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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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Image and Letter


Whether the Hasidic “pan-entheism” of the Eastern Jewish shtetls related to the special relationship between living creatures and inanimate objects, between man, nature, the landscape, the trees and the stones, the fishes trembling during Yom Kippur, the horses and the dogs feeling the approaching holiday, whether this in fact forms the basis of how Arthur A. Cohen describes Sonia Delaunay’s Simultanism is impossible to conclude, nevertheless the assumption of a possible connection seems highly interesting as Cohen declares that her Simultanism gives the impression of an artistically expressed reconciliation of what seems irreconcilable in nature, of two opposite and obviously discorded things completing and enriching each other precisely through their differences and binary oppositional characters. In any case, it is equally interesting that Sonia Delaunay associated with her Simultanism one more element, which from the Western perspective usually is considered opposite to mimetic figuration, namely the alphabetical letter and the typographically designed word in a way similar to how the Dadaists in Zürich and the Cubo-Futurists in Saint Petersburg and Petrograd treated the printed page.

Simultaneously, not the least Guillaume Apollinaire transformed the combination of letters into figurative pictures in his famous calligrammes, pictorial poems originally meant to be included in a collections of poems which the author planned to be called Et moi je juis peintre (I am a Painter Myself), although with the important reservation that Delaunay let the singular letter too get the same semantic visual meaning as the figurative as well...

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