Sophie Henriette Gertrud Taeuber-Arp
(Davos 1889 – Zürich 1943)
Sophie Taeuber-Arp numbers among the pioneers of 20th century abstract geometric art. As a German, a Swiss and a French national, she influenced the course of European art and was acknowledged by art historians such as Willy Rotzler (1917–1994) as a “key figure and perhaps the actual initiator” of Swiss Concrete Art (1). She grew up in Switzerland, studying both there and in Germany. Later, thanks to her teaching position in Zurich, even after moving to France she would still make frequently trips back to Switzerland. She was active in the artists’ movements known as “Dada”, “Das Neue Leben” (The New Life), “Cercle et Carré” (Circle and Square), “Abstraction-Création” and “Allianz”, and is regarded as one of the most innovative artists of her time.
In the Parisian art circles of the 1930s, she described herself as an “artiste peintre”, although her use of highly diverse materials and techniques is the very hallmark of her work. Her extensive oeuvre is based on the fundamental principle of textile art, the criss-cross alignment of the warp and weft in weaving, which inspired her to adopt the vertical-horizontal grid in her composition.
Her creative means of expression are versatile, encompassing such diverse techniques as coloured pencil drawings, collages, textile projects, design drawings, gouache and watercolour drawings, oil painting, mural painting, wood sculpture, painted wood reliefs, architecture, interior decoration and design. Lively relationships with the viewer open up in her choreography, dance and puppet theatre. Latterly, she was editor of the international art magazine “Plastique-Plastic”.
Sophie Taeuber was born in Davos on 19 January 1889 and grew up near St. Gallen following the death of her father. With her mother and three siblings she spent her childhood and youth in Trogen, surrounded by nature as well as architecture of historical significance. From her eldest brother, a seafarer, she gained impressions of different cultures such as those of indigenous North American peoples while still a child. She decorated her room with portrait photos of chiefs and original objects of indigenous art. Even in her later work, these would continue to inspire her.
Her mother’s creativity impelled her to create artistic and decorative works from an early age. Photographs from this period document Taeuber’s interest in traditional textile art, weaving, embroidery, lace techniques, rug knotting and sewing. She showcases herself in the pictures, wearing clothing ornamented with exquisite embroideries.
Her initial training was in textiles and was undertaken from 1907 to 1910 at the school of the Industrie- und Gewerbemuseum (Museum of industry and crafts) in St. Gallen. Starting from 1910, she spent time in progressive studios, at the so-called “Debschitz-Schule” (2) in Munich, and a year at the Kunstgewerbe-Schule (School of arts and crafts) in Hamburg. In addition to a valuable knowledge of art history, she acquired a multifaceted practical training in subjects such as weaving, lace-making, designing for the decorative arts, ornamentation, woodworking, turning, representation techniques, design and projection drawing; both proved to be of lasting benefit. In the summer of 1914 she received her diploma in Munich, duly qualifying her to teach. She returned to Switzerland, going to live with her sister (3) in Zurich.
From 1916 to 1929 she was the head of textile design at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of arts and crafts) in Zurich. Her students included Elsi Giauque (1900–1989) (4) and Max Bill (1908–1994) (5). She taught composition, embroidery and weaving and later also ornamental design. In 1916 she became a member of the “Schweizerischer Werkbund” (Swiss Werkbund) (6).
She attended courses in modern expressive dance taught by Rudolf von Laban (1879–1958) (7) and Mary Wigman (1886–1973) (8) in Zurich and Ascona (Ticino). This involved her in the first steps towards Laban choreographic notation.
Sophie Taeuber worked on paintings, portraits and still lifes, textile works and art objects. She sold the latter in the Zurich branch of the “Wiener Werkstätten” (Vienna Workshops) (9).
Her first abstract, geometric coloured-pencil drawings, “Compositions verticales-horizontales” (“Vertical-Horizontal Compositions”), were dated 1915, 1916 and 1917. According to Michel Seuphor (1901–1999) (10), in art-historical terms these geometric grid constructions are comparable in significance to the abstract-geometric pictures of the same date by Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) and Kasimir Malevich (1878–1935).
In November 1915, she met the poet and painter Hans Arp (1886–1966), with whom she shared artistic affinities from the very start. They would go on to work together repeatedly. He was enthralled with her drawings and made Sophie Taeuber aware of their importance. She joined him in the Dada movement and brought along her friends from the Laban school. As relationships formed between the dancers and Dadaists, dance became an element of Dada. Sophie Taeuber performed expressive dance and abstract choreographies at Dada evenings. At the opening of the Dada Gallery in 1917 she danced a solo, which the Dadaist poet Hugo Ball (1886–1927) was moved to write about (11).
At the Kunstgewerbeschule, in addition to personal works in textiles, Sophie Taeuber was now also making sculptures from turned wood. Between 1916 and 1920 she created a series of “tins” or “vessels” with eccentric shapes, including “Coupe Dada” (“Dada Bowl”), “Puderdose” (“Powder Box”), “Kelch” (“Chalice”) and “Amphore” (“Amphora”); the latter is regarded as a duo work.
In 1918, for the opening of the Zurich puppet theatre to coincide with the Werkbund exhibition, the director of her school commissioned her to design the string puppets for a modern interpretation of “König Hirsch” (“The King Stag”) by the Italian dramaturg Carlo Gozzi (1720–1806). The plot had been transposed to the present day, integrating the theme of psychoanalysis and the figure of Sigmund Freud. The marionettes, probably seventeen in number, the props and the sketches for the scenery testify to a unique and inventive creation which propelled Taeuber to instant fame, even though the show was performed a few times only. Arp had his picture taken alongside Taeuber and her puppets, attesting to his appreciation of these figures.
Shortly thereafter, she created about eight heads, also made of turned, colourfully painted wood. These heads, now known as “Dada Heads”, are among Sophie Taeuber’s key works. The “Portrait Jean Arp” (“Portrait of Hans Arp”), dating from 1918, acquired a companion (untitled) in the following year, the geometrically painted forms quite clearly denoting a self-portrait of Sophie Taeuber. To conclude the series, she made the “Tête dada” (“Dada Head”), 1920 (12), which today has a manifesto-like quality, marking the final moments of the Dada Zurich movement.
Taeuber’s large abstract “Triptyque I, II, III” (“Triptych I, II, III”) (13), subtitled “Composition verticale-horizontale à triangles réciproques” (“Vertical-Horizontal Composition with Reciprocal Triangles”), was also made in 1918. With its extraordinary size, the colour palette evoking religious painting and the recurring triangles, it acts as an affirmation of the spiritual side of Dada.
Other works from this creative period are the large “Duo-Collages”, created in collaboration with Arp. No one disputes that these have become icons of 20th century geometric abstract art. They are based on a composition of vertical rectangles of equal size onto which pale coloured papers are pasted according to a random system discovered by Arp.
Arp had claimed authorship of one of the five “Duo-Collages” for himself alone. Artist friends were impressed but failed to understand that the geometric influence on Arp originally came from Sophie Taeuber, whose work was based on the geometric grid even before they first met in 1915. Arp liked to give the impression that he had discovered geometry as a fundamental element on his own account. This is one source of the confusion concerning the authorship of both artists. Their repeated collaborations in later years, as for the “Aubette” and on sculpture and graphics, are notable for the interesting and innovative work that resulted.
Taeuber exhibited prolifically, showing some of the heads as well as other works. Joining other Dadaists such as Marcel Janco (1895–1984), the Arps took part in the “Das Neue Leben” (The New Life) movement in 1919 and 1920. The artists involved wanted more integration of art into daily life and education. In the intervening period, a lung complaint forced Sophie Taeuber to spend months in a sanatorium in Arosa.
The Arps travelled a great deal in Italy and Spain, often with artist friends. In 1922, Sophie Taeuber and Hans Arp married in Pura, in Ticino.
While Arp travelled in Germany, Taeuber-Arp remained in Zurich to teach, and published an article on ornamental design (14). She created numerous colourful gouache drawings in which the element of movement is striking. Now the motion of dance, which she had recently given up practising, flowed into her visual art. This dynamic element is present right to the end of her oeuvre.
In 1925, Taeuber-Arp travelled to Paris as a member of the jury for the “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” at the Grand Palais, where she represented Switzerland alongside Johannes Itten (1888–1967). She exhibited various works including tapestries and was awarded a prize.
In Strasbourg, the Arps obtained French nationality. They struck up what proved to be fruitful contact with the brothers Paul (1879–1960) and André Horn (1873–1948), who proposed to transform part of the historic city-centre building known as the “Aubette” into a multifaceted modern leisure complex.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp began redecorating Paul Horn’s apartment with a wall painting and stained-glass windows, and then the entrance lobby and the restaurant of the Hotel Hannong (15).
Next, she was engaged to realise the interiors of the numerous rooms of the Aubette’s numerous rooms (16), including the decoration, lighting and furnishings.
This enormous contract was more than she and Arp could handle on their own. They called on assistance from the Dutch painter-architect Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931) (17). The collaboration between the three artists brought its own difficulties, because Van Doesburg attempted to secure control of the project, an aim he partially achieved. Nevertheless, Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s contribution was considerable (18). She designed the “Five o’clock” tea salon and the small “Aubette Bar” on the ground floor, a billiard room on the upper floor and a large foyer. The staircase, the stained glass window and the entrance were created in collaboration with Arp and Van Doesburg. Outside in the arcade, Taeuber-Arp created a tiled floor with a geometric design reminiscent of Laban dance notation.
While undergoing medical treatment from the Strasbourg ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Heimendinger, Sophie Taeuber-Arp received a further commission for a wall painting in the entrance hall and staircase of his villa. She made use of a rhythmically repeating motif with variations, which she had derived from stylised dancing figures with angular arms and developed into a geometric, abstract design, also identifiable in gouache drawings from 1927/28 (19).
Monumental room design characterised her subsequent work and numerous projects ensued, encompassing interior architecture, design briefs, large-format paintings, sculptures and reliefs. For instance, she executed the interior of the Paris apartment of artist friends, the German couple Theodor (1886–1969) and Woty Werner (1903–1971), incorporating some built-in furnishings. In 1927, she and a colleague had published a manual on textile design (20) for the city of Zurich.
In their newly constructed studio house in Meudon Val Fleury, which had been built to Taeuber-Arp’s plans, each of the Arps had their own studio; Taeuber-Arp worked on the first floor, Hans Arp in the room below. Since there were no doors to impede communication, ideas could flow freely back and forth. At the end of the 1920s they created some collaborative wood sculptures. Sophie Taeuber-Arp produced design drawings which were executed by craftsmen. Works of turnery were made, some kept in natural wood and some painted grey or white, such as “Un grand et deux petits” (“Figures, One Large and Two Small”), 1931 (21). Not all the projects drafted by Taeuber-Arp were executed, but in 1932 more than ten sculptures were exhibited under Arp’s name at the Kunstmuseum Basel (Basel museum of fine arts) (22). The exact authorship of these wood sculptures is unclear.
The studio house in Meudon and its garden became a meeting place for the avant-garde. Many visitors would come, including from abroad, such as Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948), Hans Richter (1888–1956), Alexander Calder (1898–1976); then the Van Doesburgs (Nelly van D. 1899–1975), the Delaunays (Robert D. 1885–1941 and Sonia D. 1885–1979), the Kandinskys (Wassily K. 1866–1944 and Nina K. 1899–1980), Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), Florence Henri (1893–1982) and others. There are photographs in which Max Ernst (1891–1976) and Meret Oppenheim (1913–1985) can be identified. A frequent visitor was Sophie Taueber-Arp’s close friend Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia (1881–1985), who wrote articles about her friend’s art. On a visit to the studio, Michel Seuphor discovered the work of Sophie Taeuber-Arp on the first floor and was greatly impressed by it. He invited her to take part in the exhibition “Cercle et Carré” (“Circle and Square”) that he was organising. This gained her admittance to the Parisian art milieu of abstraction. From 1931 to 1934 she took part in the organisation of “Abstraction-Création”. She was one of its exhibitors as well as designing catalogues and invitation cards. In 1934 its publishing house brought out the book “Cinq Artistes Suisses” (“Five Swiss Artists”), in which Anatole Jakovski (1907–1983) published an important text about Taeuber-Arp and she designed the layout. She contributed to the Polish artists’ collection of pictures for the first collection of contemporary concrete art in the Sztuki Museum in Łódź, and travelled there without Arp for the opening; the collection includes several of her works. She became friends with Katarzyna Kobro (1898–1951), Władysław Strzemiński (1893–1952) and Henryk Stazewski (1894–1988).
Taeuber-Arp participated in many exhibitions, in Europe and further afield.
In her painting she used an elementary vocabulary of forms – squares, rectangles, sticks or bars – which served to divide up the picture surface. In the course of the 1930s, she added the circle. She exhibited in epoch-making exhibitions in France, Switzerland, Japan and America. The oil painting “Cercles mouvementés” (“Moving Circles”), 1934, was exhibited in the “Konstruktivisten” (“Constructivists”) exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel in 1937 and was purchased directly by Marguerite Hagenbach (later Hagenbach-Arp) (1902–1994); it was the first painting in her important collection along with a Georges Vantongerloo (1886–1965), and other works. The two women had great affection for one another and became friends. Marguerite Hagenbach admired Sophie Taueber-Arp as an artist.
In her late work, Taeuber-Arp took up wood relief sculpture, which represents a high point of her oeuvre. From 1936 to 1938 she created a series of round reliefs made from three or four sheets of wood layered together, painted white or in colours.
Rectangular wooden reliefs, some with cut-outs which integrate the wall as an additional surface, act in interplay with the space. From the surface of the vertically-hung background, cones spring forth into the viewers’ space as if the artist were seeking to engage them in a dialogue. Most of these reliefs are in strong colours, harking back to the sometimes audacious use of colour in the Dada period.
Working with wood eventually brought Taeuber-Arp back to sculpture. In 1937 she made a head from turned wood, untitled but known as “Sculpture en bois tourné” (“Turned Wood Sculpture”), the basic shape of which is spherical, topped with a tapering addition like a pointed hat but symmetrically centred. The pedestal is completely integrated. Both in place of a “face” and on the back of the head, a symmetrical notch has been excised. Larger than the “Dada Heads”, this sculpture is an outstanding work due to its unembellished, minimalist presence. Arp had treasured it greatly, because after his wife’s death he donated it to the Yale University Art Gallery and had a bronze cast made for himself. At that time, the couple had created two duo sculptures, the “Sculpture conjugale” (“Marital Sculpture”), 1937, and “Jalon”, 1938. The latter can be dismantled into three sections and reassembled into two subtly different versions, an astonishing design principle.
In 1937, Taeuber-Arp joined “Allianz”, a Swiss artists’ group founded by Max Bill and Leo Leuppi (1893–1972). She also worked alongside Richard-Paul Lohse (1902-1988) and collaborated on publications of graphic art portfolios.
From 1937 to 1939, five issues of the trilingual magazine “Plastique-Plastic” (23) were published in Paris and New York with money from American artists. The magazine served as an international link between the emigrating artists who were now dispersed to every corner of the earth. Initially published in collaboration with Cesar Domela (1900–1992) and Arp, ultimately Taeuber-Arp was the sole editor and distributor of this artistic platform. She was planning further issues, with Max Bill and others.
Fleeing to escape the Nazis, the Arps first stayed in Nérac with Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, and then at the home of Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979) in Veyrier. There, Taeuber-Arp made plans to work with Nelly van Doesburg on an artists’ encyclopaedia of concrete art. Thanks to the help of the Magnellis (Alberto M. 1888–1971 and Susi M. 19?–1994), the Arps found a temporary residence in Grasse, the “Château Folie”. After the death of Robert Delaunay, they took Sonia Delaunay into their home. Collaborative art works were created by the Arps, Alberto Magnelli and Sonia Delaunay, for which two or three of them worked successively on the same sheet. Not until 1950 were the gouache drawings published in Paris as a lithographic portfolio.
The Arps made up their minds to emigrate to America but were unable to obtain the necessary documents. Shortly before the occupation of southern France, they managed to flee to Switzerland. Sophie Taeuber-Arp went to live with her sister, and Arp with Max and Binia Bill (1904–1988). At an exhibition opening in the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of decorative arts), Sophie Taeuber-Arp was given an especially warm reception and honoured by her former colleagues and friends, including Johannes Itten. This clearly shows that by that time, she was well known in Switzerland and greatly appreciated.
The cause of her death at Max Bill’s house in the night of 12-13 January 1943 is generally imputed to carbon monoxide poisoning, but the circumstances remain largely unexplained.
The enduring merit of Sophie Taeuber-Arp is that she introduced abstract geometric art into Dadaism, and that she carried these principles and particularly her own unique element of playfulness and humour into all areas of art. Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) recognised this as Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s particular ability as an artist (24).
(1) Willy Rotzler: Konstruktive Konzepte, Zurich 1977, 1988, p. 138.
(2) Lehr- und Versuchsateliers für angewandte und freie Kunst (Teaching and experimental studios for applied and free art), Munich, also known as the Debschitz School. Founded by Hermann Obrist (1862–1927) and Wilhelm von Debschitz (1871–1948) along guidelines established by the Vienna School, the Arts and Crafts movement and Henry van de Velde (1863–1957).
(3) Erika Schlegel (1884–1973), who later became librarian to C. G. Jung.
(4) Elsi Giauque, textile artist in Ligerz, teacher at the Kunstgewerbeschule, Zurich.
(5) Max Bill, architect, painter, sculptor, student at the Kunstgewerbeschule Zurich from 1924 to 1927.
(6) Schweizerischer Werkbund, founded in Zurich in 1913 on the German model as a “Gesinnungsverband” (ethos-based organisation) at the instigation of Hermann Muthesius (1861–1927); its founder was Alfred Altherr (1875–1945), director of the Kunstgewerbeschule.
(7) Rudolf von Laban (Bratislava 1879–Weybridge 1958) dancer, choreographer, inventor of Laban notation.
(8) Mary Wigman, expressive dancer: “Hexentanz” (“Witch Dance”). Assistant to Rudolf von Laban, choreographer, dance school in Dresden.
(9) Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), Zurich branch, headed by Dagobert Peche (1887–1923), 1917 to 1919. Koloman Moser (1868–1918) called him the “ornamentation genius of the century”.
(10) Michel Seuphor, painter, art critic, author. Friends with Mondrian. Comment during a conversation with the author, Paris, 1987.
(11) Hugo Ball: Die Flucht aus der Zeit, Munich etc. 1927.
(12) Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Tête Dada (Dada Head), 1920, Musée national d’art moderne au Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Cf. Gabriele Mahn in “Les Cahiers du MNAM”, No. 88, 2004, pp. 60–67.
(13) Sophie Taeuber-Arp, “Triptyque I, II, III” (“Triptych I, II, III”), 1918 (each 112 x 53 cm), Kunsthaus Zurich.
(14) Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Bemerkungen über den Unterricht im ornamentalen Entwerfen (Remarks on instruction in ornamental design), in: Korrespondenzblatt des Schweizer Vereins der Gewerbe- und Hauswirtschaftslehrerinnen (1922), No. 11/12, pp. 156–159.
(15) Hotel Hannong, Strasbourg. The wall painting by Sophie Taeuber-Arp was completely destroyed by a fire. Memorial wall in the dining room. In this regard, cf. Gabriele Mahn: La contribution de Sophie Taeuber-Arp et Hans Arp à l’Aubette, in: Emmanuel Guigon, Hans van der Werf, Mariet Willinge (eds): L’ Aubette: ou la couleur dans l’architecture: une oeuvre de Hans Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Théo van Doesburg, Strasbourg 2006, p. 134, 135.
(16) Cf. Mahn 2006, pp. 132–145.
(17) Theo van Doesburg, painter, architect, publisher of the magazine “De Stijl”.
(18) Cf. Réseau CANOPÉ, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Baccalauréat Arts Plastiques, Gabriele Mahn et al.: Sophie Taeuber-Arp: transformer, renouveler, Futuroscope 2018.
(19) On the occasion of a treatment by the Strasbourg ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Heimendinger, Sophie Taeuber-Arp was commissioned for a mural painting in the entrance area and staircase of his villa. She had derived the rhythmically repeated, varied motif from stylised dance figures with angled arms and developed it into a geometrically abstract decoration that can be found in gouache drawings from 1927/28.
(20) Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Blanche Gauchat: Anleitung zum Zeichenunterricht für textile Berufe (Guide to instruction in drawing for the textile occupations), published by Gewerbeschule der Stadt Zürich (Trade school of the city of Zurich), Zurich 1927.
(21) Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Hans Arp, “Un grand et deux petits” (“Figures, One Large and Two Small”), 1931, Fondation Arp Collection, Clamart. This work was always referred to as a duo work. In recent years, around 2010, Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s authorship was withdrawn without explanation.
(22) Hans Arp, Serge Brignoni, H. Schiess, Kurt Seligmann, Jacques Düblin, Kunsthalle Basel 1932.
(23) “Plastique-Plastic”, Paris-New York, magazine financed by A. E. Gallatin and L. K. Morris, N. Y.
(24) Marcel Duchamp: Sophie Taeuber-Arp, in: George Heard Hamilton: Catalogue of the collection of the Société Anonyme, New Haven 1950.