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).