Friday, 22 May 2015

Sonia Delaunay, Tate Modern, London (15 April-9 August 2015)

 La Jeune Fille Endormie (1907)
Prismes Electriques, 1914

Art critic Waldemar Januszczak isn’t a fan of Sonia Delaunay.  In his recent review for The Sunday Times the most positive remark he could make about the artist was her ability to copy the painting styles that surrounded her at any time in order to produce her own decorative (and inferior) versions.  He isn’t convinced by the assertions made by the exhibition’s curator that her work and influence should be revaluated.  He believes that far too much space has been dedicated to a repetitive practice devoid of development, depth, tone or range.  For Januszczak, like many critics before him, Delaunay’s lifetime achievements fade into insignificance when compared to any of her male modernist peers, such as Picasso [of course – yawn].


I suspect that Januszczak  would feel the same about any other female artist who worked at the heady (and much written about) time between the First and Second World Wars, as his criticisms sound remarkably similar to numerous other criticisms of female artists of that time, particularly when (a) these women’s personal lives were interwoven with more well-known and acclaimed male artists, and (b) their practices crossed from fine into decorative art.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Sonia Delaunay celebrated the modern world of movement, technology and urban life, exploring new ideas about colour theory together with her husband Robert Delaunay.  In contrast to Januszczak, I will always be excited by a retrospective of a female artist, particularly when it the first time such a collection of their work has been seen in the UK. This one features paintings, textiles and clothes Delaunay made across a sixty-year career.  The exhibition also shows her collaborations with poets, choreographers and manufacturers, from Diaghilev to Liberty.  In my opinion, Delaunay’s artistic story deserves to be told and the totality of her practice deserves however much space is needed to hold it.  In fact, it is her crossover into fashion and design and the critical responses such crossover have elicited within art history narratives, which continue to fascinate and infuriate me in equal measure.
 Le Bal Bullier (1913) 

Paintings such as Le Bal Bullier (inspired by Delaunay’s experience of the tango being danced at a
Parisian nightclub) and Electric Prisms (which explored the effect of electric light) show the artist at the height of her engagement with painting.  The results of her engagement in geometric abstraction away from canvas and into fabric design epitomised the fashion of the 1920s.  This transition from painting to design can been seen in a work such as Simultaneous Dresses, which shows a lighter, sketchier style.  Delaunay’s success as a fabric designer took over her entire practice for many years, but her work did develop when she did return to painting.  Januszczak is wrong to say that it did not.  In 1937 Delaunay produced three massive panels depicting an aircraft propeller, engine and instrument panel for the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology. She was fifty-two when she created this work, which was awarded a Gold Medal by the exhibition judges at the time and actually seem very contemporary even today.
Propeller (1937)

In the battle of the sexes within modernist art criticism, Delaunay has suffered the same fate as Marie Laurencin – she has been judged and found lacking by many.  For an insight into the arguments attempting to redress this view, in the same way as this exhibition, chapter 4 “Gender Codes” in Cubism and Culture by Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighton (Thames & Hudson, London 2001) is a fascinating and informative read.