Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern: painting, graphics, fashion, poetry and simultaneity

By Mark Sheerin | 30 April 2015

Exhibition review: The EY Exhibition - Sonia Delaunay, Tate Modern, London, until 9 August 2015

Colour mural panel of a plane propellor on a blue background
Sonia Delaunay, Propeller (Air Pavilion) (1937)© Skissernas Museum, Lund, Sweden / Pracusa 2014083
With a style better known than her name, Sonia Delaunay’s work at Tate may appear at first familiar. Together with husband artist Robert, she won fame for a movement called simultanism. And on the evidence of her early paintings, she was well-versed in expressionism, fauvism, even the symbolism of Gauguin. So whether or not she be a household name, most visitors will feel at home here.

Simultanism, which dates back to the 1910s, was characterised by concentric discs of bright colour broken into contrasting hues along radial lines. It evokes Paris streetlamps and the energy of the coming jazz age. Madame Delaunay stuck with the rhythmic forms of circle and semi-circle for the rest of her long life (she died in 1979).

This major show has fine examples of this style in varying degrees of abstraction. With at least three explosions of light, Prismes électrciques, of 1914, is as electrifying as the name suggests. But the style travelled and there you’ll find it given many thrilling figurative applications from a Paris dancehall (Le bal bullier, 1913) all the way to the dive bars of Portugal and Spain (Large Flamenco 1915-16).

Beyond this point the revelations begin. Colour may have been an abiding interest of Delaunay. But along with music, the Russian-born artist was just as immersed in poetry, graphic design and fashion. Indeed, she made a living as a designer of interiors and textiles, creating simulatanist environments where the avant-garde could meet and if they so wished shop.

Colour painting of three fashion models wearing geometric patterns against amidst a set of further geometrci designs
Simultaneous Dresses (The Three Women) (1925)© Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid / Pracusa 2014083
In terms of fabric design she was prolific. Her gifts for colour and rhythm translate well into scarves, ties even parasols and bathing suits. The largest gallery in the show is as rich in examples of her fashion work as an entire floor of a department store.

The peak moment comes with the reconstruction of a vitrine from her Paris boutique in which eye-catching rolls of cloth scroll up and down at two speeds. Delaunay spent four decades working as a supplier for high end Dutch store Metz & Co.

Poetry may have been less lucrative, but it made for more interesting work. Delaunay and husband were friendly with the likes of Guillaume Apollinaire and Tristan Tzara. She colours up a 1913 edition of La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France by Blaise Cendrars, with a design strip which runs alongside the French text, as luminous in its way as any holy manuscript.

Of equal charm is a short poetic dedication to her family by Philippe Soupault. Delaunay stitches this onto a heavy curtain with eye-catching red trim. Those with basic French will be able to translate the poem without the help of the wall. And most will come to admire the lyrical sentiment, which hinges typographically around a large arabesque ‘S’.

It is hard not to share the dated excitement which came with the new language of abstraction in the visual arts. The show invites you to visit a colourful utopia of painting, fashion, design and verse. This mindset is well documented by walls full of black and white period photos in which Delaunay wears her clothes with friends and professional models. She looks fabulous, of course, but also perhaps a tad silly.

Abstract colour painting with overlapping discs of bright colour
Prismes electriques (1914)© Pracusa 2013057 / CNAP
We know better now than to wear bathing suits made out of wool, for example. And graphic design has come a long way thanks to crisp InDesign-ed edges and Pantone reference colours. Delaunay’s sketchy covers for a number of publications, including Vogue, look naïve and not especially cool by today’s standards.

By the time you reach gallery 9, however, all will be forgiven. This central space is devoted to three murals which both Delaunays created for the 1937 Paris Exhibition. The theme of their allocated space was flight, and the glowing discs of simultanism prove perfect vehicles for enlivening engine parts, propellors and cockpit dials. These well-conserved panels are as breath-taking as a seat in a sharply climbing bi-plane.

But for someone who made their name with boldness and brightness, the later period of Delanuary’s life contains a twist. Bereaved of husband Robert in 1941, the artist discovers the expressive powers of the darkest of all tones, black. But the results are not as mournful as they sound; her black forms serve only to brighten the blues, greens and reds which characterise her works in gouache from the 1950s.

Thus the co-founder of a movement named for simultaneity has emerged as an exemplar of artistic development and chronological progression. Her gifts for colour may be evident in all places and at all times. But with her various fields of endeavour and degrees of abstraction Sonia Delaunay is an artist you just cannot take in all at once. Much like the times she lived through.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Friday and Saturday). Admission £12.70-£16 (free for under-12s). Book online.

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Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog
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