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Ultimate guide to Sophie Taeuber-Arp

BY Anna Walker

2nd Jul 2021 Art & Theatre

Ultimate guide to Sophie Taeuber-Arp

We spoke to Natalia Sidlina, Curator of International Art at the Tate Modern ahead of their major Sophie Taeuber-Arp retrospective. 

Reader's Digest: Who was Sophie Taeuber-Arp? How would you describe her work?

Natalia Sidlina: Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) was one of the most innovative artists and designers of the 20th-century avant-garde. She was a pioneer of abstract art, emerging as an independent artistic force during the turbulent First World War years, and her work challenged the conventional borders between art, design, and craft.

Born in Switzerland in 1889 she enjoyed a rich and diverse career as a painter, architect, teacher, writer, and designer of textiles, marionettes later venturing into experiments with painting as well as architecture, interior design, before her untimely death in 1943 aged 53.

As visitors to the exhibition will experience, Taeuber-Arp held a lifelong commitment to abstraction, constantly developing new ideas, and experimenting with diverse media and techniques throughout her career.

Sophie Taeuber-Apt
Nicolai Aluf, Sophie Taeuber with her Dada head 1920, Gelatin silver print on card, 12.9 × 9.8, Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin

RD: Why is Sophie Taeuber-Arp's work so important?

NS: Sophie Taeuber-Arp made an outstanding contribution to twentieth-century modernism and was truly pioneering in her non-hierarchical approach to art, design and craft. In many ways her work chimes with how contemporary artists are working today, no longer viewing the traditional mediums of painting and sculpture as being the only ways in which to make and present art.

Her route to abstraction was unique, too. Taeuber-Arp's work stood apart from the abstract art of her contemporaries by completely bypassing deconstruction of the figurative form, taking inspiration instead from the textile grid based on her experience in the field of applied arts. Her training in experimental dance with Rudolf von Laban also set her apart from other artists working at the time, bringing a special knowledge of movement and rhythm to her practice.

composition of circles
Sophie Taeuber-ArpComposition of Circles and Overlapping Angles 1930The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Riklis Collection of McCrory Corporation, Photo: The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Imaging and Visual Resources. © 2019 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

RD: What was the world like for women artists when Sophie Taeuber-Arp was working?

NS: The art world was incredibly male-dominated when Taeuber-Arp began working. As a student in Hamburg in 1912, Taeuber-Arp was denied access to the interior design workshop due to her gender, instead, she studied textiles and graphic design which were considered more appropriate for women. 

She experienced success in her lifetime, featuring in major international exhibitions, but she was sometimes the only woman artist involved. She was the only foreign female artist included in Modern Art from Spain and Abroad at the most prestigious venue for avant-garde exhibitions in the country, Galeries Dalmau in Barcelona, in 1929.

"The art world was incredibly male-dominated when Taeuber-Arp began working"

In 1935 she found herself to be the only woman amongst 22 artists participating in Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis at the Kunstmuseum Luzern. Her works were included after her husband, fellow artist Jean Arp, had made his own participation dependent on that of his wife. Regardless of the obstacles, Taeuber-Arp enjoyed very a successful career as crafts professional, interior designer and was the only avant-garde female artist recognised for her architectural projects as well as renowned and respected painter. Still, it was certainly challenging to be a women artist at the time and it’s only in recent decades that her work has been given the international attention it deserves.

Sophie Taeuber-ArpGeometric and Undulating 1941, Crayon and graphite on paper 49.2 × 39.2, Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana, Lugano, Switzerland. Collection Cantone Ticino

RD: Which works are on show in this new exhibition? And what approach does it take to showcasing Taeuber-Arp's work?

NS: There will be over 200 objects in the exhibition including beautiful small-scale gouache works on paper, paintings, marionettes, painted wooden reliefs, textiles, jewelry, turned wood sculptures, furniture, stained glass windows, drawings, and designs for architectural commissions.

Hung in a loosely chronological order, the show will present a journey through Taeuber-Arp's career. It will highlight her unwavering commitment to abstraction, and a career spent pioneering new ideas and materials. Some highlights include the "Dada head" portrait of Jean Arp—an iconic hand-painted wooden sculpture—as well as a wide selection of her bold and vibrant abstract paintings she made while living in Paris in the 1930s.

stag marionette
Sophie Taeuber-ArpStag (marionette for ‘King Stag’) 1918, Oil paint on wood; brass sheet; metallic paint on metallic paper; metal hardware 50 × 17.8 × 18, Museum für Gestaltung, Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, Zurich. Decorative Arts Collection

RD: At times, Sophie Taeuber-Arp's work was controversial. Why was that?

NS: After the First World War, Taeuber-Arp was active within Zurich dada, the short-lived but influential artistic movement which embraced abstraction and absurdity. The overarching spirit of dada was to challenge the conventional rules of art and society, which stirred much controversy at the time.

A standout room of our show will be all 17 marionettes Taeuber-Arp created for an avant-garde retelling of 1762 Carlo Gozzi’s play King Stag. Crafted from geometric turned wood shapes and hand-painted in vibrant colours, the puppets marked a radical new direction in theatre design, in relation to other experiments Taeuber-Arp was conducting at the same time with so-called "dada heads" and "dada objects" as well as textiles. With her unique background in contemporary dance, their unnaturally loose and disjointed movements echoed the performances Taeuber-Arp and her contemporaries were pioneering in Zurich during the war.

"The spirit of dada was to challenge the conventional rules of art and society"

The play was scrapped after just three performances, with the director claiming that Taeuber-Arp’s infamous creations were too modern and daring! Despite this, the puppets have since become some of the most celebrated artworks of the dada movement, their unique sculptural quality lauded by artists including Marcel Duchamp and Hugo Weber. Guards was included in El Lissitzky's and Hans Arp's seminal 1925 publication The Isms of Art to illustrate dadaism.

six spaces painting
Sophie Taeuber-ArpSix Spaces with Four Small Crosses 1932, Oil paint and graphite on canvas 65 × 100, Kunstmuseum Bern, Gift of Marguerite Arp-Hagenbach

RD: This is the first major retrospective of her work held in the UK. Why hasn't it happened before, and why is now the right moment?

NS: This exhibition has been the result of many years of extensive research, planning, and collaboration between Tate Modern, MoMA, and Kunstmuseum Basel, and we’re excited to finally bring Taeuber-Arp's work to the UK on this scale.

"It’s only in recent decades that Taeuber-Arp's work has been given the international attention it deserves"

Tate has long championed Sophie Taeuber-Arp—several of her works were shown in the 2010 group exhibition Van Doesburg and the International Avant Garde—and we’re delighted to now fully represent the extraordinary breadth of her career. I think for many years Taeuber-Arp's work was viewed more through the lens of design than "art", which makes it all the more exciting to be staging her exhibition at Tate Modern today.

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

RD: What is Sophie Taeuber-Arp's lasting influence on the art world today?

NS: Taeuber-Arp pioneered a unique visual language and a subversive approach to traditional art-making which still feels fresh today. Her constant development of new ideas and her ability to embrace new materials and methods remain hugely influential for contemporary artists and designs. Her legacy is reflected in the work of modern and contemporary artists from Anni Albers to Sheila Hicks and Haegue Yang but also fashion designers like Duro Olowu, and Karl Lagerfeld, whose 2015 Fendi campaign was directly influenced by Taeuber-Arp's dada works.

Supported by John J. Studzinski CBE, with additional support from the Sophie Taeuber-Arp Exhibition Supporters Circle, Tate Americas Foundation, Tate Patrons and Tate Members

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