Artist and Designer  (1889-1943)

Sophie Taeuber-Arp was a central figure in many of the most important avant-garde movements of the first half of the twentieth-century. 
Uniting her uniquely interdisciplinary output was a strong visual language of abstraction, which she investigated across mediums in her multifaceted practice as a painter, sculptor, dancer, teacher, writer, and designer of textiles, fashion accessories, stage sets, marionettes, and interiors. Born in Davos, Switzerland, Taeuber-Arp studied art and design in Germany before eventually moving to Zurich, where she taught textile design at the School of Applied Arts and where, in 1915, she met the Alsatian artist and poet Jean (Hans) Arp, who would become her husband and frequent collaborator.
Deliberately favoring mediums and techniques typically associated with the decorative arts and design in their early “duo” endeavors, Taeuber-Arp and Arp challenged traditional hierarchies between fine and applied art and, in doing so, asserted that art was inextricably tied to daily life, a position that assumed a political undertone against the backdrop of World War I. In the late 1920s, Taeuber-Arp shifted her attention to interior design, expanding the early integration of art and life from objects to the lived environment, and eventually, while based in Paris and a member of the artists’ group Abstraction-Création, to making abstract paintings, drawings, and schematic painted wooden reliefs composed of circles, curves, and arcs. Until her tragic, early death of accidental gas poisoning in 1943, Taeuber-Arp continued to be a crucial voice in the conversation of international modernism prior to World War II.
Zurich Dada, 1916-1920

During World War I, Zurich was the creative capital of the European avant-garde. The city was home to the Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub where Dada was launched in 1916 in response to the violent war. Initiated as an all-out assault against the rules of art and the conventions of modern life, Dada aimed to explode typical concepts of how art should be made and viewed and what materials could be used.

Taeuber was a key member. During Zurich Dada’s heyday she produced an efflorescence of work, from collages and watercolors to stage sets, pillowcases, and richly colored tapestries.

In 1918, she designed marionettes and stage sets for a puppet adaptation of the 18th century play "King Stag.” Taeuber painted the marionettes’ faces like Oceanic masks and crafted their bodies from turned wood. Some were dressed in ruffled tulle, another was adorned with feathers; and the sets were decorated with abstract gridded patterns.

Dada’s interest in the developments of psychoanalysis inspired the adaptation. At the play’s climax, the king’s evil minister cried, "Kill me, kill me. I have not analyzed myself and can't stand it anymore!"

Taeuber was also a dancer, performing regularly at the Dada hub Cabaret Voltaire in costumes designed by her husband, Jean Arp. Her ecstatic motions were once described by fellow Dada artist Hugo Ball as “a dance full of flashes and fishbones, of dazzling lights, a dance of penetrating intensity.”

She performed under the pseudonym “G. Thauber” so as to avoid censure from her buttoned-down colleagues at the city’s School of Applied Arts.

Between 1918 and 1920, she made a series of turned wood sculptures that she called “portraits". Yet their ovoid shapes and painted patterns evoke mask-like faces that are far from naturalistic.

Taeuber likely created this particular Head as a self-portrait. She adorns herself with playful wire curlicues, like bouquets strung with green and purple beads that spring like flowers from her ears.

The other three heads that exist today—Taeuber originally made six to eight—are embellished solely by the colored geometries of their painted surfaces.

One of these is likely a portrait of Arp. But, in a humorous challenge to “pure sculpture,” the combination of a bulbous head atop a long neck and base makes him look like a hatstand.

All four heads are visible in this recent photograph (in positions 3, 5, 6, and 7 from left).

Alongside them are other painted wood sculptures made around the same time. Their names suggest age-old uses: Amphora, Powder Box, Chalice—a reminder of her deep interest in the collisions between functional and decorative, figurative and abstract, life and art.

Architectural and Interior Design
Cafe de l'Aubette, Strasbourg, 1926-1928

By 1920, all of Dada had decamped for Paris, but Taeuber stayed behind. She continued to teach and travel, and soon she began shifting her focus to architectural and interior design.

In 1926, she received her first commission: to design the café and tearoom for Café de l’Aubette in Strasbourg. Her early interest in the fluid boundaries between art and design could now fully step into the immersive scale of the lived environment.

She invited Arp and Theo van Doesburg to collaborate, and when the project was completed in 1928, van Doesburg devoted an issue of his journal De Stijl to the café’s design. His wooden model of the café is shown here.

Taeuber decorated the café with panels of bright, geometric color blocks that danced across the walls and stained glass windows. Like many of her paintings and smaller-scale artwork from this period, her café designs embraced the grid.

The grid would become the most generative formal device of her career, inspiring numerous works that explored its potential as a governing logic for the lively interplay of proportion and color.

Van Doesburg’s plans for the interior decoration still exist, but the original artwork is gone. Shortly after the café’s opening, the owners removed the designs. It was then further destroyed by the Nazis, who labeled it “degenerate art.”

International Abstraction, 1930-1943
During the 1930s, Taeuber began introducing new elements into her compositions. She incorporated curves, arcs, and colors that reoriented the clean directionals of her previous grids.

Such is the case with this painting, where only a hint of the grid remains but nonetheless guides Taeuber’s arrangement of the geometric units.

For some, this painting’s design evokes a cluster of dancers’ arms, recalling Taeuber’s formative training in dance and her lifelong exploration of meeting points between the figurative and abstract.

Here, undulating, organic forms balance atop each other, like a stack of see-saws. The grid is now gone, but Taeuber retains its spirit of strong symmetry by centering the tipsy horizontals around a vertical spine.

Even with a spare palette and vocabulary of forms, there’s a feeling of freedom and energy.

From the late 1930s, Taeuber’s new compositions were markedly tenser.

Here, the frame can barely hold the lines that repeatedly double up and cut into each other. One can imagine Taeuber snipping the circles that were prevalent in her earlier work, creating lines that uncurl into swirls and sticks and scatter across the page.

Final Years
In 1940, Taeuber and Arp fled German-occupied Paris and escaped to the south of France. She died a few years later, in 1943, from accidental gas poisoning in Zurich.
But she has continued to influence the critical dialogue of international modernism prior to World War II, and the conversation around the legacy of art, craft, and abstraction continues today.
MoMA, The Museum of Modern Art
Credits: Story

Nancy Lim, Curatorial Assistant, and Cara Manes, Assistant Curator, Department of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Credits: All media
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