Color Clash

Electric Prisms, 1913

Electric Prisms, 1913. Courtesy of Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.

Shortly after the birth of her son in 1911, the French artist and designer Sonia Delaunay made a patchwork quilt for his crib and had something of a revelation: Seeing all of the pieces of fabric stitched together confirmed her belief that clashing colors and forms take on a life of their own. Though Delaunay would come to be best known for the pioneering abstract paintings she made with her husband, the painter Robert Delaunay, she was perhaps most radical in the way she extended their ideas about color and geometric form into her fashion and textile designs. That’s certainly the conclusion I drew after seeing the sumptuous Sonia Delaunay retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, the first exhibition to spotlight her prodigious output as an artist, and as a fashion, textile, and even car designer during a 60-year career (the show arrives this month at Tate Modern in London and runs through August 9). A highlight is one of Delaunay’s costumes for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production of Cléopâtre, with its riot of pattern and charged palette of pink, orange, violet, and green. But throughout the 1920s, her vibrant combinations also adorned the gowns, coats, and bathing suits of socialites and surrealist poets alike, and it’s those dresses and fabric designs that remind us just how thoroughly modern she remains.