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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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Simultanism and the Dissolved Hierarchies


The display of the products at the 1925 exhibition was itself radically transgressive and challenged thereby the very conception of fine art as superior to the applied arts. The textiles and the accessories were presented as “pictures” or sculptural objects mounted on square-shaped boards, according to Elisabet Haglund, a conscious strategy of Sonia Delaunay with the didactic purpose of pleasing the vision of the eye as such, according to André Lhote, in a way that made the unaccustomed eye finally really see cubist art, that she, against odds, in fact succeeded in awakening the public’s interest in painting and its fantastic idioms. Indeed, the shop-window itself was the strategic tool in the same spirit as the Bauhaus back in Weimar conceived this window as a microcosm presented for the world – Sonia Delaunay herself explained that the shop window and the arts were closely allied to each other and that this was always a common aesthetic language, because the window follows and reflects the artistic progress: they are together the best expression of the visions of the period, of the modern age, she said, and sounded almost exactly like Walter Benjamin in his big project on the passages of Paris. He too a Jewish intellectual always emphazising the simultaneous multiplicity of expressions, languages, objects and phenomena as characteristic of modern existence, exposed and expressed in the row of shop-windows in the Parisian arcades: the shop-window transforms art into a commodity among commodities in the same way the displayed artefacts...

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