A new Tate show is set to finally give artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp the recognition she so greatly deserves
The Swiss artist has long been left outside the fine art canon, despite being a key figure from Dada to Modernism. Yet a touring exhibition of her works, across Basel, London and New York, looks to rectify that.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp at the Tate Modern opens on 15 July and runs until 17 October 2021. It’s Nice That is also pleased to offer a two-for-one offer on tickets for this exhibition. Simply enter the code, ITSNICETHAT241 when booking online, or call 020 7887 8888 and quote “ITSNICETHAT241”.
The offer is valid to use until Wednesday 14 July 2021, and it is available on full price tickets to the exhibition (tickets are usually £16 (without donation)). This offer cannot be used in conjunction with any other discounts or promotions. No cash alternatives. Subject to availability. The promoter reserves the right to cancel offers at any time. Ticket offer cannot be used for group bookings.
In 1996 as a young art history student in Moscow, Tate curator Natalia Sidlina took a train to St Petersburg to view an exhibition of the artist Jean (Hans) Arp and his wife, Sophie Taeuber-Arp. A joint show exploring their creative relationship, at the time “I’d never heard of her,” explains Natalia, referencing that Arp, then and now, is a fine artist more formally accepted in the canon. “It was a very long time ago so I hardly remember the layouts or highlights,” she continues, “but the impression was one of encountering something totally different from what I had seen before.”
This is a frequent response from those viewing Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s work for the very first time. Across her output there is an overwhelming number of pieces, styles and executions to explore, from Constructivism to Dadaism and Modernism. Within these practices she never restrained herself to one medium either, practising as a textile designer, artist, painter, sculptor, architect, interior designer and dancer. Vast yet all encompassing, in any one of Taeuber-Arp’s pieces you’re likely to see her sense of playfulness, a unique irony and always a little spark of spontaneity. During her career, from 1906 to 1943, Taeuber-Arp was also an artist who broke boundaries, consistently questioned the hierarchy and created work with, and amongst, the world’s most famous practitioners of the time, from Kandinsky to Miró and Duchamp. Yet, outside of her home in Switzerland few recognise the profound effect Taeuber-Arp has had on global art scenes. 2021 is set to change all that, however, through a large scale touring exhibition of her works starting at the Kunstmuseum Basel, onto the Tate Modern in London, and finally the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s exploration into creativity began at the School of Applied Arts, then known as Gewerbeschule, in St. Gallen, Switzerland from 1906 to 1910. Studying an applied arts degree, in which students concentrate much more on craft practices, is one of the first surprising characteristics of an artist who would grow to become a key figure of such movements as Dada and Modernism. This early decision in her career was no mistake, offering the artist an alternative viewpoint to her contemporaries. Say the artist had alternatively studied a more fine art-leaning degree, in the early 20th century she would have been placed in an arts academy. Her days would have been spent copying antiques, creating work en plein air and attending life drawing classes. Instead, as a crafts professional, she learnt the rules of the grid.
Once acknowledged, the grid is an obvious part of Taeuber-Arp’s artworks. In her textile pieces, from cushion designs, rugs or delicate lacework, this grid is clear to see. It’s also noticeable in her approach to painting, spatial design, and even the way she designed her own garden; creating equal structured spaces for flowers to grow in one corner, vegetables in another, a further space for herbs, and finally a lawn. It’s here that we see the second influence of this education (and the grid) on Taeuber-Arp’s outlook on the arts; several creative components can, and possibly should, live in harmony with equal respect for one another.
“A bird, a young lark, lifting the sky as it took flight.”Dadaist Hugo Ball on Sophie Taeuber-Arp
As a result the first few years of Taeuber-Arp’s career saw her jump between schools, mediums and countries, picking up as many creative practices as possible. After her time in St. Gallen, in 1911 she moved to attend a workshop by the German painter, interior designer and craftsman Wilhelm von Debschitz in Munich. She then attended the School of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg, before returning to Switzerland in 1914, due to the first world war. Yet even once back home, her education continued first by joining the Schweizerischer Werkbund, a Swiss association of artists, and then the Laban School of Dance in Zurich, both in 1915. Education then became a regular factor in Taeuber-Arp’s practice while she grew as an artist, becoming an instructor at Zurich University of the Arts, teaching embroidery and design classes from 1916 to 1929.
In terms of Taeuber-Arp’s own output however, recognition soon grew as she developed in each of her practices, and in meeting the Dada artist Jean (Hans) Arp in 1915. Not only forming a creative and romantic partnership (the pair married in 1922 and were together until Taeuber-Arp’s death in 1943), meeting Arp also led the artist into the Dada movement in Zurich, particularly within the artistic nightclub Cabaret Voltaire. Given the artist was entering the movement with a background across disciplines, the vastness of Dada – often encompassing art, poetry and performance – created an environment for Taeuber-Arp to thrive.
In turn, Taeuber-Arp became a central figure within the Dada movement in Zurich. She took part in performances as both a choreographer and dancer, and off stage could be found designing marionettes, costumes and set designs. Against the politically charged backdrop of the movement, formed from a negative reaction to the first world war, Taeuber-Arp’s works brought a unique sense of joy to Dada. Her marionettes danced with a puppet-like glee, while her turned wooden heads became fascinating sculptural portraits representative of the movement’s ideals. Hugo Ball, arguably the founder of the Dada movement in Zurich, and whose poetry Taeuber-Arp danced to in a famed performance, described the artist at this time as: “A bird, a young lark, lifting the sky as it took flight.”
As Dada began to peter out in the early 1920s, Taeuber-Arp and her now husband, Arp, moved to Strasbourg, while also dividing their time with Paris. During this period the artist began to focus her attention much more to architecture, becoming one of the few female artists recognised in the field – her business card at the time in fact only stated “architect” despite the variety of her practice up to this point. Working closely with her partner on a series of commissions, the Arp’s regularly challenged traditional creative hierarchies, notably between fine art and applied art. It was also a period where the pair fully advocated for art to be a practice inseparable from daily life. Taeuber-Arp filled spaces with creative power, from her interior design of Café de l’Aubette in Strasbourg in 1928, to her paintings, drawings and reliefs made while part of the Parisian artists’ group Abstraction-Création.
“She was creative until the very last breath she drew.”Natalia Sidlina
Abstraction on an international level then took hold of Taeuber-Arp’s practice from the 1930s. With her foundational knowledge of the grid in tow, the artist was able to push the boundaries of artworks to higher abstract heights – a firm example of how knowing the rules places an artist in a much more confident position to break them. You can imagine the abstract grid in the artist’s mind as your eyes jump between her compositions of arcs, circles and overlapping angles, in a new representation of Taeuber-Arp exploring her relationship to figurative and abstract art practices. Adopting a new guise as “the artist of the circle”, within these pieces we see a more fluid approach across canvases or reliefs and later, more circumstantially, in sketchbooks.
“Taeuber-Arp was known as someone who wouldn’t speak up much during a conversation or debate, but every time she spoke, it mattered.”Natalia Sidlina
Following the beginning of the second world war, in 1940 Taeuber-Arp and her husband found themselves displaced as Nazi troops marched into the French capital. First they moved to Grasse and started a small art colony with artists such as Sonia Delaunay, before fleeing again to Switzerland in 1942. And while the artist was characteristically prolific during this time, her trajectory was unresolved unexpectedly by her passing in 1943. In January of that year the artist came to visit a friend’s house, the artist and architect Max Bill, spending the day working on her portfolio of prints. Night turned to day and she decided to stay over, due to a curfew imposed during the war. The space in which she stayed was unheated and being winter, in 1943, Taeuber-Arp turned on a heater which proved to be faulty, releasing carbon monoxide as the artist slept. She never woke up the next day. As Natalia, the curator at the Tate piecing together the artist’s show for its London audience, describes: “She was creative until the very last breath she drew.”
Tate Modern’s show follows this winding road of Taeuber-Arp’s career in a monographic style exhibition, only featuring works created by the artist rather than collaborations. As Natalia describes, visitors are met first with an introduction to her work, before moving into rooms showing the breadth and depth of her career before ending in a final exhibition space – purposefully slightly darker and colder – as we reach the end of the artist’s career and life. As visitors leave the exhibition, this sense of quietness is intentional. It not only offers a respectful ending to a career cut sadly short, but gives visitors a moment of reflection on a life which embraced the beauty of art as a daily source of joy. As Kandinsky said upon hearing the news of her passing: “Sophie Taeuber-Arp expressed herself by means of coloured 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.”
As one of the first substantial exhibitions of Taeuber-Arp’s work in the UK, Tate Modern’s curation aims to offer audiences a deep insight into the artist, especially for those witnessing the work for the first time. Yet, given the breadth the artist left behind, it is an exhibition designed with a myriad of audiences in mind, structured so that “everyone will find something interesting in it,” Natalia tells It’s Nice That. “Basically, it’s for everyone. For the young, the old, those who have chosen creativity for their career, but also those who just like coming to museums and spend time looking at the works of others. Everyone will find something interesting in there.”
For example, children visiting the show over the summer will be able to see the endless possibility of creativity in the diversity of Taeuber-Arp’s practice. Their parents then may find that “doodling with their children is as important as larger artworks we encounter at museums and that creativity comes in so many forms, shapes, sizes and colours,” adds Natalia. Whereas crafts professionals, such as designers or illustrators, will see how the artist played with colour, form, and that all important grid, but also how she pushed boundaries within structural mediums. For instance, “transforming the very archaic medieval practice of stained glass-making into a beautiful modernist feature,” as the curator points out. Those interested in time-based media will also find relatable aspects, as with all of the artist’s work “to really understand you have to engage with it, move around it”. Dancers too will learn about an incredible woman who, even in the 1920s, “decided she needed to understand the movement of the body, and how the body could be used as a medium”.
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Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Geometric Forms (necklace). c. 1918. Glass beads, metal beads, thread, and cord Length: 13 3⁄16" (33.5 cm) excluding cord, 33 7⁄16" (85 cm) including cord, Museum für Gestaltung, Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, Zurich. Decorative Arts Collection.
Tate’s show also offers visitors a sense of Taeuber-Arp’s personality. Unlike many of her contemporaries – who spent time writing manifestos for movements or giving public speeches – there are few personal artefacts from the artist to glean from. Instead, says Natalia, “she worked.”
Yet through Tate's curation we can expect hints of how the artist truly was “a bit of an enigma”. On display will be unpublished correspondence, but also the magazine she edited, Plastique, allowing audiences to gain a sense of dialogues she was interested in and the creativity she supported. “Taeuber-Arp was known as someone who wouldn’t speak up much during a conversation or debate, but every time she spoke, it mattered,” says the curator. “Just like in her work, everything she created was very carefully thought through. Every composition, colour combination or form is balanced, exact and precise, but playful at the same time. She had a great sense of humour, she didn’t like small talk. She liked order and practicality, but at the same time saw beauty in everything… These are the aspects of her personality that are as incredible as the work she created.”
One letter of correspondence offering a sense of this personality is an embodiment of the creative endearment Sophie Taeuber-Arp held for life. A stream of consciousness style text published by her husband after the second world war, it showcases the love for art and life Taeuber-Arp held dearly, and offers visitors a sense of the vitality and hope this exhibition shall communicate. As Natalia describes: “She writes about a dream in which she is walking down a beach by the sea, with a rock on one side and waves on the other. All of a sudden a cataclysm happens, only leaving time for her to write something in the sand. She writes, ‘heureuse’, meaning ‘I am happy’ in French, and within the dream the sand becomes rock. This saying is left embedded in rock and, if she had perished in this cataclysm, the only thing that would remain of her is that word – happy.”
Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Embroidery. c. 1920. Wool on canvas, 12 5⁄8 x 15 3⁄4" (32 x 40 cm). Private collection, on loan to the Fondation Arp, Clamart, France.
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.