, she developed the theory of simultaneous colour contrasts, which they called simultanism. Her paintings from this period show her moving from figuration towards abstraction: Le Bal Bullier represents embracing tango dancers as rhythmic repetitive swirls of colour and light.
When the First World War broke out, the Delaunays moved to Spain and Portugal. In 1917 Sonia decided to focus on the applied arts, partly because the Bolshevik revolution meant that she no longer received money from her family in Russia. A year later she opened Casa Sonia in Madrid, selling fashion, accessories and home furnishings. It was a huge success, and when they returned to Paris in 1921 she continued to produce fabric designs, which she showcased at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts.
Sonia employed a team of Russian women to manufacture, knit and embroider her products, but she kept her hand in. For example, she invented an embroidery stitch called point du jour, which emphasised the surface movement in her zigzag designs.
For textile enthusiasts (and maybe others), room 6 is the highlight of this exhibition. The space is filled with fabric swatches, designs and an extraordinary range of garments, including embroidered shoes, knitted bathing suits. Not all of them pop with colour – I particularly liked a simple blue and white linen day coat.
What I found interesting is that while Sonia’s abstract paintings are full of circles and curves, her textile designs have more geometric blocks and zigzags. I wondered if this was related to the practicality of producing curved patterns when knitting or embroidering, but who knows?
The economic crash of 1929 led Sonia to close her business, and she returned to painting. She and Robert were invited to contribute to the 1937 Paris Exhibition, and three of the murals she created for the Palais de l’Air are on show here. As well as her distinctive combinations of vibrant colours, they manage to incorporate quite technical drawings of machine and engine parts, a propeller and instrument panel.
Robert Delaunay died in 1941, but Sonia continued to work, often revisiting old themes in new media, including gouache, tapestry and even mosaic. She died in Paris at the age of 94.
Sonia Delaunay runs at Tate Modern until 9 August 2015.