This year, Tate is hosting four exhibitions devoted to women artists: Paula Rego, Lubaina Himid, Yayoi Kusama and Sophie Taeuber-Arp (a further show devoted to Magdalena Abakanowicz is in the pipeline). Opening on 15 July at Tate Modern, the exhibition ‘Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction’ comes with an excellent catalogue, which includes sixteen essays that survey her remarkable range. This Swiss artist, born in Davos in 1889, created textiles, beadwork bags and necklaces, cross-stitch embroidery, carnivalesque outfits for costume balls and a family of haunting marionettes, as well as designing furniture and interiors. She was also a Laban-trained dancer, a sculptor, an illustrator, co-editor of the important journal Plastique, a brilliant photographer and a significant abstract artist. And as if that were not enough, she gave continuous support to her husband, Jean Arp, and designed the modern vernacular house at Clamart in the southwestern suburbs of Paris where she and Arp lived from 1928 until being driven south by the German invasion in 1940. Her husband, whom she married in 1922, is regularly name-checked in surveys of 20th-century art, from Herbert Read’s A Concise History of Modern Painting to Norbert Lynton’s The Story of Modern Art. By contrast, Taeuber-Arp’s reputation was only properly recuperated in 2005 in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois and Benjamin Buchloh’s generous Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism.
For various reasons, female artists get forgotten in fits of inexcusable absent-mindedness by mostly male art historians. Until relatively recently, involvement with the applied or the decorative arts could spell exclusion from any roster of the avant-garde. Working across a broad spectrum of disciplines might also inhibit recognition, as would marriage to a famous male practitioner. But, as Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction makes clear, during the first two decades of the 20th century, ambitious artists, in flight from academicism, jettisoned established ways and means of making. As histories of modern art came to be written from the 1930s onwards, however, this heterodox playfulness, which embraced both craft and ephemerality, was rationalised into a less adventurous flow chart. Painting and sculpture were reinstated over performance and decorative work. Bold interior architecture and furniture projects were assigned to the history of design. In this essentially conservative mapping, women have tended to lose out.
Taeuber-Arp was in the vanguard of early multimedia experimentation. She first encountered Arp in 1915 in Zurich at an exhibition of tapestries, embroideries and collages. This was just the moment when the deceptively sedate city of Zurich became the birthplace of the Dada movement, in which both Jean and Sophie played an active part, Sophie being recognised by Jean as the ideal co-conspirator, as much performer as artist. Her 1917 dance performance, memorialised in one murky black-and-white image, was described by Hugo Ball, a poet and one of the founders of Dada, as ‘full of spikes and fish-bones’ in which ‘every gesture is ordered in a hundred parts, sharp, light and pointed’. Her brilliant, disturbing puppets and stage sets made in 1918 for the commedia dell’arte-inspired play King Stag went on to become an iconic Dada artwork.
After her marriage in 1922, Taeuber-Arp continued to teach at Zurich’s Kunstgewerbeschule, where she had begun working in 1916, only leaving in 1929 when she had developed her design practice in France and Germany. It is conceivable that she was the main earner in her relationship with Arp, though Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction does not descend to a discussion of vulgar finances. Her extraordinary dynamism – she was able to design a kitchen and elegant storage space and furniture for a Berlin client in 1935, while in the same year painting a series of challenging abstractions – may well have translated into a decent living for them both. The Second World War caught them out and they fled to the south of France and finally to Switzerland, Taeuber-Arp turning to exquisite curving and meandering drawings, a reminder of her deep understanding of textiles. Writing to fellow artist Paule Vézelay in 1940, she urged, ‘Be sure to work, this is the best thing we can do; culture is being threatened in a much more serious way than we usually imagine. There are so many women who can help in different ways. Those who can, even without seeing an immediate result, need to work to maintain culture.’
Taeuber-Arp died in 1943 from carbon monoxide poisoning, the result of a faulty stove. Arp paid adoring tribute to his late wife in his 1950 essay ‘Signposts’, emphasising her importance in introducing him to new ways of working: ‘Her works have sometimes been referred to as applied art. Both stupidity and wickedness are at the root of this appellation. Art can just as easily express itself in wool, paper, ivory, ceramics, or glass as in painting, stone, wood or clay.’ He explained that, as a kind of purification, he and Sophie had temporarily renounced paint and canvas as ‘characteristic of a pretentious and conceited world’. But when Arp published a catalogue raisonné of his wife’s work in 1948, he chose to focus on her paintings and reliefs. She might just have approved. Her most significant exhibition was at the Basel Kunsthalle in 1937, to which she contributed twenty-four paintings and reliefs, which were displayed alongside works by László Moholy-Nagy, Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian. This was the biggest showing of her art ever and included her Animated Circle Picture. The painting was discussed at length in the year of her death by the designer and typographer Max Bill, who employed a series of diagrams to elucidate its playful strangeness – suggestive of the respect in which she was held by fellow artists.
A catalogue, even one as fine as Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction, is perhaps not the best kind of book for getting to know a great artist intimately. Sophie Taeuber-Arp: A Life through Art, by Taeuber-Arp’s great-niece Silvia Boadella, fulfils that role – up to a point. It is a beautifully illustrated book, but when Boadella claims that she can see the world through Sophie’s eyes, recounting Taeuber-Arp’s dreams and inner thoughts with alarming confidence, doubts creep in. Buy the book for its pictures and for a sense of that mixture of practicality and craziness that characterises the Swiss at their creative best. The text may be fanciful but, based as it is on oral family history, it raises a few points. Was Jean Arp ultimately selfish, thinking only of himself in all situations? Did he really insist on sleeping in Max Bill’s cosy spare room while consigning Sophie to the freezing garden studio, with its faulty stove, in January 1943?
Jean and Sophie both lived through dangerous times. But by 1943 they were safely in Switzerland and her death was an avoidable accident. We are left wondering what might have been. Three decades of inspiring and surprising creativity suggest that her contribution to the reconstruction of a postwar world would have been both significant and joyful.