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In retrospect, I see how my experience of the Sonia Delaunay exhibition at Tate Modern, like that of many other London tourists, was inescapably shaped by other shows on view at the same time. Visiting one after the other in quick succession, I started thinking of them as a whole, each contributing in its own way to the construction of the city’s curatorial “brand.” The Tate’s recent efforts to foreground women artists—Sonia Delaunay; Agnes Martin, also at Tate Modern (June 3–October 11, 2015); and Barbara Helpworth at Tate Britain (June 24–October 25, 2015) (click here for review)—made a powerful impression.
Of the three exhibitions, Delaunay’s retrospective was arguably the most ambitious and successful. Organized in collaboration with the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the exhibition, counting approximately 350 works, marked the first-ever in-depth analysis of the artist’s work in the United Kingdom. More than the sheer number, it was the variety of works, I suspect, that posed the greatest interpretive and logistical challenges for the show’s curators, Anne Montfort and Cécile Godefroy from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Juliet Bingham from Tate Modern. From paintings to bookbindings, garments to furniture, there was, in Delaunay’s view, practically no aspect of everyday life that could not be transformed by the psychological and spiritual power of color. Based on Michel-Eugène Chevreul’s theory of the simultaenous contrast of color, originally published in 1839, the theory of Simultaneism proposed, in the words of Sonia’s husband and collaborator, the painter Robert Delaunay, “a total formal construction, an aesthetic of all the crafts” (“Simultaneism in Contemporary Modern Art, Painting, Poetry,” 1913, in The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, ed., Arthur A. Cohen, New York: Viking Press, 1978, 48).
The more-or-less chronological organization of the exhibition presented visitors with a provocative succession of works of high art, crafts, and industrially produced goods. Indeed, whereas in most cases chronological displays tend to reinforce the notion of the individual artist, isolated from history, here the strategy had almost the exact opposite effect. The stylistic unity of the material on display produced a heightened awareness of the tension between reverence for the unique art object and the allure of the copy, whether handcrafted or mass-produced. Furthermore, by pointing out the multiple personal and professional relationships the Delaunays cultivated with other artists, including poet Blaise Cendrars and Dadaist Tristan Tzara, the exhibition successfully foregrounded the centrality of Simultanism as an avant-garde movement.
The exhibition also had a lot to offer those already well-versed in all things Sonia Delaunay, for whom the artist’s significance in the development of abstraction no longer needs demonstration. In addition to well-known classics, such as the Bal Bullier (1913) and La Prose du Transsibérien (1913), the curators showcased numerous lesser-known works from private collections and smaller regional museums including the Musée de l’Impression sur Étoffes in Mulhouse (France) and the Museum of Artistic Process and Public Art in Lund (Sweden). Multiple fabric samples and large-scale mural paintings, Propeller and Aeroplane Engine, completed for the 1937 Universal Exposition in Paris, stood out as especially persuasive, not to mention eye-catching, visual evidence of the artist’s ties to industry, stylistic versatility, and collaborative work practices.
The first room, dedicated to the artist’s earliest works, included some nice surprises too, such as The Finnish Woman (1908) and Yellow Nude (1908). Drawing on Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, these early works convey the artist’s cosmopolitanism and strong taste for the newest, most controversial art of her day. Setting the stage for the rest of the exhibition, where the relationship between painting and design is developed in extenso, the first room also featured the quilted cradle cover Sonia eventually came to regard as her “first abstract work.”
Among the various themes explored in the show, Sonia’s navigation through the worlds of fine, decorative, and industrial arts was the most comprehensively developed. While in Spain, where the Delaunays waited out the First World War, Sonia opened Casa Sonia, a boutique that catered to the fashion- and interior-decoration needs of the country’s elite. She repeated the experiment in Paris from 1925 to 1930, selling handcrafted items to the rich and famous. “She conceived and designed each of her creations as a one-off piece: every item of merchandise was a work of art, and every work of art was an item of merchandise,” Godefroy observes in her catalogue essay (160).
Delaunay’s turn to fashion and interior decoration was not mere happenstance, however. Her early exposure to the Russian folk revival movement and avant-garde theory, both of which sought to valorize the decorative arts, made her transition from painting to design an easy, almost natural one, the exhibition suggests. This argument, addressed in the exhibition catalogue by Sherry Buckberrough, is compelling. So compelling, in fact, that it is easy to forget that other prominent Russian abstractionists took a very different position on the matter. Born in Moscow, Vasily Kandinsky, for example, viewed abstract painting and decoration as completely antithetical. Similar anti-decorative views were also expressed by Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, and Piet Mondrian. And, for the most part, critics were happy to play along, turning a blind eye to obvious visual parallels between the explosion of color that reshaped both popular commercial culture, starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, and painting, from the Impressionists to early twentieth-century abstraction.
Thus, while maintaining a strict hierarchical separation between art on the one hand and so-called kitsch on the other may seem incredibly old hat today, by failing to provide this important historical context—a few well-chosen quotations by prominent artists and critics integrated into the wall text would have sufficed—the exhibition lessened the rhetorical power of its claims about Delaunay’s originality and overall significance in the history of modern art. Considering the ease with which contemporary artists jump back and forth between the “fine” and the “applied,” not to mention the frequency with which museums put on fashion-themed exhibitions, it would not be surprising if some visitors left the show wondering what the fuss was all about.
Delaunay clearly imagined herself as something more than a “mere” designer catering to the whims of her clients. Foregrounding color over line and chiaroscuro, the textiles, garments, set designs, and decorative household items she created possessed, in her view, the same timeless, spiritual quality as her paintings. Indeed, for Sonia, as for her husband, Robert, art—including craft and the industrial arts—existed in an elevated realm apart from the petty turmoils of modern life. “People who believe that real life is transitory are mistaken. They have announced confidently at the beginning of each new season that geometric design will soon pass out of fashion and be replaced by novelties drawn from older patterns. A profound error: geometric designs will never become unfashionable because they have never been fashionable,” Sonia observed (“The Influence of Painting on Fashion Design,” 1926, in The New Art of Color, 207).
It is important to remember, however, that the premier French couturiers working at the time frequently described their creations in precisely the same terms. As Nancy Troy has shown, Paul Poiret donned the persona of the artist as a means of increasing the prestige of his garments in the eyes of wealthy patrons, whereas Coco Chanel famously insisted that “fashion changes, but style endures.” Used both in the catalogue and audio guide, the expression “bring art into everyday life” suggests, furthermore, that the relationship between “art” and “everyday life” was mostly a one-way street. Popularization, vulgarization, and similar notions discount the multiple ways the quotidian—advertisements, illumination, popular dance venues, etc.—served as an important source of inspiration for Delaunay. Considering the extensive examination of the Delaunays’ ties to members of the artistic and literary avant-garde, the absence of any explicit references to Art Deco in the exhibition wall text and the catalogue’s brief treatment of the topic are especially striking.
What, if anything, can feminist art history contribute to our understanding of Delaunay’s connections to French haute couture and luxury industries more generally? The question comes naturally into view, as if by successive contrast, when considering the impressive achievement of this beautiful, thought-provoking, and for the most part well-rounded show. “Is it possible to accommodate to the elevated status of abstraction the idea that some of its key forms were reached by a woman before they were reached by men?” art historian Griselda Pollock asks in her catalogue essay (219). Thanks to the Tate’s exhibition and the analysis provided by contributors to the catalogue, I think we can now fairly confidently answer Pollock’s question in the affirmative, and for this achievement the curators rightly deserve the highest praise.
Laura Anne Kalba
Associate Professor, Department of Art, Smith College
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