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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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Wilhelm Uhde and Robert Delaunay


Despite the amazing and by art historians mostly disregarded strong female participation in the Parisian Avant-Garde during the first decades of the 20th century and despite her own upbringing imbued with its distinguished emancipatory qualities, in regard to prevalent gender policy, it is, however, hardly not to be wondered at the fact that it was an eleven years older, well established male who introduced Sonia Terk to the inner core of the Avant-Garde, at the same time offering her her first solo exhibition at his own newly opened gallery at rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs in Montparnasse. Not very unsurprisingly born in an assimilated Jewish family in Friedeberg in the Prussian part of occupied Poland, in today’s Strzelce Krajeńskie, Wilhelm Uhde had studied at several German and Swiss universities before settling down in Paris in 1904, living on the same stairs as Sonia Terk on the Boulevard du Montparnasse, quickly getting in touch with, among others, Leo and Gertrude Stein. Being in desperate need of ready money he began buying art by those artists whom he met at the already well-known and precisely by artists keenly frequented Café de la Rotonde, Le Dôme and Closerie des Lilas, all of them located in the Latin Quarter. Here he bought one work after another as cheap as possible in order to sell them at the highest possible price, paintings by artists such as Picasso and Braque, Derain, Vlaminck, and Dufy. Moreover, Wilhelm Uhde rallied around himself a considerable group of the...

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