“Only when we go into ourselves and attempt to be entirely true to ourselves will we succeed in making things of value....”
In 1927, Sophie Taeuber-Arp wrote, “The desire to enrich and beautify things cannot be interpreted materialistically, that is, in the sense of increasing their value as possessions; rather, it stems from the instinct for perfection and the creative act.” Over the course of her career, she demonstrated this desire to make beautiful things, with a level of precision that would become her hallmark, in a wide variety of artistic pursuits. She worked as a designer of textiles, beadwork, costumes, furniture, and interiors, as well as an applied arts teacher, puppet maker, architect, painter, sculptor, illustrator, and magazine editor. Through her artistic output and professional alliances, she consistently challenged the historical boundaries separating fine art from craft and design.
After training at the interdisciplinary Debschitz School in Munich, Taeuber-Arp returned to her native Switzerland in 1914 and launched a successful applied arts practice. The following year, she began attending Rudolf von Laban’s influential school for expressionist dance, and met her future husband, the Alsatian artist and poet Jean (Hans) Arp, with whom she frequently collaborated for the rest of her life. Taeuber-Arp became an active participant in the Zurich Dada movement, initiated by Arp and other exiles who found refuge in the Swiss city during World War I. In order to support herself and Arp, she taught textile design at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich from 1916 to 1929. In 1918, Taeuber-Arp was commissioned by the school’s director to design marionettes for a modern adaptation of the 18th-century commedia dell’arte play King Stag; celebrated by her contemporaries, these painted turned-wood figures appeared in a variety of avant-garde publications during her lifetime. Taeuber-Arp’s group of related sculptures of abstracted heads are today considered icons of the Dada period.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Taeuber-Arp embarked on several architectural and interior design projects, most significantly a collaboration with Arp and the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg on the ambitious decoration of the Aubette entertainment complex in Strasbourg, France. In 1929, Taeuber-Arp left Zurich for Paris, where she turned her attention to abstract paintings and painted wood reliefs that employ a reduced geometric vocabulary; these works display a tension between precision and playfulness that is characteristic of her artistic production. During the 1930s, she was associated with two groups of artists likewise devoted to abstraction, Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création, and edited the short-lived international journal Plastique/Plastic.
Taeuber-Arp spent her final years in exile in the South of France during the Nazi occupation. In this last phase of her career, she contributed to the print portfolios 5 Constructionen + 5 Compositionen and 10 Origin, published by the association of Swiss modern artists Allianz, and made a series of exuberant line drawings that appear improvised but are actually precisely planned and executed. After Taeuber-Arp’s accidental death by carbon monoxide poisoning in 1943, Arp worked to promote her legacy, in part by producing a number of posthumous “re-creations” of her artworks.
Note: The opening quote is from Sophie Taeuber-Arp, “Remarks on Instruction in Ornamental Design” (1922), in Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Avant-Garde Pathways, ed. Estrella de Diego (Málaga, Spain: Museo Picasso Málaga, 2009), 162.
Charlotte Healy, Research Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women’s Fund.