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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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First Karlsruhe, Then Paris


Let’s leave that unsaid whether Sonia Terk actually entered the Sankt-Petri-Schule or not, nevertheless, the fact remains that all of the so-called well-reputed schools for upper-class children in Saint Petersburg offered an instruction that without exceptions emphasized the importance of culture and higher education, and thus the children were taught not only to read and to get on in French, the language spoken by the Francophile imperial court and therefore also the language in vogue among the bourgeoisie, but they were instructed in German and English as well, except Russian of course, along with Russian and foreign literature and arts. At the same time the confessional variety was respected as, for instance, the Catholic children received Roman Catholic religious instruction while the Jewish children were taught by a rabbi. In other words, although she, being a girl, never went to a cheder school, Sonia Terk was not religiously illiterate, and since Yiddish and Ukrainian must have been the languages of ordinary intercourse back in Hradyzk, she must have had a good command of at least five languages besides Russian, namely precisely Yiddish and Ukrainian, French, German, and English, if not even a few words and phrases in Finnish. And even though the occasionally very much patronizing Swedish Nordisk Familjebok, for instance, thought that the Hermitage, regularly visited by the “well-reputed” schools, included only “an excellent collection of the Dutch school, a few paintings of the Russian school and some good examples of the old Italian, Spanish and French...

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