Creative, brilliant and completely unique for her time, this artist had much to say about the 20th century and her work covers a wide range of areas from jewellery to craft, design and a few works that become associated with the Dada Movement…
By Devika Banerjee
TATE MODERN’S major exhibition is the first in the UK to showcase one of the most innovative artists and designers of the 20th century avant garde, Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943).
A selection of her works are shown side by side with decorative artworks including beaded bags, jewellery, rugs, pillowcases and tapestries. She challenged the borders between abstract art, design and craft. Throughout her life, she remained independent and forged her very own creative style of abstraction.
Sophie Taeuber was born in Davos Platz, Switzerland in 1889. Her mother taught her to embroider, knit and crochet and cultivate an ethic of self sufficiency.
In 1915, while studying fine and applied arts in Munich, she met her lifelong partner, the poet and artist Hans Arp. He was a founding member of the Dada movement, a short-lived but influential artistic collective which sought to integrate art and life, embracing abstraction and absurdity. They married in 1922, after which she became Sophie Taeuber-Arp.
During the First World War, while working in Switzerland, then France, she developed her distinctive visual style. She challenged the boundaries between art and design. Unlike other modernist artists of the time, whose path to abstraction came through the breaking down of figurative forms, Taeuber-Arp worked from the geometric grid structures of textile making. The bold, primary colours of textiles, their vertical, horizontal and square shapes along with the forms of crafts as well as modern dance continued to inspire her through her life.
As her style evolved, she still divided the picture plane emphasizing one part or another with squares and rectangles but she increasingly brought other shapes into play from the curved or straight, simple forms of a dancer or boats. She juxtaposed obtuse triangles with each other, recalling gymnasts. Sometimes a diagonal replaced the severe horizontals and verticals in an effort to loosen up the rigid order.
She brought this geometric order into three dimensions when she created her Dada Heads and the marionettes for the avant-garde interpretation of ‘King Stag’. They are in full display at the exhibition.
Taeuber-Arp mounted pear-shaped wooden heads with stylized faces and pointy noses on little stands. These would later become hat racks. She made the stunning Dada Head of Hans Arp with his long face, long nose, short hair and a carefully shaved triangle on his forehead.
In the 1920s, Taeuber-Arp experimented with architecture and interior design for private homes and public buildings. The exhibition displays the designs and furniture for her commission for the Aubette, a modernist entertainment complex in Strasbourg created in collaboration with Hans Arp and Theo Van Doesburg.
The commercial success of her architectural practice enabled her to design her own studio house in Meudon near Paris.
It would become a focal point for international intellectuals like Tristan Tzara, Max Ernst and James Joyce. Fleeing Paris at the outbreak of the Second World War she turned to drawing.
The final room in the exhibition brings together these works she made on the move in exile before her tragic accidental death (from carbon monoxide poisioning at another artist’s home) in 1943 aged 53.
In Taeuber-Arp’s art, nothing is left to chance, everything is intentional. Her style remains unique.
Devika Banerjee is a writer and critic
All pictures courtesy of the Tate
Sophie Taeuber-Arp, (July 15 until October 17) – Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG