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Modernity and movement: “Prismes électriques”, 1914, by Sonia Delaunay (image: Pracusa 2013057/CNAP)

If there is a figure who perfectly exemplifies the creative urge at large in Paris in the first part of the 20th century it is not one of the usual line-up—Picasso, Josephine Baker, Coco Chanel or Scott Fitzgerald—but Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979). Not only was she was an international figure who was by turns an artist, fabric designer, advertising pioneer, interior designer, costume designer, and helpmeet to her painter husband Robert, but she was a work of art herself.

With Robert she can claim to have overruled the browns and greys of Picasso and Braque’s Cubism and given it colour. She was a pioneer and lifelong adherent of abstraction. She was also a leading light in the artistic and social avant-garde and in 1964 she became the first living female painter to have a retrospective at the Louvre. Despite all this she is often a difficult figure to disentangle from her husband. Although she outlived him by 38 years their work was so close stylistically that there remain numerous pictures that have open attributions—they could be his, they could be hers, or they could be by both. The exhibition devoted to her work at Tate Modern (opening April 15) should help reassert her individuality.

Sonia was born Sarah Stern in Gradizhsk, Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire), and brought up largely by her affluent uncle and aunt; she took the name Sonia Terk (their surname). With them she travelled around Europe and they financed her art tuition in Germany and Paris. Once settled in Paris she had a short-lived marriage of convenience with a homosexual German gallerist called Wilhelm Uhde: she brought him social acceptance and he gave her an entrée into the city’s art world. It was at his gallery that Sonia first met Robert Delaunay and there followed in quick succession an affair, her divorce from Uhde, a pregnancy and her marriage to Robert.

For all her training she was essentially a self-taught artist who initially was heavily under the influence of first Gauguin and the Post-Impressionists and then Matisse and the Fauves. What remained consistent in her tastes and output was the use of bright, non-representational colour. It was when she became involved with Robert that she began to play with the fractured planes of Cubism.

The results were launched in 1912 as Simultanism (what the poet Guillaume Apollinaire called Orphism), another of the plethora of isms that marked the first 20 years of the century. It is a term that describes the Delaunays’ pictures (they worked, in their phrase, “roped together”) in which often geometrical patches of contrasting colours are placed next to one another so that together they enhance the intensity of each. Sonia believed that “he who knows how to appreciate colour relationships, the influence of one colour on another, their contrasts and dissonances, is promised an infinitely diverse imagery.”

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