You all know of my Sonia Delaunay obsession, and I was extremely excited to attend the opening of the retrospective of her work at Tate Modern last week.
Delaunay crossed disciplinary boundaries effortlessly, and it was wonderful to see her ease in various aesthetic / commercial contexts properly represented. Delaunay did not impose artificial disciplinary separations on her work, but strove to develop a continuous aesthetic across all the media in which she worked – an approach I find really inspiring. I was moved to see the cradle quilt (out of which one might argue her distinctive take on colour and contrast emerged) and her incredible painted boxes (much derided by short-sighted critics when they were first exhibited alongside her paintings). One of the aspects of her work I find most interesting is her commitment to transforming her own domestic space into a sort of spectacular lived artwork. For Delaunay, the boundaries between the intimate and public spheres seemed pretty irrelevant: only she could have created a curtain-poem.
However many times you look at an art-object in a book, nothing quite matches actually being there with it in front of you. This was the first time I’d seen Delaunay’s work up close, and doing so made me reflect on many things. I thought about circles and discs and just how important rotation was to her aesthetic (a swirl of dancers, a spool of film in a projector, the whizzing mechanisms of a car or aeroplane).
I began to really appreciate the difference in her materials and techniques between the early and later periods; I thought about how soft pinks and and purples really defined her palette in the teens and twenties, and then how grassy, mossy greens later dominated her work. Looking at the way she blended and overlaid shades in the remarkable canvases she produced in the years that preceded the first world war, I felt that for the first time I was beginning to understand what she was doing with colour — how colour had really become form for her.
The retrospective also lent me a renewed appreciation of Delaunay’s playfulness, her confidence, her joie de vivre. In the body of work included here – in these rooms full of objects alive with such a profound and continuous aeshetic energy – you can really feel that Delaunay was not in the least hesitant or self-questioning, either as artist or individual. Her approach to both life and work seems to have been basically to embrace the moment and just get on with it. This appeals.
I also confess to an, ahem, mild excitement at hearing myself talking about Delaunay on the audio guide to the retrospective. I’m proud to have been invited to contribute: it was one of those moments where my old life as an academic and my new one as a creator of textiles happily collided. So if you visit the retrospective and take the audio tour, you’ll also hear me talking about the garments Delaunay designed and made in the 1910s; the innovative patterns she created for Metz & Co, and her carpets (such as this one, produced in 1968).
This is a groundbreaking and breathtaking retrospective of this important, polymathic modernist. If you are in London, I can’t recommend a visit highly enough. The accompanying book – including several illuminating essays exploring Delaunay’s work – is also superb.
The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay
Tate Modern: 15 April – 9 August 2015