Our conventional ideas of the shape of an artistic career have been modeled on the lives and legends of a fairly small number of male artists. You know the story: the precociously manifest talent; the youthful breakthrough into unfathomable originality; the relentless pursuit of a personal vision, even at the cost of great suffering—not only by the artist himself, but by his family and friends; and then either an early burnout (retrospectively glorious) or the slow attainment of an Olympian transcendence that is also a kind of hermetic isolation.
Few artists have really lived that life, and women artists even less. Take Sonia Delaunay, the subject of an eye-opening retrospective at London’s Tate Modern (organized in collaboration with the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where the show originated last October). Not only was Delaunay something of a late bloomer in a culture that values youthful genius; she was also married to a fellow painter to whom she always accorded creative priority, even though his early works were his best. She stopped painting for two decades to become a designer of clothing and textiles—and as the art historian Linda Nochlin has pointed out, “for a woman artist to ‘return’ as it were to her traditional role in the minor arts, generally less conducive to fame and fortune than a career in painting or sculpture,” has often been “viewed as a retrograde step.”
What’s remarkable about the Tate’s Delaunay retrospective, on view through August 9, is that it finally makes it possible to begin seeing Delaunay’s art as a whole, despite her transformation from painter to designer and back again—not to mention the sudden reversals of fortune that have tempted some biographers to novelistic excess. (No less indispensable than the show is its catalog, the best book in English about Delaunay since Arthur A. Cohen’s monograph of 1975, despite its unfortunate lack of an overall biographical narrative.)
Delaunay began life in 1885 as Sara Stern, the daughter of a penniless Jewish laborer in Odessa, or perhaps in the town of Gradizhsk (Hrdzy’k); the sources are extremely hazy. But there was a maternal uncle, childless, who’d made good as a lawyer, and when the girl was about 5—again, the details are vague—she became his de facto adoptee. She began a new life in St. Petersburg as Sonia Terk, part of a family about as affluent (and as assimilated) as a Jewish family could be in late-19th-century Russia. Her new life: tutors and governesses, vacations in Europe, a deepening intimacy with art, music, philosophy, and literature in many languages.
Sonia Terk must have been strong-willed from the start. As cultivated as her adoptive parents may have been, they must have been skeptical about her traveling abroad on her own to pursue the study of art. Yet at the age of 18, she left Russia for the art academy in Karlsruhe, Germany. Her instinct for falling in with the right people took hold when she was befriended by the rising young composer Arnold Schoenberg and his wife. But after a couple of years, Paris beckoned. The timing was perfect. It was 1905, the year of the Fauves, and the young painter got the point: freedom with color, color as freedom. Talking it through with her circle of young Russian women artists-to-be, she and they felt they could go still further; Matisse, they suspected, was still “too bourgeois.”