The Surrealist writer René Crevel described a visit in the early 1920s to the Parisian apartment of Sonia and Robert Delaunay. What he discovered, was, well, half the avant-garde of Europe engaged in – or at least admiring – modernist interior decorating and soft furnishings. Crevel encountered the composer Georges Auric, paint pot in hand, embellishing the walls with musical notation. One of the doors was decorated with a poem by the Russian Vladimir Mayakovsky, in person. The architect Walter Gropius and artist Jean Arp were among those who often dropped by. This vignette, it turns out, is an excellent introduction to The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay, now running at Tate Modern in London until August 9.
The Delaunays were the golden couple of early modernist Paris. They even had a patented family mini-movement of their own, Simultaneism. This, first developed by Sonia in 1909, was a way of using contrasts of rainbow colours and shapes as a way of creating abstract rhythm and movement.
Both the Delaunays, therefore, are suitable subjects for reassessment; and particularly Sonia who despite her long life – she lived to be 94 – and enormous output has tended to be overlooked. The surprise of the Tate show, however, is that her true achievement wasn’t in painting. It was the cushions, textiles, dress designs, book cover and boxes that really stand out.
The truth is that neither Sonia nor Robert Delaunay was truly in the front rank of abstract painters. Sonia had said more or less everything she was going to, as well as she ever would, in the large Prismes électriques (Electric Prisms) of 1914. This, inspired apparently by new street lamps on the Boulevard Saint-Michel which created chromatic haloes around the lights, already displays her trademark arrangements of concentric coloured discs interested by straight lines.
Flamenco Singers, known as Large Flamenco, 1915-16
© CAM – Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian
She continued to work variations on this formula at intervals until her death in 1979. Consequently, the exhibition has one major defect: it is full of large quantities or fairly similar and generally not very distinguished paintings. Tate Modern inclines to one size fits all when it installs shows. Consequently, Sonia Delaunay’s work is displayed in the same suite in which such giants as Barnett Newman, Warhol, Miró and Matisse/Picasso have previously been shown. The space feels too big for the subject.
On the other hand, there is one substantial upside to the exhibition. Wherever possible, the organisers have put emphasis on her work in the decorative arts. And when they do, the whole experience takes off. Paint was not her ideal medium, it turns out. Textiles were. Early on you come across the “cubist” cradle cover she stitched together in 1911 for her infant son, Charles – later a noted writer on jazz and founder of the Hot Club de France. This is a patchwork of bits and pieces of fabric: olives, russets, pinks, blacks, purples; it looks a bit like a painting by Paul Klee, but made out of cloth. And it jumps out at you because it is sharper, more interesting in texture, and just better than the surrounding paintings.
It’s like that all the way through. Quite close to the end, there is a carpet Disques (1968) hanging on the wall in a row of pictures. In composition, it’s much the same. But it’s much richer and more unusual in what you might call visual feel. It would be fabulous on the floor. The large central space of the exhibition is devoted to the designs for fashion, and textiles that she made especially in the 1920s.
When the Delaunays heard about the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, they cried for joy. But it created financial problems for them, because they depended on an allowance from her rich Russian relations, when then ceased. Consequently, to make ends meet, she launched herself into the world of couture, registering “Simultané” as a brand, opening a boutique and a fashion house. Far from being a sell out, this enterprise – which lasted until the crash of 1929 – was the high point of her career.
This part of the exhibition is great fun, with films of 20s fashion models, an extraordinary “simultaneous” display cabinet contrived by Robert to show her textiles in motion, and the textiles themselves. It’s a distinct come-down to walk on into rooms of abstract paintings of discs.
Sonia Delaunay’s affinity with crafts and textiles might have been to do with her Slavic roots – she was born to a Jewish family in the Ukraine, then brought up by a wealthy uncle in St Petersburg. In the Russian avant-garde, which was influenced by the British Arts and Crafts movement, needlework ranked as high as painting. Also, there are moments when Delaunay’s textiles bring to mind works by later woman artists - such as Tracey Emin’s embroidered blankets.
There is something most attractive about the idea, espoused by Robert as well, that avant-garde artists might not just make works to be shown in galleries and collections, but affect the whole look of life: the way people dress, the interiors they live in. Sonia Delaunay’s efforts to do just that provide the best moments in this exhibition, and the main reason to visit it.