May 20, 2022

BASEL, Switzerland – Just over a century ago, the Swiss Marionette Theater in Zurich was closed during yet another pandemic. The piece “King Stag” ended in September 1918 after three poorly attended performances. The Spanish flu kept their audience away.

The show’s puppets, designed by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, were definitely “far too modern and daring” for production, she later wrote. One is a five-armed, five-legged, robot-like creation made of silver-colored wood, with a sword in each hand. Another is an elongated figure with a fishtail hat.

Although the Zurich theater was skeptical, the art circles in which Taeuber-Arp moved understood the puppets as important sculptures. In Europe they were presented and discussed in avant-garde magazines; Across the Atlantic, Vanity Fair found in 1922 that these “revolutionary” dolls “caused a real sensation”.

Making marionettes was just one aspect of Taeuber-Arp’s dazzling artistic offering, which included bead bags, necklaces, pillow cases, carpets, and stained glass in abstract, geometric patterns. She made costumes with hats from paper doilies and designed furniture, interiors, kitchens – even a carefully planned broom closet. She danced, taught and edited an art journal. Her precise, harmonious, playful paintings hung in an exhibition here in Basel in 1937 next to works by Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky.

Her ability to blur the lines between fine arts and applied arts is one of the reasons it took Taeuber-Arp so long to get a major retrospective that would cement her international reputation as a pioneer of abstraction, said Anne Umland , Curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “It’s hard to pigeonhole,” Umland said.

The comprehensive exhibition “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction” opened in March at the Kunstmuseum Basel and runs until June 20. It will be relocated to Tate Modern in London from July 15th and to MoMA from November 21st.

The exhibition brings Taeuber-Arp out of the shadow of her more famous husband, the Franco-German sculptor Jean Arp, whom she married in 1922. It is the latest in a series of female artists to which the wives of well-known men belonged have received retrospectives in leading museums in recent years – including the German textile artist Anni Albers and the American painter Lee Krasner.

Although Taeuber-Arp is known in Switzerland, where her face is written on the 50-franc note, “she is far from being a household name in the US,” said Umland. “We want to put her on the map as one of the most vibrant, versatile and talented artists of her time.”

Sophie Taeuber was born in the Swiss mountain town of Davos in 1889 and learned various textile crafts as a child from her mother, who ran a linen shop. After studying applied arts, fine arts and design in Munich and St. Gallen, she began taking dance lessons at an academy in Zurich in 1915.

At that time, neutral Switzerland was a paradise for anti-war artists from all over Europe when the First World War raged on its borders. Bourgeois Zurich became a hub for bohemians who gathered at Cabaret Voltaire – the nightclub believed to be the birthplace of the Dada movement – to recite nonsensical poetry, play experimental music, and exhibit art.

The only surviving photo of a performance by Taeuber-Arp comes from this period: a figure who is presumably the artist, whose head is hidden behind a rectangular mask and who swings tubular arms with spiky metallic hands.

Many of the objects in the Basel exhibition were supposed to “dance” – or at least fulfill a function – and the curators brought the works to life. The puppets from “King Stag” are shown in action opposite a film of them. The pearl-studded purses, which are supposed to turn on the wrists of fashion-conscious women, dangle from stands and glitter in the light.

Like her paintings and tapestries, the purses include geometric shapes in rich and unexpected color sequences. “If the struggle for existence has become so difficult, why think of ornaments and color combinations when there are so many more practical and, above all, more necessary things to do?” Taeuber-Arp asked in an essay from 1922. The answer, she said, was “a deep and primal” urge to “make the things we own more beautiful”.

Arp moved to Strasbourg, France, in 1926, and Taeuber-Arp, the breadwinner of the marriage, stayed in Zurich and taught applied arts at the Zurich Commercial School. She joined him there when they were commissioned to redesign the interior of the Aubette, an 18th-century building in Strasbourg that was to become a multipurpose entertainment complex. With the fee they bought a property in Clamart outside Paris and settled there: Taeuber-Arp’s first architectural project was to design a modern, minimalist house with studios and a garden.

The couple fled this house shortly before the German troops marched in in June 1940 and found refuge on the French Riviera before a visa for Switzerland was issued in 1942. Taeuber-Arp did not pick up any painting material, took colored pencils and turned away from the clarity of geometric forms to meandering, meandering lines.

Two months after reaching security in Switzerland, she lit a wood-burning stove before going to bed without realizing his fireplace was closed and died in her sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 53 years old.

Taeuber-Arp’s untimely death made Arp responsible for her legacy, Umland said. Although he worked “with the best of intentions,” she added that a catalog he published of her work featured her primarily as a painter and sculptor, overlooking her architectural designs, interiors, textiles and puppets.

“The cross-disciplinary, pollinating area of ​​Taeuber-Arp’s abstraction approach has so far been neglected,” said Umland. “To sum it all up, you have to see how their approach remains consistent across this multitude of disciplines – and how abstraction permeates everyday life.”