Sonia Delaunay

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Sonia Delaunay was no socialist, but she was a revolutionary. An early companion wrote to her from Moscow in 1906 “beware of ideology”. There were those who sought to change the world through social relations and those who revolutionised the way we perceive the world. Delaunay was a pioneer of modernism and this exhibition is a comprehensive survey of an original and prolific artist who lived and worked at the centre of 20th century art and design. At the end of her long life Delaunay said that she had in fact lived three lives. One for her husband, one for her son and grandsons and one short life for herself. “I do not regret it, I didn't have time.”

Born Sara Stern near Odessa in 1885, she was sent to St Petersburg to live with wealthy relatives. It was here she became Sofia Terk, aspiring artist. “There is just one thing I need, to have a place where I can be alone, even if only for one hour a day, and the rest doesn’t matter to me, and the messier it is the better.” In 1903 she left for the Academy of Arts in Karlsruhe, Germany. Here she met and married writer and art dealer Wilhelm Uhde with whom she moved to Paris. Uhde introduced her to the Parisian art world — importantly Robert Delaunay, who would become her second husband and artistic collaborator.

At the same time as Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky is credited with inventing abstraction, Sonia Delaunay gave birth to her son Charles. She made him a patchwork blanket, experimenting with abstract colour composition for the first time. This piece is now part of the Tate exhibition. Sonia and her husband Robert developed the concept of simultaneity. Whereas writing and music are experienced sequentially, a painting can be observed in its totality at once. Yet the colours and shapes can be arranged in harmonies the same way a composer arranges sounds in a symphony. Delaunay spent her life exploring these relationships and has left us a great body of work showing the results of her investigations.

Walking through the exhibition, you see clear evidence of artistic communication between Delaunay and painters such as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, and composers such as Arnold Schoenberg. These fellow revolutionaries were in her circle of friends together with poets Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton. At the outbreak of war in 1914, the Delaunays left Paris for Barcelona, where Sonia set up a design business to support her family. After the designer returned to Paris, she became a great success at the famous 1925 Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.

Sonia Delaunay was one of a large group of women pioneers of modernism who have often been overshadowed by their male collaborators. This imbalance is finally beginning to be redressed and Tate Modern has made a conscious decision to be part of this reassessment. Appollinaire said of Delaunay, she spoke painting. She spent her life developing a language of colour, autonomous from, but in communion with, writing and music and universal in scale. As she put it herself, “Abstract art is only important if it is the endless rhythm where the very ancient and the distant future meet”. For Delaunay it was not a choice between a conventional or a revolutionary life. She lived both simultaneously.