How Sonia Delaunay Paved the Way for Wearable Art as We Know it

Sonia Delaunay once remarked that her art had appeared ‘40 years too early.’ Even today, time has yet to catch up with the Ukrainian-born French artist’s pioneering vision and astounding output, which spanned the turn of the century through the 1970s.

Lynne Cooke at The Burlington Magazine: Visionaries are fundamental to the avant-gardes that appeared in Europe in the inter-war years. Few, however, were as prescient, pragmatic and tactical as Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979). Over the past decade, the artistic achievements of the Ukrainian-born, Russian-educated and German-trained pioneer have been radically reappraised. Long celebrated for her contributions to histories of modernist textile and fashion, today, the ambitious entrepreneurial vision that steered her multifaceted practice is also being recognised. Taking Delaunay’s strategic self-fashioning as its lens, Living Art, at the Bard Graduate Center explores the roles that branding, marketing and the mass media played in the dissemination of her vast output, which comprises painting, embroidery, textile design, interior design, couture, tapestry, rug-making, limited edition print portfolios, graphic design, murals, mosaics and costumes and decor for theatre, film and dance. Transmuted across her oeuvre without distinction, her signature Simultanist style gave coherence and cogency to such a dazzling effusion of mediums and materials. For Delaunay, the spare Constructivist idiom in a bold palette of primary colours, plus black, symbolised modernity: dynamism, light, speed, change and mobility.

To say Sonia Delaunay was prolific is an understatement. Her output spanned painting, embroidery, textiles, couture, tapestry, graphics, mosaics and décor. She established her modernist credentials in the 1920’s by applying “singular” geometric designs to fashions such as the flapper dress. Although she moved on to painting after WW2, the peak of her career was her textile and fashion work that anticipated Pop and Op art. Delaunay noted ruefully that she had ”been born forty years too early”.

Building on the game-changing retrospective at Tate Modern, London, and the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, in 2014, which took as its credo Delaunay’s claim that there was ‘no gap’ between her work in the fine arts and the applied arts, Living Art also benefits from subsequent exhibitions in 2022 at the Louisiana Museum, Humlebæk, and at the Kunstmuseen Krefeld.[1] These influential exhibitions generated a wealth of new scholarship, much of which is indebted to meticulous records and material archives that the artist maintained, with characteristic foresight, over the course of her long career and bequeathed to the French state. Some five years in the making, Living Art is manifestly a research-driven project. The wall texts and object labels, brimming with incisive detail, reveal the crucial contribution of each carefully selected exhibit to the show’s textually driven narrative. The hefty catalogue, replete with twenty-four scholarly essays, suggests that this subject is far from exhausted.[2] 

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