by Sue Hubbard
You really do wonder, sometimes, just how long some women artists have to be around before anyone takes notice. When asked by a callow journalist how she felt, in her 90s, at having recently become famous, the artist, Louise Bourgeois replied acerbically: “I’ve been ‘ere all along.”
That this current show at Tate Modern, by the artist, Sonia Delaunay, should be her first retrospective in the UK, despite her 60 year-long career, is surprising. Though not a household name, long before such things were au courant, she created a hallmark style as an avant-garde painter, and an innovative fashion and theatre designer. Anyone born in the 40s or 50s, whether they realise it or not, will be familiar with the influence of her abstract designs on post war fabrics. To be a woman artist during the height of modernism was something of a paradox. Modernism and its playground Paris certainly gave women new freedoms in terms of art education, living arrangements, travel and relationships. But art history has, despite inroads made in the 70s by feminist critics, been a narrative written largely from a male perspective.
Born Sara Élievna Stern in 1885, the youngest of a modest Jewish family from Odessa, Delaunay’s life reads like that of the heroine from a 19th century novel. Sent by her parents to live with her wealthy uncle, Henri Terk, she adopted the name Sofia Terk (though was always known as Sonia). Through her uncle she was introduced to the great museums of St. Petersburg, spent summers in Finland, and became familiar with European culture. At the age of 18 she went off to study art in Germany. Seeking to emancipate herself from her middle-class background she went in search of artistic freedom, reading books on psychology and philosophy, including the book of the moment, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. She also developed a passion – one shared with her contemporary the poet Rainer Maria Rilke – for all things Slavic, perhaps as a way to stay in touch with her childhood. And she started to sew.