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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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From Hradyzk To the Capital of the Empire


Occasionally speaking of his belowed wife and her art Robert Delaunay was seldom unequivocal, often even unclear on the verge of astonishing obscurity. Almost always focusing on her in relation to himself in his capacity of being the artistic and particularly the intellectual driving force of their relationship. At the same time he atypically of the period, exotized her “Oriental” origin and points of departure compartive to his own person and art, which of course instead was characterized by normative French èsprit and intellectuality. Sonia Delaunay cannot have felt otherwise than injured or perhaps even insulted by the maybe also anti-Semitically patronizing tone and the way in which her cultural abode became the exotic marginal. While he himself occupied the absolute centre of modern Avant-Garde. Thus he explained, for instance, that her sense of color was instinctive, immediate and atavistic, “like all artists and poets of the East”, that is, in some obscure way genetically inherited and determined by her biologically defined Russian Jewish origin. This statement is quite shocking, Griselda Pollock notes, while hesitating herself in finding the answer: instead of seeing Sonia Delaunay’s intelligent comprehension and transformation of Gauguinism and its residual figuration, Robert Delaunay attributed her aesthetic orientation to Eastern origins – did he mean Jewish, or did he mean Ukrainian, or both, in the eyes of an effete French aristocrat? Pollock tends, however, to pay more attention to her Russian background than her Jewishness when she accuses Robert Delaunay of missing her own participation in...

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