Multi-faceted and versatile Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) has been overlooked for a long time by the mainstream media. This has finally changed as Tate Modern brings the first UK retrospective exhibition on the modernist artist, recognising her great contribution to the arts, crafts and design. Many of the works showcased were never seen before in the country – from different styles of paintings to embroideries, wood pieces and furniture, it’s a marvellous experience from beginning to end.
“Only when we go into ourselves and attempt to be entirely true to ourselves will we succeed in making things of value, living things, and in this way help to develop a new style that is fitting for us.” Sophie Taeuber-Arp
Not being able to recognise Taeuber-Arp through the video and the pictures that are spread around the exhibition is curious – as is the fact that her name isn’t as popular and well known as artists – and her close friends – Wassily Kandinsky and Joan Miró, to name a few.
Her journey as an artist began studying textile design in Switzerland before moving to Germany to further her studies. With the approach of the First World War, she moved back to Zurich where she taught at the Trade School and enrolled at a modern dance school – something she was passionate about.
A few years later, Taeuber-Arp married Hans Arp, who had a strong influence on her works. Before becoming deeply involved in the Dada movement, which was characterised by its humour and war criticism, she was experimenting with geometric forms in vertical-horizontal compositions in both paper and textiles.
In one of the first rooms, we can find a mix of the artist’s works in different media –watercolours that play with shapes and colours; rich tapestry and embroideries in beaded bags, accessories and a cushion – which demonstrates her love for interior design and house ornaments; and her marionettes for the play King Stag, which merged her fascination with performances and her experience as an artist with painting and woodworking.
We can also see some of her most famous Dada pieces, like the Coupe Dada and Tête Dada, which are great examples of her belief that objects should have a simple and functional form. As we move on to another room, we find her work as a furniture designer, in clean and minimalist pieces, as well as in interior design in her project for the Aubette, a cultural centre in Strasbourg, in which she designed glass windows in geometric shapes and mostly primary colours. The success of this project led her to various interior design commissions later on.
After projecting and constructing her studio-house in Clamart, near Paris, she joined the abstract movement participating in exhibitions with Piet Mondrian, Sonia Delaunay and others. Keeping her playful identity and rigorous geometric shapes and structure, she, later on, moved to paintings in two and three dimensions. The idea was to show how different angles bring different perspectives – from the front they looked like paintings, from the side like sculptures.
In her later years, while the Second World War was devastating Europe, Taeuber-Arp had to leave her home in Clamart to escape the German troops in Paris. Being constantly on the move, from friends’ houses to hotels, she didn’t have all her materials at disposal anymore so she found herself going back to the basics and simplest ones: paper and coloured pencils. She documented her countryside surroundings and explored lines and coloured compositions. The artist also ventured into poetry publishing two volumes with her husband Hans.
Sadly, in 1943 she passed away in Max Bill’s house, architect and artist with whom she was close friends, due to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Her early death might have contributed to her history and legacy being overlooked for so many years, but her works deserve to be seen by all and for many years to come. Her retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern is an art history lesson and a worth the wait experience.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp is at Tate Modern until 17th October 2021.