There has been an upsurge in the appreciation and study of Sonya Delaunay’s work recently. She is the first woman to have had a retrospective in the Louvre in 1964, yet some 15 years ago only a brief mention was afforded to her in a single lecture in my seemingly progressive alma mater. I imagine the situation is different now and the London retrospective of her work in the Tate in 2015 roves this.
Most of Sonya Delaunay’s work can be located in Paris. However, this gem is in the Tate Modern – Triptych from 1963.
I feel that one needs to know what they are meant to do in front of Delaunay’s work. Sonya Delaunay and her husband Robert invented Simultensim whilst working alongside each other. The style, or call it a movement, explores relationship between colours. In simple terms, Simultaneous paintings are designed to present an experience of colours looking differently depending on the colours around them. This fascination with relative appearance of colour could have only been created in the atmosphere of shifting values, environment and sensory experience –Paris, as the metropolitan heart of western Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.
Standing in front of this rather large work, one can pick a colour and see how it resonates against others. The strong accents of red land themselves to this experiment. Equally, the journey and the relationship of the blue can be traced and appreciated across three sections of the triptych that are only vaguely suggested by the complex geometry of the composition. Is it telling a story in which the white in the middle is a protagonist? A religious parallel is too easy, but also inevitable given the format and the symbolism. The colours are characters in themselves that form different relationships depending on what they stand to.
‘I lived my art’ is Delaunay’s most famous quote. Uprooted from her family home for the benefits of better social upbringing and education, Delaunay knew far too well what it meant to be at the right place and at the right time. That a colour can shine or shimmer or dull down depending on the companion next to it. She was a very savvy artist who knew what wanted to do and where she needed to be to let her talent shine.
Delaunay is a difficult artist to put into a cultural context because of her shifting cultural identity and cosmopolitan upbringing. I trust that she was born in Poltava province Ukraine rather than Odessa as this explains her mother’s decision, who was deeply dissatisfied with the provincial life, to send her daughter to live with her prominent brother in St Petersburg at the age of 5. Delaunay (néeStern) grew up in Russia, but studied and travelled extensively in Europe. When in Paris, Sonya married a gay friend to get her parents off her back about coming back to St Petersburg to settle down.
One thing that is apparent on Delaunay’s journey is her love of pattern. It is doubtful how many Ukrainian peasant weddings she had attended in her lifetime, yet the Ukrainian traditional dress is often quoted by scholars as a direct inspiration to her work and her fascination with pattern. After all, a typical Russian household can be a psychedelic experience of pattern – for the reasons still unknown to me. Mari Vanna’s restaurant in London is a toned-down beige chic version of that aesthetic sensibility that appears almost too severe next to the multicoloured plate of borsch. However, it is the closest one can get to it in London – a sort of a mini-anthropology-dining experience. I had to explain to my husband that he had to imagine the interior of Mari Vanna in much brighter clashing colours to understand how my great-grandmother’s living room really looked like.
Can Delaunay’s Triptych can be read as a journey of colour and embodiment of her life principles? A country neutral label in the Tate suggests that she WORKED in a number of countries. I am highlighting her work for those who seek RUSSIAN art in the UK collections. Delaunay’s answer about herself would probably be Simultenism – it is a question of aesthetics and it really depends on which colour one puts her next to.
To finish with some art history trivia – how about an unexpected example social Simultenism! Vladimir Putin grew up in the same house as Sonya Delaunay in St Petersburg – No 12 Baskov Lane. I would like to hear from the Russian readers if the building has plague about this. It should be recognised just like her imprint on the avant-garde art of the twentieth century.
If you would like to expand your knowledge about Sonya Delauney beyond sensory, plug into the Art History Babes podcast on your way out of Tate, also available on Itunes Podcast
Delaunay would approve of this modern consumption of art history, if not make a dress to go with it! Thank you to the Art History Babes for their contribution in promoting this Russian art babe.