Sonia Delaunay, Tate Modern


Every year there are one or two shows at Tate Modern that I am desperate to see. This Spring as soon as I noticed the colourful posters for Sonia Delaunay’s exhibition appearing, I put the exhibition on my to do list and ensured I saw it as soon as my busy diary allowed.

Sonia Delaunay had a long and interesting life – a Russian-born French artist, her work is striking and unique. She spent most of her career working in Paris with her husband Robert Delaunay, who was also an artist. Together they founded the Orphism art movement characterised by its use of vibrant colours and geometric shapes.

This major retrospective comes from Paris and features an impressive collection of Delaunay’s paintings, designs and embroidery. The first room instantly reminded me of Gauguin with the rich colours and expressive figures. The vividly coloured nudes are confident and bold, they illustrate her desire to break away from academic convention and are dark and moody in style.

It was when she met her husband in 1907 that her style began to incorporate abstraction. The use of Simultanism (a theory of simultaneous colour contrasts) is evident in all media, including a patchwork cradle cover she made for her young son. Delaunay’s abstract paintings (of which there are many) initially appear to employ random colours and shapes, but on closer inspection show the influence of modern technology and machinery, less obviously than in Futurism.

In was the later rooms dedicated to Delaunay’s contribution to fashion that surprised me the most. I had no idea she had had such a prominent role in design, textiles, and indeed was such a remarkable businesswoman – an area where many talented artists fall down. I loved seeing the outfits Sonia designed for dance productions, and how she applied her fascination with abstraction to the wonderful costumes.

It is clear wandering round this colourful show that it is the abstract works and decorative patterns of Sonia Delaunay that have had the most lasting success. However it was the first room of haunting female figures that I remembered long after leaving Tate.

Sonia Delaunay continues until 9 August. If you visit I recommend also popping into the Agnes Martin exhibition, very different to Delaunay but equally moving.

Book tickets here.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MAN: Richard Diebenkorn, Royal Academy of Arts

Cityscape #1, 1963

Richard Clifford Diebenkorn Jr. is an unprepossessing name for an artist whose paintings exude Californian cool. The Royal Academy’s Sackler Wing is not sunny and is best suited to displaying prints and drawings – it provides a rather gloomy environment for Diebenkorn’s clear, bright landscapes and lyrical abstracts.

The first of three rooms contains his little known Abstract Expressionist works from the 50s – exciting dynamic paintings that show the obvious influence of De Kooning. Diebenkorn’s pictures are rarely completely resolved but appear to have just stopped at an interesting point; he replaces the violence of De Kooning with floppy rhythms and wonky patches of subtle colour.

His figurative works like Girl on a Terrace from 1956 involve distracted silhouetted bystanders with the components of Edward Hopper’s ‘portraits’ but with less psychological tension. Diebenkorn’s signature Ocean Park series is heralded memorably by 1963’s masterpiece, Cityscape #1 with its satisfying balance of surface and depth, painterliness and description, energy and composure. The 1970s works in the series are airier and less argumentative, moving further from the motif and towards an easier geometric language, swopping the intense pentimenti of the earlier pictures for broad areas of confidently applied pastel colour.

Diebenkorn’s paintings take elements of Matisse and Bonnard and expand them into broad American vistas. He is a painter’s painter and the gallery was full of earnest enthusiasts leaning in to examine the surfaces from two inches away.

Diebenkorn’s euphoric art is rarely seen in this country and, while being very welcome, would benefit from a more expansive and celebratory exhibition.

Continues until 7 June 2015, more information and book here.

Written by a Thoroughly Modern Man, Chris Kenny.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MAN: Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden, Tate Modern

Marlene Dumas paints victims: victims of oppression, abuse and misfortune. The way she paints has a damp pathos – soft big shapes: bodily, slightly shameful like a wet patch on a bed.

Her Tate Modern retrospective begins with Rejects, a composite of her signature ink and wash heads on loose sheets of paper. They started as rejects from other works but also appear as rejected individuals: wonky, dazed ghosts sometimes with their eyes cut out to reveal (more successful?) eyes beneath.

Dumas’ oil paintings have a similarly diluted aesthetic; she suggests skin, hair or moody environments with the minimum of pigment suspended in puddles that sometimes appear accidental – she always avoids any predictable depiction of the human body.

Dumas works exclusively from photographic sources which means she paints not just an individual but the position that individual holds in the media, be that a newspaper or a pornographic magazine. Sometimes we feel her sympathy for her subjects but often there is a disturbing amorality as in her ‘portraits’ of Osama bin Laden and that of his son, memorably quoted on the subject of his father: “he hated his enemies more than he loved his children”.

The handmade-ness of Dumas’s works contradicts her use of photographic and digital imagery so that she unites the two poles of visual representation – her deceptively sloppy execution cancelling out the unfeeling objectivity of mechanical observation.

The almost negligent ‘thinness’ of Dumas’ style, the sourness of her colours and the sickly nature of her subject matter are features she shares with a coterie of fashionable contemporary artists – Tuymans, Sasnal, Peyton and to some extent Richter and Doig. Are these artists reflecting an accurate view of the world today? Everything appears polluted, de-energised, only half there.

While the beauty and emotional charge is undeniable in the Marlene Dumas exhibition, one does feel in need of an invigorating walk and a wholesome meal afterwards.

Exhibition continues until 10 May 2015, more information and book here.

Written by a Thoroughly Modern Man, Chris Kenny.