Saturday, 19 January 2013

The 31 Women Number Two, Sophie Taeuber-Arp.


Sophie Taeuber-Arp  was born today, the 19th January 1889, in Davos, Switzerland.    
Sophie Taeuber in 1927 working on her
Cafe Aubette project in Strasburg
Sophie Taeuber was a Swiss artist who was a very important participant in two major art movements and a contributor to a third, Surrealism. She was a founding member of the Modernist movement into pure abstraction in Western art. Her C.V. reads like a twentieth century Renaissance woman. She was a Dada artist and performer, an avant-garde dancer and abstract artist, creating paintings, drawings, collage, relief and concrete sculpture. In between art projects, her creativity was hugely diverse. She treated all forms of expression as equally valid: dance, choreography, puppetry, textiles, costume, jewellery, interior and theatre design as well as the fine arts.  

She was also a teacher of art and crafts, a publisher and she designed her own house. She counted most of the western avant-garde as her friends and worked in collaboration with numerous other artists including Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara and Jean Arp, her husband.

In spite of her significance to the course of modern art, she has suffered the seemingly inevitable eclipse behind the reputation of her husband, like so many other women artists. Not much of her writing is available, she contributed small articles to the magazine Plastique, which she edited and published. Also still extant is some of the teaching material that she wrote for her design students during the 1920’s.


Sophie helped instigate and took part, under assumed names and often masked, in the Cabaret Voltaire, between Feb-July 1916. This is generally considered to be the beginning of Dada, which was an anarchic, revolutionary group in the opposite sense to the prevalent political revolutionary movements in that it rejected all order, rather than seeking to impose a different order. Sophie felt obliged to keep her participation in these events anonymous as she was working as a teacher at the School of Applied Arts and could not afford to risk her job.

Jean Arp, Sophie Taeuber’s life-long companion, was also deeply involved with the Dada movement. He was a prolific poet and Sophie illustrated several books of his verse. He wrote poetry for Sophie during her lifetime and prose about her after her death, though in such eulogistic terms that it is impossible to read her everyday life into his devotion. That he loved her is very clear. That she was very modest about her artistic achievements is also clear.

Sophie Henriette Gertrud Taeuber was born the youngest of five children on Jan 19th 1889 in Davos, Switzerland. Her Prussian father, Emil Taeuber was a pharmacist and her Swiss mother, Sophie Taeuber-Krüsi was an amateur painter. The family had settled in Davos because its famous mountain climate attracted wealthy invalids, making it a lucrative location for a pharmacy. However Emil Taeuber was himself ill, he suffered from tuberculosis, so the choice of Davos could also have been for the sake of his own health. The illness finally killed him in 1893, and the family move Trogen, where Sophie went to school.

In 1904, fifteen-year-old Sophie began her transformation into a twentieth-century renaissance woman when her mother, recognising where her youngest child’s talent lay, enrolled her at the Staufacher Schule, a private school for art and design, in nearby Saint Gallen on the edge of Lake Constance. Here Sophie began to study textiles. She soon progressed to the art school associated with the Saint Gallen Museum of Industry. In 1907, when her mother also died, Sophie and her sister Erika let out the family home in Trogen and for a while made Saint Gallen their home.

Sophie Taeuber left Saint Gallen in 1910 and travelled to Munich, the capital of the German state of Bavaria, a journey of two hundred kilometres and a huge cultural shift. Munich was already a great city with important scientific and cultural institutions and a thriving avant-garde. Here she attended the experimental Debschitz art school, a choice which directed the remainder of her creative life. Although named by painter Wilhelm von Debschitz, his role was mainly administrative, the teaching in the school was by another Swiss, Hermann Obrist. He was one of the most significant modernist designers in Munich at the time. An important member of the Jugendstil group, he was determined to make his students put aside old fashioned, outmoded elitism and classicism and instead take up modern ideas of pure form and beauty in simplicity. This ethos Sophie kept to in her art throughout her life.

As a painter, Sophie Taeuber was a pure abstractionist and her elegant, hard edged abstractions seem to bear little relation to the Dada and Surrealist work of many of her friends. The rigorous planning and controlled execution of her paintings appears leagues away from the rude confrontation associated with the Dadas and even further from the romantic emoting and subconscious responses of the Surrealists who were her friends. 

What was happened to ‘Composition 1938’, the Taeuber work exhibited at the Exhibition by 31 Women in 1943 is now uncertain, as is its appearance, however in late 1942 Peggy Guggenheim still owned at least one drawing by Taeuber and it is possible that this was the work shown. Taeuber’s painting in around 1938 was principally concerned with asymmetrically divided circles filled in with strong colours and she was also producing circular wood reliefs with raised arabesque forms. In 1948 she was posthumously described by Hugo Weber, who assisted in the cataloguing of her work, as ‘the artist of the circle’ and certainly from 1932 the circle performed an increasingly significant role in her work.
When the Exhibition by 31 Women opened Sophie was back in Switzerland after fleeing the Nazi's.

She had spent the 1930's living in France where she had designed and built her house at Meudon, with separate studios for herself and her husband. As the German invaders encroached, they fled first to the Dordogne area then to Savoie, where they spent the summer sharing a house on the banks of Lac Annecy with Peggy Guggenheim. At this stage Hans Arp changed his name from Germanic Hans to the French, Jean, in a symbolic rejection of all that the Nazis represented. He was from the border territory of Alsace and had never regarded himself as German.

Arp and Taeuber then moved on to Grasse, from where they hoped to escape to the USA once their visas were granted. They lived in increasing insecurity for two years with Sonia Delaunay-Terk & Alberto Magnelli. This little artists’ colony produced a group series of lithographs which were published in Switzerland in 1950. Taeuber’s individual work included paintings she had begun in Meudon. Her last works consisted of thirty ink and crayon drawings in constructivist style, anything more substantial may have seemed to her to be impractical in such uncertain times.

Assessing the absolute significance of Sophie Taeuber’s oeuvre is a puzzle. Her early work is missing, her full contribution to Dada is shrouded in anonymity and the extent of subsequent creations is obscured by both her modesty and the collaborative ethos that she and Arp adopted during their working lives together. They were a team, both believed that it was the Total Work which was important, this concern exemplified by Taeuber’s efforts to marry the fine and applied arts. Beside this Total Work the artist was subordinate, as had historically been the case in earlier times, when work was routinely produced by teams of craftsmen who were not even acknowledged as artists.

After leaving her beloved home and in 1942 finally returning to Switzerland, Sophie died in an accident in 1943. She had stayed the night at a friend's house and was apparently gassed by a defective stove. Sophie Taeuber was only 54, a tragedy for her husband and many friends and a great loss to European art.

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Sources include:

Foundation Jean Arp & Sophie Taeuber–Arp, Rolandsack, Germany
Leah Dickerman & MS Witkovsky The Dada Seminars 2005, National Gallery of Art,  Washington, USA 


(T.J.Demos Zurich Dada: The Aesthetics of Exile - essay in Dickerman & Witkovsky)

Beate Ziegert, The Debschitz School, Munich:1902-1914 pub. in Design Issues vol 3 no1 Spring, 1986 
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Comments and further information about Sophie Taeuber-Arp are very welcome.

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You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones remain on this blog.

4 comments:

  1. Sue many thanks for your wonderful texts, I really enjoy the work of Taeuber, such a pity so much of her work is lost.

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    1. Thank you. It seems that Sophie Taeuber herself chose to destroy her very early work even before she joined the Zurich Dada group and no doubt more was lost later. She was a perfectionist.

      It is sad for posterity and frustrating for a researcher when work is obviously missing.

      Even sadder for me was when an artist friend destroyed work in front of my eyes, because it was not where her mind was at the time, even I really liked it and thought it was good. But it was her work, her choice.

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  2. Today (19th January, 2016) the Search Engine Google is showing Doodle on its home page in few countries for the 127th Birthday of Sophie Taeuber-Arp.
    Sophie Taeuber-Arp Google Doodle

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    1. Thank you for telling me, it's delightful! Not on Google in the UK regrettably.

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