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Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Sonia Delaunay - painter, pioneer, perenially modern

There is nothing quite like a gallery visit for a visual jolt to the senses, and this post
Electric Prisms (1914)
celebrates the work of an artist whose work continues not only to  resonate among devotees of vintage Art Deco and fans of the current 1970s fashion revival, but also  those of us curious about creative inspiration. 

Like so many pioneers, the life of painter and designer Sonia Delaunay
is as fascinating as her work. But unlike her creative contemporaries, the young Russian art student who arrived in Paris in the early 1900s has not always been fully recognised as the key figure in Modernism she truly is. This is now boldly put right in a strikingly diverse exhibition at Tate Modern showcasing a career spanning most of the 20th Century. 

That diversity lies in her freedom of expression across art and design, inspired by what she regarded as the  relationship between abstraction and how we see the world. Although a painter first and last, there were no borders in Sonia's artistic output, and she moved easily from canvas to textiles in her aim to integrate art into every element of life. She worked across the applied arts, in fashion, costume, theatre and book design; in tapestry, stained glass and mosaics. And if her work remains startlingly modern today in it's dynamic geometric patterns and vivid colours; to the Paris of the early 1900s it was a shock to the system alongside that of Picasso and Braque. 

Born Sara Stern in 1885 to Jewish parents in Odessa, her humble beginnings were exchanged for a priviliged upbringing when she was adopted by a wealthy uncle who moved among the artistic and intellectual circles of St Petersburg . Fluent in four languages, and brought on trips throughout Europe, she translated all that she saw into her art. The early portrait paintings, with their bold lines and  vivid planes of colour,  show the influence of German Expressionsim (as a teenager she attended the Art Academy in Karlsruhe) and the Fauves.
Simultaneous designs (1925)
By 1906, she had moved to study in Paris and to a world where she further broke free from academic convention to fully embrace abstraction. She married her gay friend, art dealer Wilhelm Uhde, who staged her first exhibition in his gallery in 1908. After they ended their marriage of convenience, she married painter Robert Delaunay, who, like her, was influenced by Cubism and abstraction. 

Dress designs (early 1920s)

Both were fascinated by how perception of colour changes when placed beside varying tones, and they developed a theory of simultaneous colour contrasts which they called Simultanism. Her inspiration ranged from the Russian folk art of her childhood to the advance of technology. After the birth of her son in 1911, she made a patchwork cover for his cradle combining traditional Russian peasant design with abstract patterns. One of the large works in the Tate is Electric Prisms, a dynamic, pulsating swirl of colours depicting the new electric street-lighting rapidly changing 1914 Paris. She was equally fascinated by the colour and movement of the tango dance craze sweeping through the city in those pre-war years. 
Danseuse (1914)

During the war, the couple moved to live in Spain and Portugal. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 brought the funding from her family in Russia to an end. It was the catalyst in the setting up of Casa Sonia in Madrid the following year as a means to supplement sales of painting with fabric and fashion design. Several projects for Vogue followed, as well as a commission from her friend Sergei Diaghilev to design costumes for his Ballets Russes.
Multi-panelled coat for Gloria Swanson
On the couple's return to Paris in 1921, their apartment became a hub for writers and artists as well as Delaunay's studio and boutique. Her artistic reputation and her career blossomed as commissions for work flowed in, such as the multi-patterned coat she designed for film actress Gloria Swanson and shown as part of the Tate exhibition.

Then came the Second World War, followed by the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940. With her Jewish ancestry, the city was no longer safe for Sonia. Robert was also terminally ill. They travelled south to Grasse, staying with close and trusted friends, including her longtime pal, Wilhelm Uhde. 

Robert died in 1941. Sonia survived the war, and continued to bring her passion for abstraction to the applied arts. In her later years, she explored her lyrical geometric forms and dramatic colours in large scale paintings such as Syncopated Rhythm (the Black Snake).
Thoroughly modern Sonia
Sonia Delaunay died in her beloved Paris in 1979.

Artistically acclaimed and commercially successful - her fabric designs were greatly sought after by Liberty - this retrospective not only celebrates a central figure in early 20th century art but an inspirational woman whose work remains defiantly modern.

Catch the EY Exhibition: Sonia Delaunay at Tate Modern, 15 April - 9 August 2015
Jigsaw are currently paying homage with their Delaunay competition for free tickets

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

She's got The Look

'Look at me when I'm talking to you...' (Photograph: Jeff Vespa/Contour by Getty Images)
Now in her 69 th year, actor Charlotte Rampling is a contradiction in a youth-centric film industry. Sensuality, whatever age, is what makes people attractive, she has said.  In her case, that sensuality is all in the eyes.  Luchino Visconti, who directed her in The Damned (1969), encompassed the razor sharp cheekbones, the deep sultry voice, but especially that chilly, leonine gaze, all in one simple phrase:  ‘The Look’. Viewers of the second season of TV drama Broadchurch will know what he means; that challenging gaze has not diluted and remains Rampling’s strongest weapon in her role as the formidable QC Jocelyn Knight.

It’s not just fictional characters she keeps at arm’s length. In real life, Rampling has refused the temptation of the plastic surgeon’s knife. You’ve got to wait, not panic, you need your face to grow with you, she has said.  Instead, she embodies a certain European, age-less froideur (born British, but raised and lives in France) that flies in the face of the gossip magazines fixated on  Bright Young Things. You get the impression that today’s obligatory red carpet demands would be a real chore for an actor synonymous with Seventies art-house controversy. On the odd occasion you see her appear there at all, she’s most likely clad in a tuxedo. Likewise, you feel the chit-chat of so much of the celebrity interview would be a bore to the woman awarded the title of Dame under France's Legion d'Honneur in 2002.

But when asked about ageing, as she inevitably is these days, she brings to the subject an intelligence that looks beyond the undeniable, but fleeting, beauty of youth. In The Look: Charlotte Rampling, the 2011 documentary by Angelina Maccarone, ‘Age’ is one of the topics the actor discusses with writer Paul Auster.

“You wake up and you are one day older. You get on with it, you cannot avoid reality,” she says in the film. “Nothing stays as it is, but when you talk about beauty fading, it becomes something else. If you have that sparkle behind the eyes, that stays.” Her sister Sarah, who died of suicide at 23, was beautiful, says Rampling, adding that she felt her own face was ‘strange’ and with eyes ‘heavy-lidded’.  But the camera continues to love her, and it’s that photogenic quality that led to her involvement in the Nars cosmetic campaign for the Audacious Lipstick range in 2014, age 68.
"Audacious? Moi?" Nars 2014 campaign

Francois Nars, for whom Rampling has long been a ‘muse’, shot the images featured in Vogue last spring.  Similarly, designer Marc Jacobs, who has an interest in what he calls ‘the imperfection of what’s real’, featured a near-naked Rampling in an edgy ad campaign for his 2004 and 2009 collections. Photographer Juergen Teller has also been a long-time collaborator with Rampling. He has said he eschews photo-correction or re-touching in his images, preferring reality to artifice.  When he wanted to photograph a female, post-menopausal nude, Rampling was his perfect model because, as she has also said, beauty is only skin deep, while attraction and desire are things impossible to get to the bottom of.

“Desire is within you. It’s a formidable tool. Some people keep it alive, on and on. It can be a feeling a person gives you. It may not always be sexual, it may be that you just want to be with them,” she says. In The Damned, she played at character 10 years older than her then 23. Age has fluidity, she suggests, again quoting director Visconti, who told her at that time, “You are any age. It’s all behind the eyes, it’s the soul.”