‘Heute ist Morgen’ (Today is Tomorrow), a glorious retrospective exhibition of Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s work, and the most comprehensive to date, encouraged a reconsideration of the Swiss artist’s life and oeuvre. In particular, it championed the equal evaluation of the many facets of her practice. It has taken some 70 years since Taeuber-Arp’s premature death for the brilliance of her output to be recognized. Born in 1889, Taeuber-Arp was in the thick of the Dada movement as it emerged in Zurich in the early 20th century, before her move to France in the late 1920s. Since the artist’s death in 1943, her work has generally been corralled with the Dadaists as well as the Zurich Concretist and Constructivist movements. Her widower, the artist Hans Arp, also influenced the reading of her work; however well intentioned, his descriptions of her method as intuitive and dream-led – and his proposal of certain shared interests between them – have been challenged by recent research, a challenge that is sustained by this detailed presentation at Aargauer Kunsthaus.
Around a hundred years ago, Taeuber-Arp wrote to a friend bemoaning the fact that the applied arts were not accorded the same respect as fine arts. Having first studied drawing in Switzerland, then at the School for Applied and Free Art in Munich, she returned to Zurich in 1914 where she attended Laban’s School for Expressionist Dance and, soon afterwards, taught textiles at the Trade School. Her textile work was highly regarded, but she did not exhibit artworks until she arrived in Paris in the 1920s. This show opened with a display of some of her finest works across multiple disciplines: centre-stage was a desk designed for gallerist Ernst Rott’s private residence around 1930, while textile works and paintings, including the woollen tapestry Composition (1918) and the oil-on-canvas flottant, aligné, oscillant, écartant, soutenant (floating, aligned, oscillating, distancing, supporting, 1932), hung on surrounding walls. Each piece is testament to Taeuber-Arp’s precision; the desk is rigorous and streamlined, the painting demonstrates a masterful sense of equilibrium, while the woven work – its colours referring to the Swiss flag and brown military wool blankets, with a stick figure held in a stiff salute – combines wit with an adroit graphic style.
Thereafter the exhibition concentrated on Taeuber-Arp’s formal and subject-based enquiries sustained over many years, rather than organizing works based on chronology or media. It was a productive strategy: for example, in one gallery you could see the way in which Taeuber-Arp confidently worked out grids of circular and rectangular forms, in two and three dimensions, as sculptural reliefs or beaded bags. Though her contemporaries may not have appreciated the importance of the applied iterations of her ideas, Taeuber-Arp moved between fine art and utilitarian objects without hesitation. Such agility enabled the development of objects like the painted, turned wood ‘Dada Heads’ (1916–20), which she abstracted from hat stands, as well as costumes for performative art happenings, of which only a few remain.
Taeuber-Arp also shifted continually from the figurative to the abstract. One gallery was devoted to the wooden marionettes she designed for the puppet show König Hirsch (King Stag, 1918) – a work in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition updated and adapted by René Morax and Werner Wolff to include references to the rival psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. The final galleries highlighted Taeuber-Arp’s architectural and interior design projects, including furnishings for the house she designed in Meudon, France, for herself and her husband. If it was frustrating that the exhibition did not include images of this building, it was in keeping with the policy of showing only the artist’s primary materials (her visualizations of other architectural projects were displayed). The show closed with her later series of black and white ‘Constructions géométriques’ of 1942, which are curled up like taut springs, as well as collaborative publishing projects, including the magazine Plastique, which ran from 1937–39. It was clear that new, fresh lines of investigation were emerging just as her life was cut short. (Taeuber-Arp died in her sleep in 1943 from carbon monoxide poisoning due to a leaking gas stove.) I would have liked to learn more about the historic and artistic context Taeuber-Arp operated within, as well as the artists that she inspired (Yves Netzhammer, Meret Oppenheim and Mai-Thu Perret come to mind) – but, I am hopeful that there will be an opportunity for more exhibitions to follow, now a solid basis for understanding the artist’s impressive work has been established.
First published in Issue 167