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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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Sonia Delaunay (1885–1979) is one of the most important artists of the early twentieth century, whose contribution to European Modernism was fundamental, if not always fully acknowledged. Ukrainian-born, she moved to Paris in 1905, and shifting her interest to abstraction, participating in the Parisian Avant-Garde circles together with artists and poets such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars she celebrated the modern world and urban life, exploring the world of colors together with her husband Robert Delaunay. After spending time in Spain and Portugal during World War I, she translated her experiments in painting into the realm of fashion, interior design and crafts, thus consciously transcending the boundaries between fine art and applied art.

Mainstream art history has claimed that Robert Delaunay was the primus motor behind her simultaneous painting and fashion, pushing her contribution into the background, even oblivion. Like the fact that Sonia Delaunay was born and grew up in a Jewish family in the “typical” Eastern European shtetl of Hradyzk outside Kiev in the heart of the Russian Jewish Pale of Settlement, also the fact that she then was adopted by a Jewish upper-class family in Saint Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire, spending the summers on the Finnish Karelian Isthmus, has not generally attracted any special attention, although it is obvious that the ideohistorical “roots” of her art must be found precisely in this and not so much in her relationship with her husband, as claimed...

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