Sonia Delaunay

London Tate Modern's EY exhibition is a welcome homage to an underrated pioneer of avant-garde art

NO MATTER HOW brightly the canvas is painted, how proudly the dresses are worn, or how clearly the words are written, some talent goes unrecognised. Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) was nothing short of genius across all these disciplines, a trailblazer in avant-garde art. Ranging from oil painting, to embroidery, to interior design, the Tate Modern's EY exhibition, the first UK retrospective of the Russian-born artist, is a glorious celebration of her entire oeuvre and her fearlessness in weaving together diverse media to create a new, composite form of art.

Sonia was born Sara Elievna Stern to Jewish parents in Odessa, Ukraine. Adopted at the age of five by her wealthy uncle, she became Sofia Terk, always known as Sonia among the well-to-do intellectual circles of St Petersburg. She studied painting in Karlsruhe, Germany and then at the Académie de la Palette in Paris two years later, where she met the art dealer and critic Wilhelm Uhde. He needed to conceal his homosexuality, and she wished to remain in Paris, so the two entered into a mutually convenient mariage blanc.

Her early works, which were exhibited in Uhde's gallery in 1908, make for a striking introduction to the Tate retrospective. Works like the Nu jaune (Yellow Nude), with their bold colours and crude, almost primitive outlines, indicate the strong influence of Gauguin and the German expressionists . It presents the lurid but poignant figure of a prostitute, her body painted in iodine-yellow tones and shadowy blue-green contours, contrasting with the warm pinks of her face. She lies against a velvety, harem-like background patterned with sharp, fiery shapes that prefigure the artist's later fascination with design. A small-format painting, the Finlandaise (Finnish Woman), depicts the immediate profile of a young woman, her expression melancholy but full of life, gazing at the viewer through eyes ablaze with a bright blue that recalls the Fauves. The paintings are a hymn to the expressive possibilities of colour, freed from its representational function.

Sonia divorced Uhde to marry the painter Robert Delaunay in 1910. The birth of their son, far from limiting her artistic success, marked the pivotal moment at which her work solidified into a mature and distinctive style. The patchwork cradle cover sewn for him in 1911 is a charming medley of interlocking rectangles and triangles of diverse colours and materials. Rather than retreating into the limits of traditional women's craft, Sonia reappropriated this Russian folk art into a modernist design. The striking contrasts in colour exemplify the theory of Simultanism for which the Delaunays would become known, exploring how perception changes when different colours are placed in proximity. Blaise Cendrars, a close friend of the couple with whom Sonia would later collaborate, stated that 'contrast is love'; and indeed, the dialogue between the different tones creates a radical but harmonious aesthetic. Sonia continued to work in this style with numerous household items - lampshades, cushions, boxes - blurring the distinction between fine art and utility.

1913 was a landmark year for avant-garde experimentation. Proust's Du côté de chez Swann, Apollinaire's Alcools and Les Peintres Cubistes, Méditations Esthétiques (The Cubist Painters, Aesthetic Meditations) were all published, and Cubist works like Picasso's Guitar and Metzinger's L'Oiseau Bleu (The Blue Bird) saw the light of the day. Renée Riese and Judd D. Hubert see the year as the peak of artistic innovations, where, before the 'unbelievable destruction' of the First World War, 'modernism decidedly came into its own', an exciting new way of seeing and representing.

Livres d'Artistes 1874-1999: The Dialogue between Painting and Poetry, edited by Jean Khalfa and published by Black Apollo Press in 2001, illuminates one of the most important themes of the exhibition. In five enlightening essays by expert scholars of avant-garde art, the book traces the reunion of poetry and painting throughout the twentieth century. Their traditional relationship, whereby one would be subordinate to the other - poetry assuming an imitative function, or painting simply narrating text - is redefined. Jean Khalfa, in his excellent foreword, explains the theory that 'painting would indeed be but vanity if it were to content itself with illustrating a meaning, fleshing it out, so to speak, however singular the lustre it might give to what could otherwise be said or written in a book… poetry seemed to have exhausted itself in the effort to encompass or describe a reality'. Now that both were free, neither dependent on the other, 'a game could start', and the livre d'artiste could become a 'dialogue'.

Sonia Delaunay adhered to this principle whole-heartedly. She stated that 'painting is a form of poetry, colours are words, their relations rhythms, the completed painting a completed poem.' Her collaboration with Blaise Cendrars in 1913, The Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Little Jehanne of France, is arguably the pièce de résistance at the Tate retrospective. Cendrars's poetic narrative of the train journey from Moscow to Paris is painted in numerous colours, fonts and sizes, running down a two-metre scroll alongside patches of watercolour and brightly painted shapes. Colour and form interact to create a dazzling parallel to the swaying movement of the train and the dynamic free verse of the poem. Renée and Judd Hubert's comprehensive and enlightening analysis posits the work as the most innovative livre d'artiste of the twentieth century, not only in its form, rejecting the traditional codex structure of turning pages in favour of a book that would unfold vertically, but also in its radical, modernist treatment of space and time.

Cendrars expressed his delight with the final piece, suggesting that 'mon poème est plus trempé de lumière que ma vie' (my poem is more drenched with light than my life). The term 'drenched' signals the true role that Sonia's painting plays in the poem; it infiltrates it and brings it to life, rather than functioning as a mere illustration. R. and J. Hubert describe how the colour and text are interwoven, to be read and viewed simultaneously; a 'tableau-poème that the reader/viewer is called upon to embrace in a single prehension, if not a single glance'. The visual and verbal overlap to become one discipline, as painting is inscribed into the narrative: 'Si j'étais peintre je déverserai beaucoup de rouge, beaucoup de jaune sur la fin de ce voyage' (If I were a painter I would splash lots of red and yellow over the end of this trip). But the effect is not only visual; but rhythmic, even musical. Simultanism was also known as Orphism, after the Greek myth of Orpheus, who charmed wild beasts with his music. From the child-like refrains to the typography, which creates the impression of a sort of score, musicality permeates the creation; 'the reader becomes listener'. All these media are fused in this masterpiece of modernist abstraction.

The EY exhibition pays particular attention to Sonia's dedication to modernity, which the Prose on the Trans-Siberian Railway celebrates. Colours do not emerge as pure essences or forms, but become 'bearers of motion and the incarnations of visuality' (R. and J. Hubert), emphasising the prismatic experience of cross-continental transport. The world flashes by as the train accelerates then slows down, chugging on then suddenly jerking forward. The narrative voice disintegrates as both the poet and train are lost and overwhelmed; 'Il y a des trains qui ne se rencontrent jamais/ D'autres se perdent en route' (There are trains that never meet/ Others just get lost). A constant emotional shift from contentment to dizziness and despair becomes a kind of abstract travel sickness.

For Baudelaire, modernity was concerned with the transient; made up of momentary exchanges rather than permanent relationships. This is evident throughout the retrospective. Sonia's art captures the colour and dynamism of urban life, from the electric lighting on the Boulevard Saint-Michel in her spectacular Electric Prisms series, to the craze for tango dancing in the early 1910s exhibited in her abstract paintings of the ballroom Le Bal Bullier. Dancers can be discerned in these blends of bright colours and shapes; anonymous faces and feet interlocking in a rhythmic embrace. The paintings of flamenco singers in Spain, where the Delaunays moved during the First World War, emphasise movement and music in the bold concentric circles which envelop the human forms like sound waves. As Cendrars suggests, the 'colours sing' .

Yet this commitment to an intensely visual cityscape at no point trumps her fascination with lettering. Sonia continued to integrate the verbal in her art, particularly in the cover designs for Vogue in 1916, where the title interacts with the abstract female figure, her head becoming the 'G', and the circular shapes of her dress harmonising with the 'O'. After the couple's return to Paris, Sonia made further strides in the world of fashion by setting up her own brand Simultané, principally to make ends meet, as the family's properties in St Petersburg had been seized during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, cutting off the Delaunays' main source of income. Much of her magnificent clothing is exhibited, but only small-format sketches for her 'robe-poèmes' (dress poems) remain. Words from surrealist poems by Tristan Tzara, Vicente Huiodobro and Iliazd decorate the sleeves and waistlines of the dresses; letters and images are again interwoven. Words were to be worn, and not just read. Her 'curtain-poem', a large taupe-coloured piece of crêpe de chine with Philippe Soupault's poem Sur le vent embroidered in red and black wool, is another ingenious work of artistry. Fashion, poetry, interior design – all are united in Sonia's ground-breaking creativity.

The dozen rooms of this exhibition are testament to the sheer scope of Sonia's œuvre, panning over the century, long after the death of her husband in 1941. One of the last works exhibited is the print portfolio Avec moi-même (With Myself), produced in collaboration with the publisher Jacques Damase in 1970. True to form, these autobiographical etchings demonstrate vivid, interacting shapes, one piece including a quote from Plato in the blank space between waves of colour; 'Penser, c'est pour l'âme s'entretenir en silence avec elle-même' ('Thinking is the talking of the soul with itself'). Her older years gave her works a softer, contemplative quality, but still as colourful and imaginative as in the early days of Simultanism.

This marvellous exhibition is a long overdue tribute to one of the pioneers of avant-garde art, and it does absolute justice to her life and works. The show perfectly balances an emphasis on biography with that of technical commentary, recognising that for Sonia Delaunay, art and life were inseparable. 'I have lived my art', she says in her autobiography, Nous irons jusqu'au soleil. The retrospective offers us the chance to do the same.

The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay is at Tate Modern from 15 April to 9 August.

A limited number of copies of Livres d'Artistes 1874-1999: The Dialogue between Painting and Poetry are available for purchase from Black Apollo Press (

The Dialogue Between Painting And Poetry