Sophie Taeuber-Arp was a prolific, multidisciplinary Swiss artist active in the early 20th Century. She experimented with mediums ranging from textiles to wood. Known for her mastery of geometric abstraction, she incorporated this into interior design, painting, and textile design. She was associated with Dadaism and she created marionettes, sculptures, and performances in line with the moment. Overlooked since her death in 1943, she is still recognized as a significant figure of concrete art and constructivism. She participated in many exhibitions and taught at universities throughout her career, leaving a legacy through her showcased work and impact on students.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Background
Sophie Henriette Gertrud Taeuber was born in Davos, Switzerland in 1889 as the youngest of five children. Her Prussian father was a pharmacist and her Swiss mother helped run the pharmacy until her father died of tuberculosis when she was two years old. Her family moved to Trogen, where her mother founded a boarding house. In 1906, she attended a trade school in St. Gallen and studied textile design, which was inspired by her passion for sewing taught to her by her mother.
Two years later, Taeuber moved to Munich to the school of German artist Wilhelm von Debschitz. In between her two years studying at his workshop, she attended a year at the School of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg. With the start of WWI in 1914, she moved back to Switzerland and joined the Swiss artist collective Schweizerischer Werkbund the following year. During the same year, she studied at the Laban School of Dance in Zurich and became a member of a group of artists of Monte Verita in Ascona.
Taeuber met Dada artist Jean Arp at an exhibition at the Tanner Gallery in 1915; they married in 1922 and became creative collaborators. She was a textile art professor at the Zurich School of Applied Arts from 1916 to 1929. She became associated with the Zürich Dada movement during this time through the artistic nightclub Cabaret Voltaire and co-signed the Zurich Dada Manifesto in 1918.
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In 1926, the couple moved to Strasbourg, France and she was commissioned to design Constructivist interiors for iconic buildings like the Café de l’Aubette. They became French citizens and moved to a home outside of Paris in MEudon/Val-Fleury. Taeuber-Arp became connected to the abstract artist group Cercle et Carré in the 30s and the Abstraction-Création group from 1931-1934. In the late 30s, she created a Constructivist review called Plastique in Paris and she joined the union of Swiss painters known as Allianz. To escape the Nazi occupation, the couple fled to Grasse in France and founded an art colony in 1940. Two years later, they fled again to Switzerland. In an unfortunate accident, Taeuber-Arp died in 1943 due to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.
Constructivism: Textiles and Interior Design
Sophie Taeuber-Arp studied textile design at the School of Applied Arts in Saint Gallen, Switzerland from 1908-1910. Following her attendance there, she moved to Munich to continue studying textile design, weaving, and beadwork. Between 1916 and 1929, she taught textile design at the Zurich School of Applied Arts. Through her textiles, she developed a highly Constructivist style. The movement of Constructivism was founded in 1915 by a Russian artist and was defined by geometric forms and viewed art as a means for industrial production.
One of her earliest examples of textiles categorized as Constructivist is Elementary Forms (1917). This piece was designed to hang on a wall like a painting, which was revolutionary for embroidery. She took a form of applied art, working with a medium that’s traditionally associated with women, and experimented with abstraction. At the time, the fine arts hadn’t fully recognized abstraction as an artistic practice, so she produced non-representational work through her textiles. Beyond her innovation, the piece reveals her in-depth understanding of color and shape. Marrying art and design had yet to be popularized. Taeuber-Arp was a significant figure in relation to this inventive combination.
In addition to Constructivist textile design, this style translated to her interior design practices as well. Integrating abstract concepts never before seen in an interior space, Taeuber-Arp created a modernist look that she developed before the influential Bauhaus design was invented. Along with her husband Jean Arp and the avant-garde artist Theo van Doesburg, she worked on the design of the Café de l’Aubette in Strasbourg, France from 1926-1928.
The space was filled with hard-edged geometric shapes which infiltrated not only the walls but the tables and chairs as well. She emphasized unity and harmony in her design, utilizing Utopian ideas to produce beauty. Before a decade had even passed since its creation, however, it was destroyed by the Nazi Party after being labeled degenerate art. It has since been restored and is considered the Sistine Chapel of abstract art.
Dadaism: Performance and Sculpture
Because Switzerland stayed neutral throughout World War I, it became a safe haven for artists to express themselves freely. Dadaism was born during the wake of the war as artists rebelled against social conventions that they believed aggravated the conflict. As one of the few women artists associated with this movement, Taeuber-Arp broke barriers and experimented with performance, collaging, and sculpting during this period. In 1916, she created an untitled object made of varnished and lacquered wood now known as the Dada Bowl. She transformed a traditionally functional item into an ambiguous one, a handmade object that’s seemingly machine-built. Combining applied and fine arts was a distinctive trait of the avant-garde.
One of her iconic performances occurred in 1917 at the opening of Tzara’s Galerie Dada. Wearing a mask created by Romanian-Israeli artist Marcel Janco, Taeuber-Arp danced to poems written by the German artist Hugo Ball. She often wore masks and used pseudonyms as a performer. Both students and faculty at the Zurich School of Applied Arts were dissuaded from associating themselves with the avant-garde. But after teaching there for a while, the school’s director asked her to create marionettes for the play King Stag.
With the success of these puppets, she designed a set of wooden heads in 1920 called Dada Heads. They were loosely based on models that hat makers used and were decorated with beaded ornaments. As a result of combining craft and fine art and their abstracted human faces, they are characteristically Dada works. She strayed away from defining herself as a Dadaist when the movement reached the mainstream. Radicalism and nonsensicality were two major elements of Dadaism and with its growing popularity, Taeuber-Arp viewed this transition as ironic in a negative way.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Paintings
Similar to her association with Constructivism, Sophie’s work was characteristically Concrete. A movement that was first defined in 1930 by Doesburg but existed before then, it encompassed art that focused on geometrical abstraction that lacked symbolism and realism. In addition to the previously mentioned mediums she dabbled in, Taeuber-Arp was also a painter. She used gouache on paper for the Composition of Circles and Semicircles created in 1935. Her choice of colors and combination of the two shapes give the painting a sense of movement. As an avant-garde dancer and performer, the art of movement was prevalent in her life. During this time, she belonged to the Abstraction-Création group in Paris, which highly valued geometric abstract art like this piece.
Five years earlier, Taeuber-Arp was associated with the artist collective named Cercle et Carre (Circle and Square), created in 1930. At the time, the Surrealist movement was thriving, but this group preferred geometric abstraction. Composition of Circles and Overlapping Angles was made the same year the group was founded. She experimented with form and color using oil on canvas, creating tension and harmony simultaneously.
The presented geometry highlights the absolute over human representation. A few different dichotomies are evident: black and white, circle and square, and red and blue. Although contrast is utilized, these clashing elements balance each other out. This painting is an example of a defining piece in Taeuber-Arp’s portfolio that was made with a traditional art medium. Still, the vertical and horizontal lines incorporated reflect her passion for applied arts.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp was an incredibly multi-talented visual artist who was often overshadowed by her husband. But today, she is considered a significant pioneer for combining fine arts with craft and design. In 1927, she stated,
“The desire to enrich and beautify things cannot be interpreted materialistically, that is, in the sense of increasing their value as possessions; rather, it stems from the instinct for perfection and the creative act.”
This sentiment is reflected in her work that prioritizes precision and beauty, and this belief she held defined her as an important female artist in history.