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Born in a Shtetl

An Essay on Sonia Delaunay and her Jewishness

Tom Sandqvist

Sonia Delaunay is one of the most important artists of the early twentieth century, whose contribution to European Modernism was fundamental, if not always fully acknowledged in its own right. She is known for translating her experiments via painting into the realm of fashion, interior design and crafts and, thus, consciously transcending the boundaries between fine and applied art. The focus within mainstream art history has been her relationship with her husband Robert Delaunay. Tom Sandqvist shifts this focus on her Jewish roots and sheds a light on the influence of growing up in the typical Eastern European shtetl, which has not attracted any special attention in the analysis of Delaunay’s art. Tom Sandqvist reflects on the impact of Judaism on Sonia Delaunay’s œuvre, with a special focus on her early contributions to Simultanism and Orphism within the interwar Parisian Avant-Garde.

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The Dadaist Inspired by Sonia Delaunay


Those were strange times, the fall of 1915 followed by the spring of 1916. The war that would be considered the first of two world wars only three decades later had been raging already for more than one year, and still no end was in sight. The tanks were rolling across the continent, the trenches were dug deeper and deeper, hopelessness was spreading, the old conception of the world was shaken in its foundations, the new art was ready to conquer the world, many were dreaming of contributing to the new that must come when the old world was shattered to pieces. The French Cubists had paved the way, the Italian Futurists added fuel to the fire, the Russian Cubo-Futurists were preparing for the revolution that would shock the world, others were stomping impatiently in the hall.

About the same time as the German dramaturge, writer and amateur piano-player Hugo Ball signed the contract with the Dutch restaurant keeper Jan Ephraim to open a new literary cabaret at his place Meierei on Spiegelgasse 1 in the old town of Zürich, something decisive was happening only some twenty miles away, which would have a crucial impact on an artist’s entire career. The preparations in Zürich were already in full swing and it would take only a short time until Hugo Ball, together with the variety artist and reciter Emmy Hennings, would invite a bunch of madcaps to hang their works onto the walls of the...

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