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VM inspiration: Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern

Sonia Delaunay Electric Prisms. Musee National d'Art Moderne Paris. Image Pracusa 2014083

Avant-garde artist Sonia Delauney’s work has long been overshadowed by that of her husband, Robert, whose work fills the Beaubourg Centre in Paris. But the Tate Modern’s current temporary exhibition suggests it is time for a rethink.

The Russian-born artist, who grew up in Germany and trained in Paris, is an inspiration for visual merchandising. This image, from 1913 – 4, recording the impact of Paris’s then-new electric street lighting, is a classic background for small merchandise display. Place a handbag on a plinth in front of the centre of the circle and, voila: instant eye-catching VM as the customer’s eye is drawn to the handbag.

Besotted by circles, and seeing them in everything from spinning flamenco dancers to aircraft propellers, Delaunay (1885 – 1979) ran a successful fashion and textiles print business for 25 years, creating furniture and exhibition murals.

Sonia Delaunay Simultaneous dresses 1925. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza Madrid. Image Pracusa 2014083

Sonia Delaunay’s fashion business commenced in Spain, where the Delaunays were stranded during WW1. Replacing an income that ceased after the Boshevik revolution in 1917, the fashion and design store was a success and branches in Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Barcelona followed.

On returning to Paris in 1921, their redecorated apartment became a hub for fellow artists and a boutique for Simultane, Delaunay’s fashion house. Delaunay employed a team of Russian women to manufacture, knit, and embroider geometrically-inspired merchandise. This painting could almost be a sketch for a window theme as is.

A car, which belonged to journalist Kaplan, was painted after one of Delaunay’s fabrics and might be a prop in any premium-brand window today. It is seen here with two models wearing Delauney-designed fur coats (manufactured by Heim), in front of The Pavilion de Turisme in 1925. The location for the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts, from which the period Art Deco takes its name, this is as ‘cutting-edge’ as we might wish all VM to be.

Sonia Delaunay Propeller (Air Pavilion) Skisseras Museum. Image: Pracusa 2014083

Delaunay was asked to contribute a series of murals to the Paris exhibition of 1937, entitled The International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life. The then-new passenger plane, a novelty and a costly luxury, and modern trains were perfect icons for the exhibition.

The murals, which took two years to complete with the assistance of an out-of-work artists’ collective called Art and Light, decorated both exhibition buildings. Those in the Railway Pavilion were awarded a gold medal by the exhibition judges. Sadly, they have not survived but the Air Pavilion panels, combining machine parts and a prominent propeller have.

Sonia Delaunay Rhythm no 1076 1939 Centre National des Arts Plastiques/Fonds National d'Art Contemporain Paris. Image: Pracua 2014083.

Delaunay’s business produced fashion, furniture, and also printed textiles for Amsterdam department store Metz & Co. (1740 – 2013), at that time housed in a distinctive building with roof and cupola designed by De Steil artist and architect, Gerrit Reitfeld. Composed of repeating geometric shapes for dress textiles, Delaunay’s work is a ‘must-see’ for both print and VM inspiration.

Coat made for Gloria Swanson 1923-24. Private collection. Image: Pracusa 2014083

Often, after an exhibition of the quality of this, we see an after-shock of interest the following season, in which elements of the exhibition are adopted and repurposed in fashion, interiors, or in print. The breadth of Delaunay’s work, as this crewel-worked coat on a calico base above suggests, was considerable, with a sophisticated colour palette, and again, almost any element of it would form inspiration for a VM backdrop or in-store focus.

The EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay runs at Tate Modern until 9 August 2015.