Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Tate Modern
It is odd (downright unfair) that Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) has remained relatively unknown if one compares her with her (largely male) peers – Kandinsky, Mondrian, Le Corbusier et al – and not least her better-known, husband, Jean Arp. The swiss-born dadaist was an extraordinary multi-talented, mutlit-facted woman – a teacher, an architect, a designer, an artist, a jewellery--maker, a puppet-maker, a performer and the editor of an international art magazine. She stood apart from other modernist artists by challenging the boundaries that had historically separated art, craft and design.
Reflecting the life (tragically cut short when she died of carbon-monoxide poisoning aged 53) and work of this pioneering polymath woman, the first major UK retrospective of her work showcases her textiles, jewellery, DaDa heads, marionettes, furniture, stained glass, painting (in two and three dimensions) and drawings. The result is a joyful show that slides (chronologically) between movements and mediums.
Taeuber-Arp's early compositions (in the first room) share the title Vertical–Horizontal and have grid structures and carefully thought-out colour schemes. It is interesting to see how this modular approach then opens the way for the experiments in her later work through so many different mediums – the textiles, the jewellery and the small bag (pictured below) echo the geomometric patterns of those early compositions; as do the stained glass windows that she designed for a bar in Strasbourg and a whole set for a residential house. The intense coloured square patterns in the glass look stunning set in the blue wall.
The infulx of artists and performers fleeing the war made Zurich a centre for the avant garde and one of the most radical movements to emerge was dada. These artists believed in creating brand new meanings for what art could be. Taeuber-Arp joined this group and embraced the dadaist playful, absurdist, radical practices. Part of this involved performance and dance. The large display case containing the puppets Taeuber-Arp desiged in 1918 for the Swiss Marionette Theatre in Zurich for a fairy-tale play, King Stag are a highlight. The puppets exposed joints and limbs are designed to make the uncontrolled movements which are reminiscent of Taeuber-Arp's abstract dances.
At the Debschitz School in Munich she had learned wood turning and she put it to good use, producing a series of artworks that challenged the definition of sculpture, everyday object and portrait. Some of these were known as 'Dada Heads' [example above] – playful busts decorated with facial features and bead work. Some could double as hatstands.
Multi-discliplinary Taeuber-Arp may have been, but you can see how every piece of her work connects. There is a wonderfully cohesive feeling to this body of work and this whole exhibition.
Taeuber-Arp is a master at taking an object and reducing it to its simplest form using basic colours and shapes. Spot the boat made out of circles and curved lines. That is very definition of abstraction and we think will speak volumes to children who are yet to be constrained by convention.
We highly recommend the Tate's book on Sophie Taeuber-Arp in their excellent 'Meet the Artist' series. It is a great introduction to the artist with simple and clear explanations of some of the modernist movements. There are plenty of suggestions to encourage children to create art using their imaginations, pens, paint, glue, needles and thread or whatever they feel inspired by.
We hope very much that this retrospective of a mistakenly overlooked artist (albeit the only woman to be featured on a Swiss bank note) ensures that once and for all Taeuber-Arp is bumped from the footnotes into her deserved place in art history.
Book timed tickets on the gallery website tate.org.uk
15 July to 17 October 2021
Anya Waddington 14 July 2021