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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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Back To Hradyzk, Back To Mogilev


Subject to both the term “strategy” and that it would have been consciously carried out in the proper semantic meaning of the word, it seems also obvious that Sonia Delaunay’s refusal to submit herself to the unwritten but anyhow implacable ban of Western European Modernism on trascending the barrier between fine art and applied art was – at least partly – an unusually successful strategy. Furthermore, against the odds of a kind that makes one wonder why it was a virtue in Modernist Avant-Garde circles to try to tear down the wall between art and “life” simultaneously as it was so difficult to admit that textiles, dresses, costumes, bookbindings, upholstery, compacts, advertising posters, and lampshades were not part of precisely this “life”. The explanation seems to be as simple as compromising for the Avant-Garde permeated with hereditary and in the social structures sedimented gender norms – to the “chaps” sitting at the Café de la Rotonde or the Dôme, the potent Eiffel Tower was considerably more smashing than the dress in the shop-window just as the snorting, noisy engine passing through the tunnels or the airplane tearing the sky into shreds were the “true” symbols of the progressive, modern future. For instance, significantly enough, when it comes to the terminology and rhetoric that was to characterize the discourse around Sonia Delaunay, the American photographer David Seidner allowed himself in an interview with her as recently as 1982,64 with explicit references to her interdisciplinary practice, to anchor this to her...

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