Saturday 9 May 2015

Sonia Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay 

at Tate Modern.

A central figure of the Paris avant-garde, Delaunay was one of the pioneers of abstraction. She captured the spirit of modernity with the dynamic forms and vibrant colour of her painting celebrating urban life, travel, technology and dance. She moved beyond the practice of fine art, embracing fashion, textiles, costume, set design, interior decoration, architecture and advertising.

The early years:

Her early figurative paintings show the influence of  the Fauves, Paul Gauguin and German Expressionists. Her use of bold, vivid colours and the darker contour of her figures demonstrate her breaking free from academic convention.

Yellow Nude, 1908 (oil on canvas)

Philomene, 1908 (oil on canvas)

She made a number of portraits of Philomene, her dressmaker.

Two Young Finnish Girls, 1907

Sleeping Girl, 1907 (oil on canvas)

Young Finnish Girl, 1907 (oil on canvas)

The girl's hunched shoulders and clasped hands suggest the awkwardness of adolescence. Gazing into the distance, her air of detachment is further emphasised by the black outline that physically sets her apart from the background. Her blue-green torso contrasts with the warm tones of her face.



Following the 19th century chemist Michel-Eugene Chevreul, who studied how the perception of colours seems to change when they are placed alongside each other, Delaunay and her husband Robert, developed a theory of simultaneous colour-contrasts which they called Simultanism.

Electric Prisms, 1913, (oil on canvas)

This series was inspired by the introduction of electric streetlights on the Boulevard Saint-Michel in 1913. These produced haloes of reflected light that she transcribed as intersecting coloured discs, radiating energy like artificial suns. Their division into four quadrants suggests the separation of white light into the prismatic spectrum of colours.

Electric Prisms, 1913-14 (oil on canvas)

Electric Prisms, 1914

Cradle Cover 1911

During that time Delaunay started applying Simultanism into a variety of forms. When her son Charles was born she made him a patchwork cradle cover, bringing together the traditional techniques used by Russian peasant women with modernist abstraction. Her striking designs for cushions, lampshades and other objects filled the apartment.

Modern Life:

Delaunay was a painter of modern life.  She had a real fascination with the changing fabric of the urban landscape. Another major interest was dance. The tango craze that swept through Paris in the early 1910s was another symbol of modernity. Delaunay would spend her evenings at the Bal Bullier ballroom, developing sketches for her painting of the dance hall. Her paintings of that period strike a subtle balance between figuration and abstraction.

Flamenco Singer (Small Flamenco) 1915, (oil and wax on canvas)
These paintings of flamenco singers reflect the development of her abstract vocabulary through an engagement with Spanish culture. While still rooted in figuration, she makes her 'colours sing' through alternating contrasts that evoke the rhythms of flamenco. The guitar becomes a simultaneous disc, whilst the man's fingers are multi-coloured, as if corresponding to the different musical notes that he strums.

Flamenco Singers, (known as Large Flamenco), 1915-16

In this later version of this work, forms become more abstracted as the two figures are subsumed by whirling colour-music.


Simultaneous Dress, 1913 (fabric patchwork)
Delaunay created a simultaneous dress that she would wear on her frequent visits to Bal Bullier. This introduced a personal, performative element to her use of abstract forms, establishing a dialogue with the movement of the dancers. Simultanism was becoming a way of life.

Simultaneous Gilet, 1913 (fabric patchwork)

Bal Bullier, 1913 (oil on canvas)

The tango dancers dissolve into a dynamic mosaic of coloured shapes. By superimposing various poses, Delaunay suggests figures moving in space, but - in her words - 'light and movement are confounded, the planes blurred'.

Bal Bullier, 1913 (oil on canvas)
This is the second version of Bal Bullier and Delaunay moves further into abstraction. In the absence of discernible bodies, a sense of movement is conveyed through the simultaneous contrast of colours: blues, reds, greens and pinks evoke the atmosphere of a bustling Parisian dance hall.

Woman with Watermelon, 1916, (encaustic on paper)


At the outbreak of the First World War the Delaunays were on holiday in Spain. They decided not to return to Paris and spent the next seven years travelling within Spain and Portugal. After the Bolshevik Revolution Sonia Delaunay no longer received funds from her family in Russia. She put painting aside to concentrate on applied arts. In 1918, she opened Casa Sonia in Madrid, a fashion and design shop selling simultaneous accessories, furniture and fabrics and undertaking commissions for clothing. The shop was a great success, and subsidiary branches were opened in Bilbao, San Sebastian and Barcelona.

Her involvement in fashion led to several design projects for Vogue. Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, commissioned her to design the costumes for his production of Cleopatra at the London Colisseum.

Costume for Amoun in the ballet Cleopatra, 1918.

Fashion and Textiles:

Back to Paris in 1921 and Delaunay used their apartment as business headquarters, boutique and workshop. There was a huge demand for her fabric designs and she employed a team of Russian women to manufacture, knit and embroider her products. In 1925 she set up her own fashion house, and registered Simultane as a brand name in both France and the United States. One of her customers was Joseph De Leeuw, the owner of Metz & Co, a department store in Amsterdam that specialised in luxury goods. Over the years the store bought around 200 designs from her, a close business relationships that lasted into the 1960s.




looking closer


(Note the two women looking at the fabric designs. They were beautifully dressed in the style of the period - they looked absolutely wonderful)

a woollen knitted bathing suit.



A film of a Simultane fashion show.

Poetry and Theatre:

Delaunay worked closely with the Dadaists: she designed costumes for their performances, bookbindings for their poems and decorated the Dadaist bookshop Au Sans Pareil in Neuilly. She also produced a series of dress-poems, incorporating words by avant-garde poets and a curtain-poem with Philippe Soupault.

Paris 1937:
Delaunay was invited to contribute to the 1937 Paris Exhibition, titled The International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life. Her large-scale panels for the Pavillon des Chemins de Fer (the Railway Pavillion) were awarded a Gold medal by the exhibition judges but unfortunately, they have not survived.

For the Palais de l'Air, (the Palace of the Air), she created three murals depicting a propeller, an engine and an instrument panel.

Machine parts and technical drawing are seamlessly incorporated into complex abstract compositions with her characteristic use of vibrant colour.


Rhythm and Abstraction:

By 1930 different factions of abstraction were beginning to emerge, broadly divided between geometric and lyrical approaches. Delaunay was in the former camp.

Coloured Rhythm, 1946 (oil on canvas)


Coloured Rhythm, 1952 (oil on canvas)

Coloured Rhythm, 1958 (oil on canvas)

Delaunay observed that her major breakthrough in the post-war period was her treatment of black as an expressive colour in its own right. The predominantly darker palette is used as a backdrop for bold primary colours, which appear all the brighter in contrast. She achieves a complex rhythmic interplay between the undulating line of semicircles and the sharper beats represented by the triangles.


Set of shelves/bookcase

Discs, 1968 (coloured woollen carpet woven and knotted by hand)
Composition for Jazz, 2nd series, no. F344, Paris, 1952 (gouache on paper)
Exhibition booklet.

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