Sunday, 19 April 2015

Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern

I saw posters for an exhibition of Sonia Delaunay's works in Paris when I was there in October 2014 but the exhibition opened the day I left so didn't manage to see it. That exhibition is now in London at the Tate Modern and opened a few days ago so I immediately went along to bask in her colours. I didn't know much about Sonia, although I'd come across her husband before (Robert Delaunay), so here was an opportunity to learn about this fascinating woman and see some of the works that have influenced avant-garde art movements throughout the last century.

As well as being an artists she branched out to design books for the dadaists, designed costumes for Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, designed fabrics for Liberty and designed clothes for the great and good such as this coat for Gloria Swanson. This makes it such a great exhibition to wander round since you have no idea what might be in the next room.

There are sketches of clothes in her special colours and designs as well as specific examples, including a couple of woollen bathing suits and a parasol. There are shoes, ties, shawls, designs for commercial adverts, a dress and waistcoat and all sorts. In one room there is a big display of three of her fabrics rolling round and round, an interesting way to exhibit her works.

She was, of course, also an artist of great perception and power and, on arriving in Paris in 1906 she was attracted to the Fauves and the first couple of rooms are dedicated to this phase of her work. There were several portraits of 'Philomene' and this was my favourite with it's bright wallpaper behind the sitter. There were also a few portraits of a Finnish girl with a similarly yellow-based face, experimenting with the contrasts of colour on the body and how the eye interpets it.

From these early figurative works Sonia soon ventured down a more abstract route, developing the concept of 'simultanism' with her husband, using contrasting bright colours to bring a new vibrancy and life to painting at a time when other painters were becoming increasingly monochrome.  One of my favourites of her move to abstraction is a painting called 'Bal Bullier', named after a ballroom Sonia used to visit to sketch the dancers during the tango craze in Paris. There are two versions of the painting on display and you can see the shapes of the dancers swirling and strutting across the dance floor. The painting is full of energy and life.

From there she moved further into abstraction, focusing on geometric shapes, particularly circles in magical colours.

She contrasts colours and shapes to give them a vibrancy, make them resonate against and with each other and they're wonderful mandalas to gaze into and see the colours bubble and glow. Her art theories extended into trying to make them sing, to represent music with shapes and colours and she began her 'Rhythm' series of paintings.

I can't help but feel her forays into design and the applied arts helped her to develop her work, adding beauty to everyday life. That's partly what art's all about and Sonia's brings added depth. The swirling colours of her fabrics and magazine covers must have helped her to see ever more clearly where she wanted to go. What happens when the fabric falls just like this and the colours sit together…?

After the Second World War Sonia started using darker colours and is noted as saying that her great achievement was to discover black as an expressive colour in its own right. Who but a great artist would say something like that? The colours of her works are deeper and richer, more striking and just as gorgeous. Her 1969 painting called 'Syncopated Rhythm, known as The Black Snake' illustrates this perfectly and represents three phases of her artistic development from right to left. It really is quite marvellous in the flesh.

Sonia died in 1979 at the age of 94. She was born in the Ukraine and grew up in St Petersburg before moving to Paris in 1906 to train as an artist and what a life she must have seen. And kept painting and designing. A true artist. She is one of only two living artists to be exhibited at the Louvre and was awarded the Legion D'Honour. I learned so much by seeing this exhibition and there is so much more to learn. I have found a new hero and I need to learn more about her.

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