The Fashionable Life and Work of Sonia Delaunay

A tour of the new Sonia Delaunay exhibition at the Tate Modern in London not only proves how important an artist she was at the beginning of modernism in Paris, painting alongside the likes of Picasso and Matisse a little over a century ago. It also demonstrates how all-encompassing her work was, including clothes and interior design, fabric prints, needlework and collage, as well as a kind of self-promotion that, today, seems remarkably prescient. Juliet Bingham, curator of international art at the Tate, explains how Delaunay not only helped found modern art, but also transcended it.

How did the exhibition come about?
It is a collaboration between Tate Modern and Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. It opened first in October in Paris, and has now been adapted for the Tate. Sonia is better known in France. For us it was the first major opportunity to present her as an individual artist, and to examine every aspect of this pioneering artist who is so often shown alongside her husband, Robert Delaunay.

Reviewers of this show have argued that Sonia’s work is perhaps greater than her husband’s. Has recent art history misrepresented her?
Not misrepresented exactly, but she was a very versatile artist and worked across many different forms. She’s become part of the art-historical canon as one of the founders of modernity, but throughout her life she reinvented modernity and transcended it. Working as a woman at that time, and working in decorative art, Sonia baffled the critics. They didn’t know how to respond to her. She also dedicated part of her life to promoting Robert’s work, after his early death in 1941. So she put her own practice to the side for a while. Maybe some of those elements contributed to the later recognition of her work. Still, she was the first female artist to be given a show at the Louvre, in 1964.

Rythme Coloré, Sonia Delaunay (1946)

Aside from painting, Sonia was also a fashion and interior designer. Tell us a bit about that.
In 1914, she and Robert were traveling in Northern Spain when war broke out. They decided not to return to Paris and based themselves in Iberia for about seven years. She set up her own boutique in Spain in 1918 called the Casa Sonia. She met avant-garde artists during this time, but she also expanded her practice to clothes and interior design, taking commissions for people’s homes. In a way, this was an extension of the more private work she had been doing in Paris. She had made a cradle cover for her son’s bed, for example. She continued to work like that, setting up a boutique to sell her designs.

Did other artists of the time look down on decorative art?
I’m not sure. Certainly, Sonia pre-dated some of the concerns of the Bauhaus, who were really trying to merge art and everyday life. She also drew on her Russian roots, by using a folkloric tradition like needlework techniques, or applique or collaging, to express her abstract ideas that she was also developing in painting in other media. She also took risks in promoting herself as a living work of art.

A ‘simultaneous’ dress by Sonia Delaunay next to a Citroen B12, the first car she designed (1925)

So, some artistic impulses began very early on, while other influences came later?
Yes. She was raised by her maternal uncle in St. Petersburg and from there was introduced to the Russian intelligentsia. She was incredibly well read; she traveled widely in Europe and came to Paris in 1906, one year after the major Fauvist exhibition at Salon d’Automne, where Matisse and Andre Durain showed their works. She was inspired by those painters, but also by important works by Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Henri Rousseau.

Is this when she came into contact with the art critic and patron Wilhelm Uhde?
That’s right. Wilhelm Uhde befriended Sonia, encouraged her practice, and introduced her to a wide circle of avant-garde artists. He also offered Sonia her first exhibition in 1908. Uhde promoted Braque, Derain, Picasso, and the Naïve artists; he was gay and about ten years her senior. They actually entered into a marriage of convenience, so that she could stay in Paris and not return to Russia. She was quite progressive. It was through Uhde that she met her future husband Robert Delaunay. Together they developed their own artistic ideas, which they called Simultanism.

Still from the film Le P’tit Parigot (1926), costumes by Sonia Delaunay

Could you explain the ideas behind Simultanism?
Well, the critic Guillaume Apollinaire called Sonia and Robert Delaunay Orphists, though he also put a lot of artists under that umbrella term. Sonia and Robert rejected it. Instead, they described their art as Simultanism, which had to do with theoretical ideas that Robert was looking at — new scientific ideas about color theory. Simultanism was about using simultaneous contrasting colors, as an activating force in modern life and modern painting. Sonia was less theoretically involved, but was perhaps more intuitive. Experiments in color were very important to her. She took these ideas of simultaneously contrasting colors into the real world — into her paintings, but also her interiors, book bindings, and clothing designs. In the exhibition there’s a dress she made in 1918, the first simultaneous dress, to go to parties at places like Paris’s Magic City pleasure garden.

It’s unusual seeing a pair of embroidered court shoes next to a more formal oil painting. Do you think Sonia saw the artworks as superior to the decorative pieces?
No, I think she saw them on an equal plane. She was expressing her ideas across media. She wouldn’t have made the distinction that one was necessarily more valid than another. Early on in Paris, when she and Robert were making their home in the city, conceived of their home’s interior as a kind of artistic environment. She covered it in white linen, and she embellished lamp shades with different cut fabrics, so that they would cast the light in different ways around the room. In Spain, too, she worked with interiors, and in 1921, when they moved back to Paris, she created another three-dimensional environment in their home, which became a great salon.

Court shoes by Sonia Delaunay (1925)

Do any of these interiors survive?
No, but the show has lots of documentary photography, because Sonia knew how to control her image. She was very careful as to how she marketed herself. She was her own brand in some respects. She set up her Casa Sonia boutique in Spain in 1918, and Maison Sonia in Paris in 1925. She also registered Simultane as a brand name and, through her workshop, made products under these names. She also worked very closely with certain photographers, like Germaine Krull and Florence Henri, to stage shoots of herself and her models, always against juxtaposing colorful backgrounds.

Most of the later pieces are abstract works, but there’s one room of huge figurative collages, assembled from images of airplane propellers and such. Tell us about this.
Those date from 1937 and were a massive commission for the International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris. Robert Delaunay was invited to oversee two huge pavilions, one devoted to air travel and the other devoted to railways. The exhibition was staged in part to boost trade. Robert and Sonia were given a collective of out-of-work artists to work on their project. Sonia sketched the designs for them. They are more realistic and diagrammatical than much of her other work, but you still see her style in the pieces and her use of color. She gifted the aviation panel to the Skissernas Museum in Lund, Sweden, in the 1960s. It came to the show rolled and it was really interesting seeing the work re-stretched.

Three Women Dressed Simultaneously, Sonia Delaunay (1925)

The exhibition also features some great fabric designs, including scarfs and ties made in Delaunay prints. Where did all that material come from?
Many came from the very large collection for her drawings that belong to Metz and Co, the department store in Amsterdam. Metz commissioned maybe 200 or more designs that were used for print silks or curtain fabrics. These were very well archived by Metz themselves. They have original sketches, swatch books, and so on. Everything is really beautifully preserved. There has been quite good academic work on those materials.

How did your view of Sonia change in curating this exhibition?
I think I was just impressed by the breadth of her practice, and her consistency in expressing her ideas. She contributed to the first wave of abstraction and then later to the second wave. She was very supportive of a younger generation of artists, even if she felt her influence wasn’t always acknowledged.

Sonia Delaunay, April 15 – August 9, 2015, Tate Modern, London

Thanks to Phaidon