In the story of European abstraction, Sophie Taeuber-Arp has often relegated to the footnotes. Though the Swiss artist despised the word “radical,” the term could probably applied to her. She was a progenitor of Dadaism, though her contributions to the movement may have differed greatly from her peers. While artists like Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp (her husband), and others nihilistically created anti-art, she made pure compositions of color and then some. She did it all—textile design, installations, dancing, interior decoration—at a time when the idea of the “multidisciplinary artist” was still revolutionary.
Taeuber-Arp is the only woman featured on a Swiss bank note, and her work has been featured in major exhibitions worldwide, but following her death in 1943, her legacy became somewhat obscured by her status as the wife of Jean Arp. Jean, to his credit, made clear his debts.“Her colors and surface constructions radiated a gentle quietness… the pictures she did during that period had a decisive influence on my work,” he wrote in the 1955 book Unsern tag lichen Traum (Our daily dream).
Now, nearly 80 years later, Taeuber-Arp is getting her due. She’s among a group of dead artists, primarily women and people of color, whose legacies are under renewed scrutiny from museums and galleries hoping to fill in the blanks of art history. Earlier this year, Hauser & Wirth, one of the world’s biggest galleries, took on the Taeuber-Arp estate, and in June, it mounted a digital survey of her works made between 1916 to 1942. That was but a prelude to a larger event, however: “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction,” an exhibition that debuts in 2021 at the Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland and then travels to the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Jointly organized by the three institutions, it is the most comprehensive presentation of her life and career to date.
Taeuber-Arp was born in 1889 in Davos, Switzerland, to a German father and a Swiss mother. Between 1908 and 1910, she was enrolled as a textile student at the School of Applied Arts in St. Gallen as a textile student. In 1911, she began splitting her time between Walter von Debschitz’s experimental studio in Munich and the School of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg. The principles of textile work—pattern, senses of proportion, the rationality of line—became the basis of her practice. Unlike her contemporaries Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky (whom she later counted as a friend), whose practices were guided by utopian values and spiritual concerns, Taeuber-Arp was simply interested by the interplay of geometry and color, and its potential to beautify everyday life. Taeuber-Arp did not shy away from creating works intended to please the eye. The “intrinsic decorative urge should not be eradicated,” she wrote, “It is one of humankind’s deep-rooted, primordial urges.”
She returned to her native Switzerland in 1914 following the outbreak of World War I, and she then started on her own applied art practice. At an exhibition at the Tanner Gallery in 1915, she met the French-German poet and painter Jean Arp, who had moved to Zürich in 1915 to dodge the draft for the war. At the time, Zurich was a creative center for the avant-garde painters, poets, and designers who, having found themselves in a senseless, war-torn society, turned to nonsensical expressions of art. In the backroom of the nightclub Cabaret Voltaire, early Dadaists staged readings and absurdist plays; Taeuber-Arp, a trained dancer, performed modernist choreographies and and designed sets and costumes. At the opening of Tzara’s Galerie Dada in 1917, she performed to poetry by Hugo Ball wearing a shamanic mask designed by Marcel Janco.
Around this time, she also began teaching at the School of Applied Art. She undertook a commission by the school’s director to design marionettes for a staging of the 18th-century play King Stag. The tiny wood figures were immensely popular, and their playful spirit remained a constant in her work. In 1920, she created a set of wooden heads, dubbed “Dada Heads.” Reminiscent of the miniature models used by hat makers, the turned-wood pieces were beaded with ornaments and painted with an abstracted human face. Dissolving the line between craft and fine art, the abstract heads are considered essential Dada works.
Taeuber-Arp‘s colleagues viewed her as charming, friendly, organized—more grounded than her husband, who had an impulsive streak. She viewed her creations as meaningful contributions to society. But irony and nonsensicality were the driving forces of Dada, and when the movement spilled into the mainstream, she outgrew its pretensions. “I’m furious. What is this nonsense, ‘radical artist,’” she wrote to her husband in 1919. “It must only be the work, to manifest oneself this way is more than stupid.”
She stayed busy in the following decade, embarking on ambitious architectural and interior design projects, including a collaboration with Arp and the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburh to refurbish the interior of the Café Aubette in Strasbourg, France. In 1929, the couple left Zurich for Paris, Europe’s more fashionable art hub, and they soon fell in with a group of artists similarly exploring non-figurative art, including Joan Miró, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marcel Duchamp. Taeuber-Arp joined two artists groups: Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création. She also edited the short-lived Constructivist review Plastique/Plastic.
During that period she created some of her strongest work in abstract painting and painted reliefs. The works almost all feature perfect circular and rectangular forms depicted in primary colors cast against monochromatic backgrounds. The mood is calm, uncluttered and the focus is on color. “A strong discriminating sense of color is a constant source of joy,” she wrote. “An unsuspecting wealth of experience with a color is opened when we devote ourselves on a purely emotional level… when we allow the color in all its nuances of light and dark to have its effects on us and observe how it changes when it is placed in relationship to ours.”
In 1940, Taeuber-Arp and Arp left Paris ahead the Nazi occupation and settled in Grasse, in southern France, where they formed an artist colony. They wouldn’t remain long: by 1942, the two fled to Switzerland. The following year, Taeuber-Arp died from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning at the house of Swiss designer Max Bill. She was 54.
By some accounts, in the days following her death, Arp ripped up some of her works to form new collages from the fragments, desperately extending her spirit through the act of revision. Kandinsky, having heard the news, offered this in farewell: “Sophie Taeuber-Arp expressed herself by means of the colored relief…their sobriety, their silence, their way of being sufficient unto themselves, invite the hand, if it is skillful, to use the language that is suitable to it and which is often only a whisper; but often too the whisper is more expressive, more convincing, more persuasive, than the ‘loud voice’ that here and there lets itself burst out.”