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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 Origin


It’s obvious, Sonia Terk appears to have had an ambivalent relation to her own and her family’s Jewish birth. Even though the Terks, according to Jean-Claude Marcadé, were “Europeanised” and did not strictly observe the precepts of Judaism, practising instead a “Judaism without religion”, and even if Sonia Delaunay did not frequent the specific Jewish circles in Paris, at the same time she celebrated the Orthodox Christian Easter, though culturally rather than religiously, in particular with dishes that were prepared specially for the occasion. Considering herself a “Russian Ukrainian”, indeed, even though Sonia Terk apparently did not receive any Jewish religious instruction, it would be intellectually unfair to try to wrench her from the Jewish, religiously imprinted world of ideas, as this must have percolated even into the most assimilated upper-class home in Saint Petersburg.

In the still unpublished diary fragments from, for instance, 1904, today at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and largely reproduced by Marcadé in the catalog for the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Tate Modern, Sonia Terk refers to the way in which both the Russian Jewish writer and dramatist Semyon Yushkevich and Nietzsche render the Jewish people as an exceptionally strong, talented, intelligent, and creative people. Yes, perhaps it is true, Sonia Terk writes,

that behind their appearance, which others find repulsive because of their typical facial features and behavior, are hidden martyrs, heroes… My God, how much suffering, it is everywhere,...

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