Art review: Hue’s she? Sonia Delaunay

Almost as groundbreaking as the paintings is the way Delaunay positioned herself in the cultural scene

Tate Modern | ★★★★☆

Sonia Delaunay’s life story is every bit as colourful as her paintings. Born in Odessa to an aristocratic family in 1885, she moved to Paris in 1908 where she married the gay art dealer Wilhelm Uhde, divorced him, married her lifelong collaborator Robert Delaunay, moved to Portugal, moved back, and eventually settled in Paris. In between, she translated poetry, produced thousands of paintings and started a successful textile business.
Almost as groundbreaking as the paintings is the way she positioned herself in the cultural scene. Almost a century before Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas opened “The Shop”on Bethnal Green Road as a way of marketing their art, Delaunay adopted a multi-faceted approach to her practice, using her status as an artist to support her various ventures.
But to focus too much on her marketing ingenuity is to do what critics have done to so many leading female artists: overlook the work. And the work, on the whole, is phenomenal. Beginning to end, this exhibition is filled with resplendent, hallucinatory paintings that both reflect her era and accelerate beyond it in streaks of pigment.
Take Bal Bullier, Delaunay’s 1913 painting of a French ballroom. It looks like a panel of abstract shapes until your eyes capture the movement of dancers racing through the foreground. It’s an abstract painting surfing on the crest of figuration; an animate world in which hues and shapes are just as alive as human beings.
Delaunay is equally as enthralling in her quieter moments. The opening room contains a series of portraits, muted by her standards, which show the emotional acuity of the artist as she began to feel her way. She was only 22 when she painted a tender, introspective rendering of a large-featured friend, Tchoiko.
The exhibition dedicates a few rooms to the chic textile designs that the great and good of interwar Europe scrambled to get their hands on before the 1929 crash. These are diverting, but it’s a relief to return to where we started: with passionate, emotionally charged abstract paintings.
As she entered her final decades her palette got darker. Blues and blacks replaced yellows, greens and reds, but her paintings stayed true to rhythm of her century. This bright, invigorating show is proof, as if it were needed, of how impoverished we have been by the failure to acknowledge women artists.

CRITIC’S CHOICE: ART

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