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Sophie Taeuber-Arp (Swiss, 1889–1943)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

Swiss painter, sculptor and designer. She studied textile techniques at the Ecole des Arts Appliqués in St Gall from 1908 to 1910 and then in Hamburg at the Kunstgewerbeschule in 1912. Her career began in the centre of Dada activity in Zurich between 1915 and 1920. Although she did not date her work until the last two years of her life, its chronology was reconstructed by Hugo Weber from the testimony of her husband, Hans Arp, and from internal evidence.

Taeuber-Arp’s work evolved in groups, each characterized by a distinctive use of formal elements. The first prevailing format was a horizontal–vertical sectioning of a square or vertical rectangular ground, as in Pillow Sham, a wool embroidery (c. 1916; Zurich, Mus. Bellerive). Its structure reveals the importance of her textile training as much as the influence of Cubism. Her austerely geometric art arose from her belief in the innate expressive power of colour, line and form, and was informed by unusual wit and freedom. She rejected her contemporaries’ progressive schematization of objective form. During the years of Dada in Zurich (1916–20), Taeuber-Arp not only painted but also made a series of polychrome wood heads, including the portrait of Jean Arp (1918–19; Paris, Pompidou), and designed the sets and marionettes (Zurich, Mus. Bellerive) for a performance of Carlo Gozzi’s König Hirsch in 1918 in conjunction with the exhibition of the Swiss workshop in Zurich. She was an accomplished dancer and performed at Cabaret Voltaire evenings. From 1916–29 she also taught at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich.

Between 1920 and 1926 Taeuber-Arp produced little. Although she married Hans Arp in 1922, she was obliged by economic necessity to continue teaching and was often separated from him. In 1926 she was commissioned with Arp and Theo van Doesburg to design and decorate the interior of the Café de l’Aubette in Strasbourg, which opened in February 1928. Destroyed by a later proprietor and by the Nazis, the interior was one of the first public environments to achieve the modernist aspiration to integrate art and function. Working maquettes, in the form of a painting and a crochet design, survive (e.g. Aubette Triptych: Vertical–horizontal Composition, 1927–8; Canberra, N.G.). In 1928 at Meudon-Val-Fleury, near Paris, Taeuber-Arp and her husband built and furnished a house from her designs. In 1930 she began a series of works in which black-and-white grounds were host to a dominant play of circles, punctuated occasionally by a strict ordering of rectangles (e.g. Composition with Rectangles and Circles on Black Ground, 1931; Basle, Kstmus.). She limited the colour to the primaries plus green.

Taeuber-Arp was deeply involved in the artistic life of Paris in the 1930s; she was a member of the Cercle et Carré group and, at its demise, joined the succeeding Abstraction–Création group in 1931. During this time she painted on open white grounds, in which triangles, truncated lines and circles seemed to be precariously balanced, as in Rising, Falling, Clinging, Flying (1934; Basle, Kstmus.). In 1932 she began her ‘space’ paintings, in which the grounds were divided along a symmetrical grid, with each resultant area bisected and joined by geometric elements. Colour was no longer limited, and the distinction between figure and ground became ambiguous. In 1934 she and Arp resigned from Abstraction–Création in protest at its intransigence in excluding all figurative art. Her work became more organic in mood while remaining largely geometric in form. A series of polychrome wood reliefs, such as Rectangular Relief with Cut-out Rectangles, Applied Rectangles and Rising Cylinders (1936–9; Basle, Kstmus.), evoke natural phenomena through a severely reduced geometric vocabulary. Arp referred to them as ‘chessboards of the night’. In 1937 she launched and edited the periodical Plastique, published in Paris and New York; it ran for five issues until 1939 and dealt with modern, abstract art. Taeuber-Arp and Arp were forced to flee from Paris in 1940. After staying in Grasse (1941–2), they returned to Zurich in December 1942 where Taeuber-Arp died as a result of a malfunctioning gas stove in the house where she was sleeping.

Carolyn Lanchner
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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