LADY PATCHWORK COMES TO TOWN
Retrospective of Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern, 15 April to 9 August
As Significant Seams puts the finishing stitches in its 2015 patchwork quilt, I went along to Tate Modern to see a patchwork of a different sort in the retrospective of Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979). There are 12 rooms of paintings, drawings, prints, rolls of wallpaper, fabric swatches, de couture dresses, coats, swimming costumes, bookbindings, curtains, cushions, lampshades, a painted wooden box, costume designs for a Diaghilev ballet, videos of fashion models…and patchwork – in all it gorgeousness. Passing through these rooms, I was incredulous both at her productivity (how did she fit all this in?) and the techniques, patterns, materials and loud intense colours (even shy pastels leap out) that the artist used in her kaleidoscopic creativity.
Sonia Delaunay’s life was anything but conventional: she was no woman sitting demurely in a dacha stitching Ukrainian folk patterns, though her Slavic roots certainly influenced her work. Born in Odessa to Jewish parents, Sonia was adopted by a wealthy uncle living in cosmopolitan St Petersburg and as a young woman, travelled, her art education nurtured by long train journeys that took her away from Russia to the art galleries and museums of Western Europe, before settling in Germany and then France to study painting. When her uncle asked her to return, Sonia rebelled and arranged a marriage with a gay art dealer in order to remain in Paris.
At this time, Sonia was painting portraits of her friends and the exhibition begins with an oil on canvas of Philomène, her dressmaker. It shows a solid three-quarter bust of a woman whose head might have been carved from wood looking out at some distant point, surrounded by ornamental discs with the hint of an apron that proclaims her profession. Later, these discs and strident complementary colours would become the main thrust of Sonia’s compositions.
In 1909, Sonia’s marriage of convenience was swept aside when she met Robert Delaunay, an artist who mixed with leading poets and painters of the early 20th century, Apollinaire, Kandinsky, Macke, and Leger among them. She fell in love, divorced and re-married, and while her husband worked on abstracted views through windows and an Eiffel Tower that seemed to dance, Sonia developed a style that complemented them, corona-like discs of cartwheel colours tumbling across canvases and spilling out into craftworks.
An early piece of patchwork illustrates the visual building blocks of Sonia’s ideas: “About 1911 I thought of making for my newborn son a cover consisting of bits of fabric, like those I saw used by Russian peasants. When it was finished, the arrangement of the fragments of fabrics seemed to me to stem from Cubist ideas, and we then tried to apply the process to other objects and to paintings.”
The cradle cover, a key work in this exhibition, is a masterly ragbag of scraps of pearly satin, matt black and indigo cotton, and although odd to see it behind glass, the picture frame brings out its shape and flatness; it is a celebration of surface over subject matter, of splinters and fragments of colour making up the scintillating whole.
You can catch a sense of the excitement and movement and change in the world the Delaunays witnessed with this exhibition. Both paid attention to modern life. Cubism was fracturing and shattering perspective and crystallizing the picture space; Chevreul’s colour wheel revealed chemistry between bright blue and trumpeting orange, verdant green and scarlet red and the tango flew out of Argentina to stride and strut in the electric-lit bars of Paris. Look at Le Bal Bullier painted on a horizontal strip of mattress ticking and you’ll see the glow of the globe lights, the arcs and segments of couples embracing while they tango before melting into the background, the rhythmic passing of time. Opposite the painting are two mannequins wearing patchwork gown and waistcoat, costumes made by Sonia for Robert and herself to wear on their nights out at the tango. For Sonia, art is life and clothes are art and the divisions between art and craft and fashion meaningless.
Two world wars, the Bolshevik Revolution (that wiped out Sonia’s inheritance from her family estate in Russia) the economic crash of 1929 and Robert’s death in 1941 were turbulent years that necessitated journeys to Portugal and Spain during the First World War, and to Vichy France in the South during the second. Did the pattern of fields spotted fleetingly from train or car or the horizontal-vertical network of city roofs, windows and doorways remind Sonia of the paintings she and Robert were making?
Widowed and suddenly financially vulnerable, Sonia opened a workshop and boutique to sell her fabrics and undertake commissions for clothes. The gallery room that displays her products has been transformed to a spectacularly dynamic showroom that demonstrates her success as a business woman as well as an artist. A 1925 fashion shoot shows two models and a Citroën car painted in blocks of colour in which one sits with her hand confidently at the wheel, priapic horn at the ready while another stands confidently in a Sonia Delaunay dress. I fondly imagined Sonia driving through France, fleeing the Nazis, in this fantastical Chitty Bang Bang of a patchwork vehicle, honking that horn loudly to proclaim the glories of intoxicating colour en route.