Viewing the Sonia Delaunay exhibition at Tate Modern (on show until 9 August) I could almost believe that I had been transported to a time and space where decorative or applied art and serious fine art actually co-existed, having equal importance, rather than the gendered separation that was more the reality then and continues, perhaps subliminally into the present. Whilst it may no longer be that we consciously think of one as more important and therefore the domain of men, and the other as less important, being the domain of women, I could suggest that our contemporary suspicion of the decorative is an unconscious carry-over from that sexist separation of domains. It appears that the worst thing that can be said of an artist today is that s/he is “a decorator”, or that a work is “merely decorative”, which may indeed be a repressed form of misogyny. Sonia Delaunay’s designs and paintings, her fabrics and her fashion, were all part of the same project of modernity that promised to overcome traditional hierarchies like male/female and high/applied art. So, whilst what strikes me first about the exhibition is that the work is highly decorative, I see no reason to use that word in a pejorative sense.
Born in Odessa in 1885 to Jewish parents and being adopted by her wealthy uncle when she was five years old, she grew up amongst the St. Petersburg bourgeoisie, learning Russian, French, German and English. Travelling throughout Europe and regularly visiting museums and galleries, she became interested in art from an early age. She studied at the Art Academy in Karlsruhe, Germany and then at the Académie de la Palette, after moving to Paris in 1906. She had visited the third Salone d’Automne in the previous year seeing paintings by the Fauves whose influence along with that of Gauguin can clearly be seen in the gallery of her early work, with her use of bold colours and dark contours around her figures, as seen in the numerous portraits and in her impressive Nu Jaune (Yellow Nude).
She married Robert Delaunay in 1910, and together they developed a theory of simultaneous colour contrasts, which they named Simultanism or Simultané. For Sonia it was also literally a brand name. Robert argued that “The simultaneity of colours through simultaneous colour contrasts and through all the (uneven) quantities that emanate from the colours, in accordance with the way they are expressed in the movement represented – that is the only reality one can construct through painting”. Guillaume Apollinaire credited him with discovering Orphic Cubism, defined as “the art of painting new structures with elements that have not been borrowed from the visual sphere, but have been created entirely by the artist himself, and then endowed by him with fullness of reality”. Yet there is some “borrowing from the visual sphere” in Sonia (and Robert) Delaunay’s work. The paintings in the second and third galleries, for example, in the process of becoming more abstract, look like a fauvist version of cubism. The figurative starting points are clearly recognisable. And this “borrowing” is evidenced in both the Delaunay’s work throughout their lives. For example, as late as 1937 they contributed hybrid abstractions to the Paris Exhibition, the full title of which was The International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life. Sonia’s three murals with abstracted representations of a propeller an engine and a dashboard are, to my mind, the worst pieces in the show, in fact the only pieces I really disliked. My prejudices against figuration and propaganda undoubtedly influence my negative judgement of these works. I am almost as unenthusiastic about the 1925 painting of three models wearing simultaneous dresses. Perhaps it’s the unfavourable comparison that I cannot help making with Picasso’s Three Dancers that puts me off. I think her work is at its best when it is more strictly abstract, and that is as true for me in her design work as it is in the paintings, but again this may simply be a matter of personal taste.
Seven years after marrying Robert Delaunay, Sonia had switched from painting to the applied arts of needlework and embroidery, which she had learned in her native Russia. So there are lots of objects other than painting on show, including a cradle cover for her son, a painted box, a mosaic, lots of textile designs as well as collaged bookbindings and covers for magazines, all of which I tend to read as abstract paintings. There is something very painterly about the cradle cover, and the two compositions for the cover of a binding for the journal Der Sturm. The patchwork method rids the works of the black outlines and line drawing in general. Instead of creating contours, black is used along with colour in roughly geometric blocks. The grouping together of similar colours creates an informal ground against which contrasting shapes assert themselves, in what Hans Hofmann would later call “push and pull” action. Seeing these, I get the impression that patchwork influenced the painting as much as the other way round.
Her merging of fine and applied arts reflects the similar move taken by many of the Russian Constructivists, though on opposite sides of the socio-political divide. The Delaunays received an income from the rental of a house in St. Petersburg which Sonia had inherited. However, this suddenly ceased when the property was seized by the Bolsheviks in the October revolution. Her concentration on the applied arts from this time created an alternative income stream whilst also demonstrating a belief that fashion and design provided opportunities to realise the new language of abstraction in everyday life. Sonia’s approach prefigured many of the concerns of the later Bauhaus and I think it could be said that she began to popularise abstraction as a style.
The Delaunays understood the implications of abstraction as a totally new visual language, the central focus of which was simultaneous colour contrast, Sonia claiming that “…the infinite combinations of colour have poetry and a language much more expressive than the old methods. It is a mysterious language in tune with the vibrations, the life itself, of colour. In this area, there are new and infinite possibilities.”
Some of those possibilities are explored in the Electric Prisms series of paintings, the large 1914 painting of which dominates gallery three and is perhaps the centrepiece of this exhibition. As a painter of modern life Delaunay was fascinated by the effects of electric lighting, especially the electric globes or mini suns that lit the fashionable Parisian venues she frequented like the Bal Bullier dance hall, and Magic City. In the paintings the electric lights have become abstracted concentric circles, splitting white light into its constitutive colours, rather like informal versions of Chevreul’s colour wheels, where complementary colours are positioned opposite each other. Delaunays use of concentric bands allow contrasts to multiply within smaller areas of the canvas, which are in turn contrasted with adjacent accumulations of circles or rainbow-like arcs of colour elsewhere, the overall effect being of a landscape of light. There is nothing systematic in her exploration; rather it is intuitive and experimental, perhaps even haphazard. I am enjoying it, whilst simultaneously wishing for fewer contrasts in one go. I find myself concentrating on smaller sections of the painting and getting interested in certain contrasts before then finding another part of the whole to focus on. I need time to look at this huge canvas, which I think tests the boundaries of the model of simultaneity. It is surely the case that one of the properties of a visual medium like painting is simultaneous presentation, in contrast to say music where duration and succession are the order of the day. However, paintings still have to be viewed and there are limits to the viewer’s ability to see everything all at once, so the strategy I choose is to parse the overall image as one might a sentence, breaking it down into its constitutive parts. But in so doing the simultaneity is compromised. Granted, I can step back at any time and get a grasp of the whole thing all at once, and also see different part to whole relationships, two things that don’t happen in music, where sequential succession of notes in time controls the listener’s experience more precisely than does the visual. Of course, I can daydream to music and no one else can really control the content that my mind supplies, though it is surely influenced. In viewing a painting I think we experience more autonomy, the viewer possibly making more choices than a listener, but what is shared is duration, despite the arguments of some artists and critics. Painting’s immediacy, beyond a certain limit, seems to me to be like one hand clapping because the moment someone views the artwork, and without viewer there is nothing, duration is introduced.
I think Sonia Delaunay was acutely aware of this limit to the simultaneous because she seems to have delighted in making images that were impossible to take in all in one go. I am thinking of her collaboration with the poet Blaise Cendrars with whom she created the simultaneous book Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway, which I am sure I read somewhere here at the Tate, she would have been pleased if, when stretched out vertically it had reached the height of the Eiffel Tower. The use of simultaneous colour contrasts was intended to interpret the musicality of the spoken word, so we get simultaneity in parts but not in the whole. Similarly in Bal Bullier, painted in 1913, where figures dancing the Tango can be discerned within a roughly cubist space in fauvist colour, the panoramic format makes it difficult if not impossible to take in whole, a reading is best made from left to right as one might survey the scene in a dance hall, or alternatively as one might read a cartoon, it at least being possible that we witness an unfolding over time, but not so much a telling of a particular narrative as the playing of a tune, where what is abstracted is the staccato rhythm of the Tango.
Also, what happens to simultaneity when I am viewing a painting in a separate space or time to another that is similar to it and that for now exists only in my memory? I am unsure whether to think of that as a limit or as an extension to the simultaneous. Either way, Sonia Delaunay seems to have been interested in it. One of the strategies she pursued for exploring the endless possibilities of colour combinations was to work in series, in the sense of variations on a theme. There are numerous electric prisms on show here, one of them having the title Electric Prisms no. 41, so I think it is safe to assume there must have been at least that many.
She also continued to develop her interest in interpreting rhythm as colour, painting more than a thousand works entitled Rhythm Colour. I am looking at Rhythm Colour no 1076, painted in 1939. The square support is divided diagonally more or less from edge to edge forming a central X or four triangles within which are quarter circles, and semi circles in contrasting colours, which together form full circles. It is as if the colours and the forms are set against each other. It is a wonderful painting and seeing it here I get what the Delaunays were on about, in insisting on the importance of simultaneous colour contrast in their version of abstraction.
In the 1967 painting Syncopated Rhythm, also known as The Black Snake, many of the qualities I have noted are present: the use of simultaneous colour contrasts (now also including much greater use of black) that suggests the instantaneous, but set alongside considerations more associated with time-bound arts like dance and music; the painting itself being a continuation of a series and presented in a format that necessitates an experience of time duration. This is emphasised by the dividing of the work into three distinct sections: from left to right, 1) the snake like figure, 2) a section mostly of circular and triangular forms and 3) a section of squares and rectangles. The title also alludes directly to music and dance, perhaps proposing a visual equivalent, as many abstract artists have done, including Van Doesburg and Mondrian.
She also painted hundreds of gouaches, many of which are scattered throughout the exhibition and a set of which are brought together into one gallery dedicated to them. These might turn out to be her finest works. I am finding them engrossing, the scattered ones are even better than the ones in the Gouaches gallery, and I include some that are more associated with her design work. Design B53, 1924, gouache on paper, and the 1916 Design for Album no.1, encaustic on paper, are excellent paintings in their own right.
Designs in ink here are also totally delightful. Two tiny black and white studies from 1933, look like 1960’s Op Art. Come to think of it, there is much in Delaunay’s work that seems to prefigure Op Art, particularly appropriate perhaps, considering that it may be the only abstract art that has ever had truly popular appeal. Her questioning what might be acceptably considered a painting, or as art, seems to prefigure much of later abstraction. I don’t think I am being too fanciful in imagining Bridget Riley, Blinky Palermo and Francis Baudevin, anticipated here. I am surely overdoing it if I also suggest that her use of the series heralds reductive, minimalist and conceptualist preoccupations with modularity and repetition.
In closing, I am doing my best to re-open the debate that has been repeatedly rehearsed in these pages about, for example, the difference between design and abstract painting, and I think I am answering that there need not be one.