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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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Emerging Simultanism


Even though it was Robert Delaunay who outwardly and formally developed Simultanism based on, for instance, the Cubist and Futurist “doctrine” and Chevreul’s color theories regarding the simultaneous contrasts, their regulated merging and compostional effects, it was Sonia Delaunay who undoubtedly drew the ultimate consequences in her altogether interdisciplinary practice. This was the case, for instance, when it came to the famous patchwork quilt which she made for her son in 1911 in the shape of an abstract composition of colored square-shaped and rectangular pieces of cloth. A cradle cover then celebrated in art history as being inspired by Russian folkloric textile tradition, a notion heavily based on Sonia Delaunay’s own words in the magazine XXième Siècle (The 20th Century) as recently as 1956, at the same time the cover has been characterized as emblematic for Simultanism. In other words, it is then indicated that the peasant textiles in the Russian country cottages must have inspired the very idea of Simultanism in the French Avant-Garde, that is, that very current that Robert Delaunay is said to have initiated both theoretically and then practically, basing his ideas on explicitly French sources. This assumption about Robert Delaunay’s role gets all the more curious when it is claimed that the cradle cover was also emblematic for Sonia Delaunay’s conscious efforts to unite art and life, to transcend the given barriers between applied art and fine art, especially that the same pursuit in Arthur Segal at the foundation of his...

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