You all know of my Sonia Delaunay obsession, and I was extremely excited to attend the opening of the retrospective of her work at Tate Modern last week.

Box, (1913)
Delaunay crossed disciplinary boundaries effortlessly, and it was wonderful to see her ease in various aesthetic / commercial contexts properly represented. Delaunay did not impose artificial disciplinary separations on her work, but strove to develop a continuous aesthetic across all the media in which she worked – an approach I find really inspiring. I was moved to see the cradle quilt (out of which one might argue her distinctive take on colour and contrast emerged) and her incredible painted boxes (much derided by short-sighted critics when they were first exhibited alongside her paintings). One of the aspects of her work I find most interesting is her commitment to transforming her own domestic space into a sort of spectacular lived artwork. For Delaunay, the boundaries between the intimate and public spheres seemed pretty irrelevant: only she could have created a curtain-poem.

Curtain Poem (text by Phillippe Soupault) (1924)

However many times you look at an art-object in a book, nothing quite matches actually being there with it in front of you. This was the first time I’d seen Delaunay’s work up close, and doing so made me reflect on many things. I thought about circles and discs and just how important rotation was to her aesthetic (a swirl of dancers, a spool of film in a projector, the whizzing mechanisms of a car or aeroplane).

Robes et Tissus Simultanes de Sonia Delaunay (film, 1925)

I began to really appreciate the difference in her materials and techniques between the early and later periods; I thought about how soft pinks and and purples really defined her palette in the teens and twenties, and then how grassy, mossy greens later dominated her work. Looking at the way she blended and overlaid shades in the remarkable canvases she produced in the years that preceded the first world war, I felt that for the first time I was beginning to understand what she was doing with colour — how colour had really become form for her.

Electric Prisms (1914)

The retrospective also lent me a renewed appreciation of Delaunay’s playfulness, her confidence, her joie de vivre. In the body of work included here – in these rooms full of objects alive with such a profound and continuous aeshetic energy – you can really feel that Delaunay was not in the least hesitant or self-questioning, either as artist or individual. Her approach to both life and work seems to have been basically to embrace the moment and just get on with it. This appeals.

Discs (1968)

I also confess to an, ahem, mild excitement at hearing myself talking about Delaunay on the audio guide to the retrospective. I’m proud to have been invited to contribute: it was one of those moments where my old life as an academic and my new one as a creator of textiles happily collided. So if you visit the retrospective and take the audio tour, you’ll also hear me talking about the garments Delaunay designed and made in the 1910s; the innovative patterns she created for Metz & Co, and her carpets (such as this one, produced in 1968).

This is a groundbreaking and breathtaking retrospective of this important, polymathic modernist. If you are in London, I can’t recommend a visit highly enough. The accompanying book – including several illuminating essays exploring Delaunay’s work – is also superb.

The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay
Tate Modern: 15 April – 9 August 2015

32 thoughts on “Delaunay retrospective

  1. I loved this blog post, many thanks. Seriously tho’, even tho’ I never gush, I have to say how beautiful you are in these photos. Your joy and enthusiasm for the exhibit shines through here and in all of your posts for textiles and the people who create them and makes your blog a constant delight. These pics really make me smile. ;-)


  2. There was a feature on radio 4 woman’s hour about the exhibition about a week ago. Anyone interested could may be catch it on iPlayer.


  3. I got bumped off a flight from Glasgow to Toronto. I had a wee bit of time in London so I ran to the Tate Modern and managed to get in at the last minute but not with enough time to use the audio guide. So I saw Sonia’s work but did not hear Kate’s voice. I was lucky to get to see what I did. Have loved her work for decades. Thanks for posting about your visit Kate because otherwise I would not have known about it and would have missed it all together.


  4. Dear Kate

    A colleague of mine at the BBC (science radio Dept) is making a programme about history of dyes/textiles in Victorian England – I suggested your might be a good person for her to pick the brains of :) I hope that’s ok…(we’d been chatting about the Delaunay)

    Best wishes, Paula

    Sent from my iPad



  5. I just love your shoes and am trying to find them in the US but I’m having no luck. Could you please tell me what the name of the shoe company is? Thank you.


  6. Your two London posts have reminded me of how much I do love London. If I were able to be over there now, I would want to visit exactly the same places that you did, along with some of my own favorite stops.
    Congratulations on being part of the Delauney exhibit. The exhibition organizers made a marvelous choice. I so agree with you about the impact of actually seeing a particular work of art for the first time…not at all the same as looking a photographs!
    Oh, let me also mention how wonderfully stylish you are yourself. xo


  7. I have been loving Sonia’s work since I was first introduced to her about 30 years ago while doing my B.Ed. in fine arts. I am absolutely obsessed now to know what that baby quilt looks like. Any chance that you took a photo of it?
    I have been inspired by both Delaunay’s and Paul Klee’s work as resources for making quilts. Feels a bit full circle. So like the concept behind an anthropology book I read back in the 70’s. “They Became What They Beheld” . The idea was that we make things in our image or our surroundings and then we imitate the things that we have made. For example- the beautiful cut out Thai shadow puppets have informed the movements of Thai traditional dancing.


  8. I first enjoyed Delauney’s rather hypnotic works years ago after buying a calendar highlighting the work of women artists. Thank you for reminding me of the excitement I felt upon “discovering” her.

    Are you familiar with the (mostly) textile work of Anni Albers? Her work reminds me of Delauney’s, if not necessarily in an energetic use of color, in a command of pattern and in attitude. Albers was also married to an artist (Josef) and–as I think may have been the case with Delauney and her husband, Robert–each seemed to be influenced by the other’s creativity. I wonder if those relationships, simultaneously intimate and artistic, can account in part for the way these women’s art permeated so many aspects of their lives.


  9. Ah, brilliant! Kudos to you for adding your knowledge (and voice) to the audio tour – lucky Tate-goers!

    Thank you for this great review: your excellent photos are bested only by your insightful comments. One aspect of Delaunay’s work that has always resonated with me (and of which I was reminded by your comments) is her exploration of the construction of edges without seams. In one sense, it is a process of delineating uniquely characterized areas within a larger whole, a whole which both holds together and also becomes something more than a collection of unrelated parts. In another sense, it is a way that, as you note, she was able to blur conventionally-accepted category/boundary lines in favor of building what clearly must have been a more natural-feeling continuous aesthetic.

    You also note her affinity for rotation and I agree 100%: her work carries a current of dynamism, a movement that transcends the “stillness” of the support (canvas, wood, cloth). What is attractive (to me) about this aspect of Delaunay’s work is that it is both very much of its time (the artistic shifts towards abstraction as well as the recognition of speed & mechanization of the early 20th century) and also able to transcend (bend?) the relentless forward linearity of our understanding of time & matter: shape, color, form, and movement exist (and persist) in a fluid, simultaneous way, in spite of our attempts to box them into static categories.

    “Her approach to both life and work seems to have been basically to embrace the moment and just get on with it. This appeals.” And how! :)

    Many thanks for always sharing the best bits with us!


  10. Hi Kate, I am also attracted to those artists who invest in their domestic as well as their public lives through their artworks and who work across media: like Bernard Leach, the great potter, the Bloombury group’s Charleton Farm, and contemporary artists like Lucas Samaris. Anyway, enjoyed your post, the comments and photos. I wish and hope this exhibition is traveling….to MOMA or someplace closer to home. Thanks.


  11. I agree, your passion for Delaunay is infectious! Also agree with the coat comments (and the beautiful convertible backpack).

    Any chance of this retrospective coming to America?


  12. How interesting and thank you for sharing with us all! I think you are so drawn to this artist as you two seem to have some similar style and love of creating.


  13. I’m in London next weekend and had planned an ‘exhibition’ for the Friday, was thinking about McQueen at the V&A but you’ve got me wondering now.


  14. Delauney was one of the first artist my eldest daughter was introduced to in Reception year at her primary school. It’s a bit embarrassing to be introduced to an artist by your 5 year old. But also wonderful to hear their take on the works.

    Your coents here, a tad more sophisticated, but also full of the same excitement. I hope to take both my daughters to the exhibition when we are down in That London, next weekend


  15. Ditto the comment on the coat. I love the way in which your academic background and your textile interests interweave. If only I didn’t live in a small city thousands of miles away from all this inspiration!


  16. Thank You, Kate…your comments were so helpful as I studied these.
    Oh, and I adore your coat as well……any chance of a knitted version?


  17. Dear Kate, I don’t have an instagram account but noticed your bread picture. If you go to King Arthur Flour’s website you will find a multitude of information on successful bread baking. I just finished reading their post on yeast and it is fascinating to learn there are 1,500 species of yeast identified!Ingredient guide: yeast | King Arthur Flour

    |   | |   |   |   |   |   | | Ingredient guide: yeast | King Arthur FlourTop-quality flours, baking recipes, kitchen tools and gadgets, and specialty baking ingredients. | | | | View on | Preview by Yahoo | | | |   |

    Good luck. Best,D. Floyd


  18. Beautiful works of art – such a shame that critics don’t consider domestic objects like the boxes to be works of art, the things we have in our homes should be beautiful and functional, muchlike your knitting designs. Thank you for this post, as I won’t be able to get to the Tate, it was lovely to have part of the exhibition brought to me.


  19. Thank you very much for sharing not only your understanding of this remarkable artist, but your delight.. It is infectious. Very much agree that there is nothing as wonderful as being physically present to a work of art-of any kind! Art is most of all about our response/relationship to it, IMHO. Like the long-forgotten J. S. Bach works almost lost to the ages, art requires humanity to bring it to life. (Oh dear, I’d better go have a cup of coffee…yikes..:))


  20. Thank you once again, Kate, for bringing us your marvelous insights and thoughts about an exhibition. I have only seen pictures of Sonia Delaney’s work but you have brought the pieces into the present. I especially liked your comments about the swirls.


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