After reading the reviews of Sonia Delaunay’s retrospective at the Tate Modern I got very excited. According to The Guardian’s Adrian Searle, it is ‘a knockout’. For the Evening Standard’s Ben Luke, ‘this show makes a powerful argument for Delaunay as a true radical: ahead of her time, supremely relevant to ours’. Of course, Vogue said that ‘Delaunay is one of the crucial reference points in modern art and design’. I must say however, that the Tate missed the opportunity to explore what is relevant about Delaunay’s translations of fine art into design and fashion. Even though this is presented as a thesis, that thesis is left untouched.
The Tate organised the show in the usual clinical chronological way that characterises any Tate retrospective. Having said this, the reason why this show is happening at Tate Modern instead of at the Victoria & Albert escapes me. It is an ambitious show if we bear in mind that this is an artist that could only be considered as an artist by right of marriage (to Robert Delaunay). The curators had to decide whether to explore the construction of her artistic identity or make a solid case about the artistic relevance of her work in the fashion and interior decoration industries. Shockingly, the Tate decided to go in all directions.
Thus the show is structured over three big set of issues. Firstly, the one of whether abstraction should be concrete or lyrical. Secondly, the one of the construction of the artistic identity of a famous painter’s wife. The third has to do with the relationship between fine art and design. In other words, the issue of the mass commercialisation of the artistic object as source of artistic value (of course, I am referring to the commercialisation instead of the object). Having said this, neither of these issues is unravelled. The curators leave the viewer to do all the work if he or she refrain from believing that because Sonia was so proactive, she was a good artist.
The lay out of the show presents her career as unfolding from what seems to be an original honest preoccupation for the issue of the abstract form to the industrial application of those forms to interior decoration and fashion. Even though Sonia Delaunay’s images certainly captured the spirit of modernity, celebrated technology, mirrored urban life and showcased movement in art (as in dance, for example), they are deeply derivative (of Gauguin, Matisse and of course, her husband). It is as if she became the men she admired and who she eventually married. Her kind of stylistic self effacement is very similar to that of Carmen Herrera who only dared to show her (copied) style once her partner, Barnett Newman passed away.
Upon arrival, the viewer is confronted with some of her early paintings which are a conflation of influences from Paul Gaugin and German expressionists from the De Brucke group. The way she applies the pigments is, however, reminiscent of make up and some of her first sitters are dress makers and fashionistas. The way she depicts faces is mask-like. Her backgrounds are flat and emulate fabric patterns as in Yellow Nude (1908). The second room show her as her husband’s artistic vampire. To be honest, their marriage looks like an agreement in which she was the one bringing the money (her father’s, to be more specific) and her husband was the one in charge of injecting the artistic creativity. So why giving a show to her, then? Moreover, there seemed to have been an agreement inside the agreement for she was in charge of applying her husband’s investigations to interior decoration and issues that, mainly, had to do with the household. An example of this is the cradle cover that she made in 1911 for her son which is uncannily presented by the curators as a work of art in itself. It is at this point that everything in the show becomes confusing and, to be honest, a bit of a salad. s confusing. I am saying this because the following room is dedicated to the paintings inspired by the theory of simultaneous colour contrasts that Sonia and Robert developed and called ‘simultanism’ which is enunciated only to be dropped.
Sonia’s Electric Prisms series explored the distinctive effects of electric lighting, while her studies of the Boulevard Saint Michel and her billboard projects for luxury brands such as Zenith show a fascination with the changing fabric of the urban landscape. What the show does not explore is how this fascination with modernity translated into image and how that translation as mirrored on interior design and fashion was relevant to consider her a full blow artistic practitioner. I am saying this because it is in that room that the Tate Modern curators placed one of her ‘simultaneous’ (abstract patterned) dresses as ‘a dialogue with the movement of the dancers’. According to the Tate curators because she wore a dress with geometric patterns, ‘simultanism was becoming a way of life’. Just like that? Is Sonia Delanauy the colourful version of the Bauhaus? How? The problem with the curating of this show is that they transform this ‘Fashionable Bauhaus’ thesis into the reason of being of this show but they never unpack it.
In the following room the curators miss the opportunity of transforming Sonia’s first fashion projects for Vogue magazine, her collaboration with her friend Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballet Russes and her decision to open a shop into the source of artistic value of the whole restrospective. Instead they turn it into a glamorous example of translating abstract painting into fashion. From then on the show gets more and more confusing. For these two curators, she was an artist because she was a successful and accomplished woman. In fact, if we pay attention to her life’s narrative. She was adopted by a wealthy uncle who maintained her and Delaunay until he became famous. Once this happened she became a vampire of his artistic style only to drop all truly aesthetic preocupations and make money when her family’s money ran out. There is something opportunistic about this woman that puts me off and it is as if the Tate has decided to canonise the bad aspects of her, leaving her good points unexplored. J A T