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Sonia Delaunay at Bastian Gallery

This review has been a while in the making, and writing it has been filled with a good deal of hesitation. I wrote the first draft, which was more of a scathing tirade, in May. I didn’t publish it because although I felt the things I had written were true, there was a shred of discomfort that held me back. I had a creeping fear that I had been too rash, too simplistic, that I had failed to perceive everything there was to see. I decided I wasn’t going to review the show, but something kept dragging me back, the pull of a promise unfulfilled. So now, two weeks before closing, I have revisited my initial thoughts, and though I’ve softened the tone, my opinion has not changed.

When I first visited the gallery I met Ross, who had organised the show over lockdown. He explained to me that the Bastian wanted to champion Sonia Delaunay’s legacy as a painter, something that had taken a backseat in her practice until after her husband’s death. He had been a famous painter too, and had overshadowed Sonia throughout their careers. Together, they had developed ‘their own completely distinct abstract language.’ While I understood the need for her to be recognised as an artist in her own right, I was confused by why this had to stem from a focus on her paintings. It seemed to me another way to reinforce the traditional pedagogy of painting as ‘superior’ or, more valuable, than craft.

I emailed Ross and asked him this, and he replied : “As a gallery we specialise in post war and contemporary US and German work, so felt Delaunay’s paintings and prints would be more aligned with the sort of material that forms the basis or our client’s collections.”

I suppose commercially this is understandable, and the Bastian is a commercial gallery at the end of the day. However, by framing Delaunay’s public exhibition as needing to be driven by her paintings as opposed to her larger career working in textiles, pottery, and other mediums in a radically experimental way, we fail to understand why she was so influential. The ability to work in several dimensions, with a wide range of physical expressions, was doubtless at the crux of how she was able to paint so well and develop the symbolic language that she did.

In the commercial vein, to fully ascertain the ‘value’ of Delaunay’s pieces, and in fact to heighten it, understanding her context is paramount. Describing her practice and lifestyle she said: “I always changed everything around me… I made my first white walls so our paintings would look better. I designed my furniture; I have done everything. I have lived my art.” (1)

I eventually discovered that the Rhythm and Colour pieces, which are on view at the Bastian, were created as a response to Jacque’s Damase’s poetry. This embeds her painting in a reactive and multidisciplinary context, but I found this out two weeks after I had seen the show, through a post on the gallery’s Instagram. This crucial information was not in the exhibition text in the show, and it seems a shame that it has been overlooked and posited as a ‘fun fact’ in a social media caption.

An article written by the curator of her last retrospective at the Tate in 2015 describes Delaunay as having a "varied practice that was sympathetic to the later concerns of the Bauhaus school, with its aim to bring art back into contact with the everyday, giving equal weight to design and fine art.” (2) It also maintains that she remained “consistently faithful” to abstract painting. This creates and understanding that she developed her design and fine art works in tandem, that they were in the end, enmeshed in one practice. I find the Bastian exhibition text to be misleading, enforcing a linear narrative of creative production by suggesting she 'returned' to painting after her husband's death, as if this were a 'step up' from the craft work she had been doing in the meantime. This plays right into the patriarchal and institutionalised projections of art the gallery claims to be trying to separate her work from.

I also wish the Bastian had given more attention to the necessary influence of her Eastern European background. In person, Ross mentions that he believes Sonia was the one who gave birth to the symbolic language her and her husband pioneered. He also tells me this was potentially due to the influence of her background, but he tells me she was born in St Petersburg. She was in fact born in Ukraine. Similarly, one exhibition text cites her as being born in Odessa, another says Russia. She did in fact move to Russia when she was seven, but this slip up reveals a cultural flattening.

On to the physicality of the show. I think the use of the space, as in most white cube galleries, is poor. There is a massive stretch of wall on the left above the stairs that is bare. Why? Of course, gallerists often say that works ‘need to breathe’, but this underestimates a viewer’s capacity to focus in an artificial space created for just that. It also robs them of the rich web of interconnected understanding created by multi perspectival visual stimulation. This is a problem of systemic conformity rather than a critique of the individual curation of this show. It is an issue of standard format visual language, and it should be obvious that it is an austere environment for a practice that was preoccupied with its antithesis.

All of these things concatenate into a show that I found slightly reductive for showcasing an artist with such a multifarious and complex practice. I am not asking for an eight room retrospective delineating every inch of her career, but I want some oomph! A smaller space can actually facilitate a more intimate dynamic between the gazer and the gazed upon, if it does not become complacent to the easy and clinical modern gallery pattern. Why does every exhibition need to look the same?

This is once more a forced slotting of unconventional artists into categories that will bring them ‘merit’. Sonia Delaunay shouldn’t have to be understood as just a ‘painter in her own right’ in a conventional space to recognise her artistic independence from her husband. Her multiplicities as a creator are what grant her that, and they exist precisely because of her experience as an immigrant and woman.