The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay

Art
Recommended
5 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

The first UK retrospective of the distinctly dazzling work of the Russian-French abstract artist often overshadowed by her husband.

Something the Tate does very well is give unsung artistic genius the recognition it warrants. And Sonia Delaunay, the Russian artist who found her avant-garde voice in Paris at the beginning of the last century, should be lavished with as much appreciation as her extraordinary output deserves. Not wanting to fly the feminist banner too high, but this woman had one hell of an abstract flair, which she successfully applied to art, interiors and fashion.

The first few rooms introduce the spirited vision of a young Delaunay who saw the world in an entirely different colour spectrum. These portraits don’t mimic reality. Multiple paintings of her dressmaker Philomène are unreservedly gaudy with their garish colour combinations, making them truly fantastic. Faces have harsh green shadows and indelible black outlines. Paint is layered to give the canvases a textural quality, a liveliness that ensures representation goes beyond mere portraiture. There are hints at Delaunay’s later foray into textile design with bright, punchy patterned backgrounds. 

The transition from representational expression to abstraction happens quite suddenly. Paintings of overlaid discs of various hues capture the vibrancy of Paris, lit by electric light. The colours clash and pop against each other with dizzying effect. Yet it’s Delaunay’s interpretation of Simultanism – a synchronised use of contrasting colours and shapes created with her painter husband Robert – into patchwork pieces ranging from a cradle cover to an evening dress that is most impactful.

Suddenly the designer in Delaunay is unleashed and the show gets going in earnest. Branded as wearable art pieces, her geometric designs are documented in black-and-white photographs. Metz & Co fabric swatches cover the walls, vitrines are filled with creations of prismatic proportions and the most sublime silent, coloured film of models in various ensembles vividly animates the exciting kaleidoscopic world. After closing her business in 1929 due to the economic crash, Delaunay focused on her paintings, honing her abstract compositions into a more formal visual language. Though filled with colour, the later galleries feel a little as if she was working with the lights off. Maybe after Robert’s death, her vibrant light died a little too. Fortunately there are the three enormous paintings made for the 1937 Paris Exposition that are so remarkable and ingenious you forgive her the mid-life crisis.

This is a show about a visionary, a lover of colour, and a resilient and exuberant woman who reinvented herself through two world wars, financial challenges and personal suffering. She saw art in everything. Above all, this exhilarating show encourages us to do the same.

READ OUR INTRODUCTION TO THE EXHIBITION HERE

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