Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay

What a lovely and inspiring way to end April! It was quite a grey Saturday when we went off to the Tate, but the colours inside were nothing more than spectacularly vivid. The rooms were well thought out, with each one offering a differing aspect of Delaunay's progression, and full - but not too full - of things to gawp at and go "I need that in my life".




Sonia's young adulthood amongst the Russian bourgeoisie allowed her to explore Europe, and through this take in all of the current art movements. Early works are clearly affected by German expressionism and Fauvism, both movements in development around the time that she studied in Germany and Paris. The definition of outlines with strongly-coloured painterly insides were the beginnings of her abstract work, though once she met Robert they set off on a joint venture of a completely new and singular art movement: Simultané. There are obvious connections from artists hailing after her that interpreted the style into their own, but around the time that Robert and Sonia were developing simultanism, there seems to be a void. Perhaps walking around the exhibition just made it feel like there is nothing else quite like Delaunay art, but then that's the point isn't it - to get lost in the colours and the shapes.




Her ethos of 'everything by hand' meant that a coat for Gloria Swanson was entirely hand-embroidered with tapestry wool, patchwork garments and coverlets composed with slip-stitching, and fabrics screen or block printed. This was a time when machinery was actually quite at the fore, and you later see in the exhibition how Delaunay merged aeronautics with art for the 1937 Paris Exhibition. It's said that her use of embroidery and hand-stitching was to bring the techniques used by Russian peasant women together with modernist abstraction - the seamless fusion of past and future.


Coat for Gloria Swanson, 1925 Hand-embroidered coat for Gloria Swanson, 1925


Inspired by city life, Sonia was all about exploring the colours and shapes created by movement. Further travels to Portugal, Spain and Sweden developed her interest in light and colour, with works becoming slightly more distinct in their lines. But the Revolution meant that she could no longer be sustained by her family's wealth, and so her development of pure fine art had to stop for the time being. Sonia opened Casa Sonia in Madrid in 1918, selling 'simultaneous' accessories, furniture and fabrics with commissions for clothing, this leading to Diaghilev approaching her for costume design. The boundaries between art and everything else was now blurred, with Sonia achieving that wonderful and ever sought-after balance of experimentation and business.




Now, this is where anyone with crafty bones would get palpitations. You walk into this room that has printed fabrics hanging up, the previously mentioned hand-embroidered coat in a glass case and walls of photos of Sonia's simultaneous fashions in black-and-white, whereby they evolve a chiaroscuro edge (there's the German Expressionism back). Cabinets along the walls are full of even more printed fabric samples, next to them sketches and line sheets so that you may see both the imagined and the real (something you don't often come across, especially with something ninety years old). A screen plays a fashion film, again obviously in black and white, but with all of the physical items around you in colour, you transport yourself to that time - perhaps you even imagine yourself draped in the silk, leisurely seated in an opulent room...


Sonia Delaunay printed textiles

Sonia Delaunay Design 945, 1930

Sonia Delaunay printed textiles


Surely this affects all makers; the fact that you can't touch anything is infuriating. These are objects that were made to be held, and yet they're behind glass. With the dimmed lights, it's even difficult to fully conceive what the true colours should be. It is very much about imagination, and whilst every effort is made to help the viewers see the truth in an object through line sheets and descriptions, touch is a sense so completely prohibited in a gallery setting that our affect from a piece can be dulled. It is likely that all of you reading this will play with textiles in some way, and so on visiting this exhibition, you'll probably be left inspired but also hindered; it's as if, once placed in a case, the textiles are a secret. How can we fully comprehend how the printed shapes are affected by the light, or how movement can distort them when they're on silk or cotton jersey - and therefore, how are we to place ourselves in Sonia's mind? Maybe that's the point - that the textiles are now pieces of art to be looked at, rather than something functional and that was her point wasn't it - to blur the lines of fashion and art.


Delaunay Textile Designs


Despite the heartache of not being able to touch anything, you become visually stimulated and that is still something quite magnificent. Perhaps now there will be a surge in print designers inspired by Delaunay who will create fabrics for us to make our own simulatenous outfits up in. Or, maybe take Sonia's 'everything by hand' philosophy to heart and create your own wearable art... There are books available, such as the new 'Print. Make. Wear' by Melanie Bowles, aimed at digital printing yet, nonetheless inspirational for hands-on approaches. There's Lena Corwin's 'Made By Hand' that covers all sorts of crafty projects, but includes instruction and beautiful imagery to help in the creation of your own batik-dyed and screenprinted textiles (both books are available to buy in-store at Ray Stitch). And then, you could also just get some pens and some fabric and have a play at your own wearable art...


Lena Corwin's 'Made By Hand' Lena Corwin's 'Made By Hand'


'Print. Make. Wear' by Melanie Bowles 'Print. Make. Wear' by Melanie Bowles


Get on down to the Tate!


Words by Steph.