Sophie Taeuber-Arp - Biography and Legacy
Swiss Multi-media, applied arts, performance artist, and textile designer
Biography of Sophie Taeuber-Arp
Sophie Henriette Gertrude Taeuber was the fifth child in a middle-class Prussian family. Her father, Emil Taeuber, was a pharmacist who died of tuberculosis when Taeuber-Arp was still a child. Her mother, Sophie Taeuber-Krusi, opened a Bed and Breakfast in Trogen, Switzerland to support the family.
Taeuber studied drawing at the School of Applied Arts in Saint Gallen, Switzerland from 1908 to 1910, but desired exposure to a wider range of ideas, and headed to Germany to study textile design. In Germany, her schooling reflected her interest in diverse fields and her unhappiness with strict boundaries and programs, as she bounced back and forth between the Teaching and Experimental Studio for Applied and Liberal Arts in Munich and the School of Applied Arts in Hamburg. She studied not only design, but also dance, weaving, and bead work from 1911 to 1913.
By 1915, she had returned to Zurich where her sister lived. She began to create non-representational paintings and sculptures, influenced by her training in textile design and Cubism. At the same time, she continued her work in the applied arts and her study of modern dance. The French artist and poet Hans Arp had taken refuge in Switzerland because of the First World War, and the two met in the fall of 1915. They began collaborating on artistic works, and romance followed. Her life at this time consisted of three interwoven strands: Dada as a social circle and fine art production, a career in the applied arts, and the study of modern dance.
Taeuber-Arp was active in Dada's Zurich heyday from 1916-19. Switzerland had remained neutral during World War I, and attracted an international crowd of dissatisfied or refugee artists, with whom Taeuber-Arp socialized. Her participation in Dada took many forms including dancing in avant-garde performances at the Cabaret Voltaire, an important locus of Zurich's Dada scene. Cabaret Voltaire, founded by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings, featured radically experimental poetry, and visual arts. Taeuber-Arp designed costumes sets, and even puppets for Dada performances. Her dances at Cabaret Voltaire incorporated radical Modernist principles of expressive movement. She collaborated with other Dada artists, especially her future husband Hans Arp, producing shows, dances, writings, and fine art works. In 1918, she was a co-signer of the Zurich Dada Manifesto.
Starting 1916, Taeuber-Arp was also a professor of textile design and technique (a department she helped found) at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts. She wanted to establish herself as a forward-thinker in the applied arts community and joined the Swiss Werkbund, a professional association dedicated to promoting applied artists. Taeuber-Arp produced objects for use such as bead-work purses and embroidered pillowcases. Her work received critical acclaim and sold well. In February 1916, Zurich's Museum of Arts and Crafts exhibited a collection of her applied art works. Not only were critics enthusiastic, but sales were brisk enough to necessitate hiring help to execute her designs and expedite production. Because the School of Arts and Crafts did not want their professors to take part in Dada activities, Taeuber-Arp had to keep her involvement in the Dada world of Cabaret Voltaire, and later Galerie Dada, a secret. She performed in masks and under false names. This dual life ended when she felt financially comfortable enough to resign from the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts in 1928/1929.
Taeuber-Arp began studying dance with the Swiss Modern dance choreographer Rudolf von Laban in 1916 at the Laban School of Dance in Zurich. She joined the artist colony of Monte Verita in Ascona, a famous Christian-Communist community, in the summer of 1916. She returned in 1917 to participate in the Sun Festival, with the modern dance pioneer Mary Wigman. Laban considered movement a universal language, that connected all living things, reflecting similar ideas in abstraction in art. In his classes and through her friendship with Wigman, Taeuber-Arp learned to use dance as a space of intuitive movement and radically spatialized form.
On October 20, 1922, Taeuber married Arp and changed her last name to Taeuber-Arp. The 1920s was a period of frequent travel for the couple. Her vacations with Hans Arp included other friends from the Dada circle such as Tristan Tzara, Max Ernst, and Hannah Höch. The couple associated with an international circle of vanguard artists such as Francis Picabia, Lajos Kassak, and Kurt Schwitters. Notably, in 1926, Taeuber-Arp and her husband began working on a commission to design the interior of Café de l'Aubette in Strasbourg, France. They worked with Dutch artist and co-founder of De Stijl movement Theo van Doesburg to create an interior space like a Constructivist composition writ large on walls and ceilings.
After World War I, many of the couple's acquaintances had moved to Paris, then a center of the avant-garde. In 1928, Taeuber-Arp and her husband moved to Meudon, about 5 miles south of Paris, where they would live until 1940. Taeuber-Arp was at a high point of her career in terms of organizing, writing about, and exhibiting her abstract, multi-disciplinary art. She and Hans joined the Circle and Square (Cercle et Carre) group in 1930 and then the Abstract-Création group in 1931. Her work was included in the important Circle and Square exhibition at the Galeries 23 in Paris in 1930. Taeuber-Arp was the founder and editor of the Constructivist art journal Plastique (1937-39), which kept her in touch with important avant-garde figures. From the 1930s until her untimely death, she created a series of line pictures and wooden reliefs that continued to explore her long-standing interest in geometric abstraction as well as working in other mediums.
Taeuber-Arp and her husband fled to southern France when the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940. There they created a short-lived artist's colony with Sonia Delaunay. In late 1942, the couple returned to Zurich. They attempted to obtain passage to the United States, but before they succeeded, Taeuber-Arp died in her sleep on January 13, 1943. The cause was carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty gas stove.
The Legacy of Sophie Taeuber-Arp
To this day, Taeuber-Arp is not as well-known as other artists in her circle, including her husband Hans Arp, despite her deep involvement with the burgeoning European avant-garde and the presence of her works in museum collections across the world. Probable reasons for this lesser reputation include her being a woman, her work with craft and design - traditionally deemed lesser arts, and her premature death. However, this reputation is changing, as evidenced by the 1981 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that subsequently traveled to Chicago, Houston, and Montreal. Her work is now generally accepted as part of the story of modernism and Dada, and has drawn increasing attention from scholars and academics. Her work was influential to the growth of Feminist Art of the 1960's, who viewed her as a trailblazer. Artists and theorists working in post-Marxism and Critical Theory have also been influenced by her work and ideas. In 1995, The Swiss government redesigned their 50 Swiss franc note to include her portrait.