Sonia Delaunay 

Tate Modern

By Prof. Francesco Carelli, Milan

Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979) was a key figure in the Parisian avant-garde, spanning in painting, fashion and design. Tate Modern presents the first  UK retrospective  of her extraordinary  artistic career, from her early figurative painting in the 1900s  to her energetic abstract work in the 1960s. This exhibition  offers a  radical  reassessment of Delaunay’s  importance as an artist, showcasing  her originality and creativity across the twentieth century.

Her work expressed the energy of modern urban life, celebrating the birth of electric street lighting and the excitement of contemporary ballets and ballrooms.


The artist dedicated  her life to experimenting with  colour (  vivid colours ) and abstraction, bringing her  ideas off  the canvas and into the world through tapestry,  textiles, mosaic and fashion. Delaunay premiered  her first ‘simultaneous dress’ of  bright patchwork   colours in 1913 and opened a boutique in Madrid in 1918. Her Atelier Simultané in Paris went on to   produce  radical and progressive designs for scarves, umbrellas, hats, shoes and swimming    costumes throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Clients included  the  Hollywood star Gloria Swanson and    the architect Erno Goldfinger, as well department stores like Metz & Co and Liberty.

The diverse  inspirations  behind  Delaunay’s work travel  from the highly personal  approach to colour which  harked back to her  childhood in Russia, to the impact of  her years in Spain and Portugal where  she painted The Orange Seller 1915 and Flamenco Singers 1915-16.

For the 1937   International Exposition in Paris, she created vast seven – metre murals Motor, Dashboard  and Propeller.

Following her husband’s death in 1941, Sonia Delaunay’s work took on more formal freedom,  including rhythmic compositions in angular forms and harlequin colors, which in turn inspired   geometric tapestries, carpets and mosaics. Delaunay continued to experiment with abstraction in   the post-war era, just as she had done since its birth in the 1910s, becoming a champion for a new   generation of artists and an inspiring figure for creative practitioners to this day.

A world of colour would be ideal, where one could create emotions accordingly. We could live by impressions the way a blind  man lives by touch. We could  vivify or seduce, transmute or emote, the possibilities are endless. A world of color  so fine and  pure, from  the deepest  innermost part of the human body to the pale washed evasiveness of the white of the human eye. We could live in a constant state of aura where every feeling manifested itself by color thus removing the lie from mankind.

Sonia  Delaunay took an early, perhaps the earliest jump into non-objectivity where color elicited form. Her work shows tenacious intensity with which she threw herself into her art, her life. She lived a philosophy of emotion; delving, gouging, tasting, creating. Through a direct communication with the gut, she relied on intuition rather than intelligence, as did men of stature such as Goethe. She strived to emulate such greatness.

Sonia Delaunay entered so far inside as to reach the womb. She  returned  not only to primitive sensibility in terms of the universal, but also in terms of woman, of motherhood. As early as 1911, Delaunay delved into the non-objective world.  Remembering  the peasant crafts of her native Russia, she  juxtaposed pieces of  fabric and fur to create a lyrical, one-dimensional assemblage  of  semi-geometric  shapes;  a primary research  into the world  of color which was to dominate and dictate the theme of her life. Color became her leitmotif.

She erected a scaffolding of  new impressions  to reach not upward  but inward. A new language of feeling corresponding to the Futurist movement in Italy, Constructivist in Russia, Blaue Reiter in Germany. Sonia Delaunay is at the root of modern art.

She was no theoretician, thus she sought refuge in a more earthy medium. She applied her and her husband’s ideas of the “Simultaneous” and “Pure Painting” to a lamp shade of which she gave the name “Halo Depth;” curtains, “Depth Movement;” cushions, “Sec Movement Colors Depth,” “Astral;” goblets, “Moon Absinthe,” “Water Wine,” “Wine.”

She had already been involved herself  in what one may call her Fauve period. Although she disliked Matisse, she was influenced  by  his transformation  of  the banal  to the vivified  via color.  From Gauguin, she took the organization of flat colored surfaces. And from Van Gogh,  the intensity of color. Although her paintings  from this period are colorful, they are far from being “light.”  In fact one can trace the somber quality of  intent studies, through her concept of depth being the inspiration for “pure painting.”

Married to Robert Delaunay, together they worked, collaborated, exchanged. The richness is legendary. Every night they walked along  the Boulevard St. Michel  where the gas lamps  had just been replaced by electricity. They would return  home and  capture their impressions of color,  much the way Monet did, but in a new and different mode. A non-objective one. Together they walked to the Eiffel Tower, an edifice Robert believed to be the paragon of technology. In honor of their love, he did a small painting of the tower with an inscription on one side reading: “Exposition Universelle…1889 La Tour a l’Universe J’adresse,” and on the other: ” Mouvement Profondeur 1909 France-Russie.”

1911–1912 marks the beginning of abstract art, the beginning of the Delaunay’s experiments with color. Sonia had just begun when  she encountered the poetry of  Blaise Cendrars.  Its movement  and association  conjured further images of her  rhythmic forms and  her art was propagated. She made a book binding  for his work and stated: “Painting is a form of poetry, colors are words, their relations rhythms, the completed painting a completed poem.” She collaborated much with Cendrars and later made bindings for the works of Rimbaud, Walden, Apollinaire, Tzara, Mallarme…

On the rue des Grand Augustins, the Delaunays held court. To their Thursday evening salons came  Apollinaire, Jean and Sophie Taeuber Arp, painters, poets, musicians of the day. Groups would go together afterwards to the Bal Ballier in Montparnasse, a popular dance hall where the Tango and the Fox Trot were the rage. As early as 1912, Sonia Delaunay decorated  her clothes with geometry and color, freeing  herself  from  flowers and frills. One may even call her the predecessor of art deco. Apollinaire  wrote the following about her and her husband’s ensembles: “They do not burden themselves with the imitation of antiquated fashion, and since they want to be of their own time, they don’t innovate in the cut of cloth (in that they follow contemporary fashion), but rather they seek to influence it by employing new fabrics, infinitely varied with color. There is, for example, an outfit of M. Robert Delaunay: purple jacket, beige vest, black trousers. Here is another: red coat, with a blue collar, red socks, yellow and black shoes, black trousers, green jacket, sky-blue vest, tiny red tie…” About Sonia Delauney: “…purple dress, wide purple and green sash, and, under the jacket, a corsage divided into brightly colored zones, delicate or faded, where there is mixed an old rose, yellow-orange color, Nattier blue, scarlet, et cetera…appearing on different materials, so that wool cloth, taffeta, tulle, flannelette, watered silk, and peau de sale are juxtaposed…So much variety cannot escape notice. It transforms fantasy into elegance…”

That fantastic elegance made its way through World War I to the “Exposition des Art Decoratifs” in Paris, 1925. Sonia Delaunay’s collaboration with Jacques Heim celebrated her worldwide. Furs, automobiles, furniture, clothes, bags…nothing was out of her reach. She also did costumes, those for Diaghilev remain among the Ballet Russe’s best. Cleopatra was swathed in circles stemming from the breast, giving costume the illusion of dance, the airy, ethereal step into another dimension. One critic said the dancers “set in motion costumes that already simulated motion…”

The work by husband and wife continued earnestly. The exchange, the inspiration, collaboration. The marriage of the Delaunays  remains today the most magical artistic merger. In 1941, Robert met an untimely death. With World War II, and Robert’s death, Sonia began to incorporate the color black into her work. She realized then that there are as many shades and textures of black as there are colors. Her work was interrupted when she devoted ten years of her life to preserving her husband’s legend.

She died at 93. She worked until 90 but has been arrested by failing health. She fell  and has been immobile  for long time. Her  apartment in St. Germain des Pres was white and light filled. Ceilings soared harboring enormous tropical plants. There were  works by her and her husband, and gifts from Jean Arp, Henri Laurens, Hans Hartung, and others. The spirit of Sonia Delaunay was everywhere: on the floor in rugs, in a myriad of books and posters, catalogues, sketches, paintings. Sonia Delaunay, was white on white: white hair with a cream complexion, few wrinkles and a prevailing sense of softness.

Acknowledgments to Tate Modern offices for their usual kindness on information and open use on their concrete and short material and introductive part.