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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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On Her Dress She Has a Body


It is an inevitable fact that she originated in a humble, if not inconsiderable Eastern Jewish shtetl on the banks of today’s Kremenchuk reservoir on the Dnieper River about twenty miles South-East of Kiev, a shtetl which, among others, the Swedish art historians Viveka Bosson and Elisabet Haglund conceive only as a simple, totally insignificant “poor peasant’s village in Ukraine” in the Delaunay catalog of The Museum of Sketches in Lund in 200714 without the more care of describing how much these specific cultural and biographical points of departure of this “typical” Jewish shtetl in fact must have meant for Sonia Delaunay’s oeuvre altogether. This indifference to Central and Eastern Europe gets virtually bombastic dimensions and at the same time devastating consequenses for the image of the international Avant-Garde, a unfortunately heavily distorted picture not getting less distorted by the fact that the Jewish aspect is considered totally irrelevant without any significance whatsoever. Haglund, for instance, notes as if only incidentally – moreover almost slovenly – that Sonia Delaunay’s “Russian and Jewish” origin formed the background of her art, though leaving for Paris and the city’s most contemporary currents as soon as possible; Delaunay’s Jewish sounding board seems to be like the red rag, allowing the art historian to take the liberty of letting her appear out of a more or less pitch-black cultural vacuum, at best allowing her to be described as characterized by Russian High Society in Saint Petersburg and by the fact that she – although only in...

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