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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 Jewish Elite Close To the Emperor


Double standards were legion – the pogroms were allowed to ravage freely, thousands and thousands of Jews were murdered without mercy. At the same time the restrictions in the Pale were gradually tightened, all this occuring parallel to a cautious political and economical liberalisation, and where and whenever something went wrong, there the Jews were always to blame. Henri Terk must indeed have walked on the tightrope up to the disaster of the Bolshevik coup d’état in October 1917, at which the family lost everything and the daughter had to get along best she could in distant Madrid. After having failed to secure her allowance, hardly a sum to be sneezed at, in fact the rents from about eighty apartment houses in Saint Petersburg. One of the reasons behind the many restrictions against the Jews was simply that so many of them were at the point of entering the elite, thus intimidating, if not terrifying those in power. Many of the government authorities and officials together with leaders of various professional associations conducting the modernization of Russia, people who generally associated modern times with increasing welfare, enlightenment, freedom, and meritocratic fairness, were disturbed by the extraordinary successes of the Jews – and by Jewish radicalism. The Jews didn’t fit into the pattern, since they were so successful; they were often also “dangerous” businessmen, who, moreover, through their radical sons insulted both God and the tsar. At the same time the Russian peasant must be protected, since he was in...

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