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Sekula, Sonja (1918-1963)  
 
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The Swiss-born artist Sonja Sekula created small-scale abstract images with profound emotional power. As an "out" lesbian active in the New York art world during the 1940s and early 1950s, she confronted severe , which intensified the anxieties that plagued her throughout her adult life. Despite her emotional turmoil, Sekula created a distinctive, varied, and original body of work. Her achievements only recently have begun to receive the critical and scholarly attention they deserve.

Background and Education

Sonja Sekula was born in Lucerne on April 8, 1918 to Béla Sekula (1881-1966), a Hungarian who had emigrated to Switzerland in 1913, and Berta Huguenin (1896-1980), a Swiss woman. An internationally prominent stamp dealer, Béla Sekula was determined to provide his daughter an outstanding education. Between the ages of seven to sixteen (1925-1934), she attended prestigious boarding schools in the Swiss communities of Lucerne, Zuov, and Ftan.

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By 1934, Sekula had decided that she wanted to become a professional artist, and she, therefore, studied painting in Budapest and Florence in 1934 and 1935. In 1935, at the age of seventeen, she met and fell deeply in love with Annemarie Schwarzenbach, a highly respected Swiss photojournalist. Following an impassioned correspondence with Schwarzenbach, Sekula spent several weeks at her home in Engardin in 1936.

This relationship was cut short in September 1936 when Béla Sekula moved both his family and his business from Lucerne to New York. Settling first in suburban Douglastown, Long Island, the Sekulas then moved into a luxurious apartment building on Park Avenue in 1938. By 1939, the society columns of the New York Times recorded the activities of the entire Sekula family.

Determined to pursue her artistic ambitions, Sonja took private painting lessons in 1937 from George Grosz, the German artist who was then living in exile in New York. Most commentators have assumed that Grosz's caustic political images had little impact on Sekula's artistic development. However, his bold use of line may have influenced her skillful employment of thin, tautly stretched lines to evoke emotional states in her mature abstract paintings.

In September 1937, Sekula enrolled in Sarah Lawrence College to study art and literature.

Nervous Breakdowns and Treatments

After a trip to Europe in the summer of 1938, Sekula made her first attempt at suicide. Following this incident, her family placed her in psychiatric treatment at New York Hospital, White Plains, where she remained until 1941. Throughout the rest of her life, Sekula continued to suffer from nervous breakdowns, which led to further periods of confinement in sanitariums both in the United States (New York Hospital, White Plains, 1951-52; Brooke [now Hall-Brooke] Psychiatric Clinic, Westport, Conn., 1954-55) and Europe (Bellvue Sanatorium, Kreuzlingen, 1952-53, 1956; Psychiatric Clinic, Hohenegg, 1958-59, 1963; Münchenbuchsee Psychiatric Clinic, 1961, 1962). In March 1955, unable to afford the high costs of medical treatment in the United States, the Sekula family returned permanently to Switzerland.

During her stays in clinics, Sekula was subjected to a harsh regimen of treatments, including frequent shock therapy, injections with various mind-altering drugs, and wet-sheet wraps. From the 1930s through the 1950s, many leading psychologists considered lesbianism a symptom of profound mental disorder. In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that her doctors repeatedly sought to "cure" her sexual orientation, which they regarded as a debilitating manifestation of schizophrenia.

In a moving notation in her diaries in 1960, Sekula revealed that her belief in the integrity of her sexual desire was undiminished by these efforts: "Let homosexuality be forgiven . . . for most often she did not sin against nature but tried to be true to the law of her own--To feel guilt about having loved a being of your own kind body and soul is hopeless."

Life and Career, 1941-1955

Despite her personal difficulties, Sekula pursued both artistic endeavors and friendships with remarkable dedication and enthusiasm. After leaving New York Hospital in 1941, she lived with her family and took painting lessons from Morris Kantor at the Art Students' League. Although best known as a realist, Kantor was experimenting with Cubism, Futurism, and other modernist styles during the period in which he taught Sekula.

However, Sekula's artistic goals were more profoundly influenced by André Breton, Max Ernst, and other prominent Surrealists, who frequented the salons held at her parents' Park Avenue apartment, beginning in 1942. Regarding art as an expression of the unconscious and striving to free themselves from any sort of rational control that might limit their creativity, the Surrealists regarded Sekula's experiences with mental turmoil as indications of her unique talents, and they welcomed her into their group.

Many commentators have maintained that the Surrealists probably encouraged Sekula's emotional instability. However, this theory is belied by the fact that Sekula enjoyed a prolonged period of mental health from 1941 to 1951, precisely the period in which she associated most closely with the Surrealists.

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