Great Swiss artists, like famous Belgians, might seem to be an amusingly underpopulated category. Actually, as with celebrated Flemings and Walloons, when you start counting you discover there are more of them than you thought. Paul Klee, for example, and Alberto Giacometti. A third, whose work is reassessed in a large exhibition at Tate Modern, was Sophie Taeuber-Arp.
Clearly, unlike the other two, hers is far from being a household name even in fairly artistic homes. There are several reasons for this, one perhaps being the unwieldiness of that cognomen itself. She was born Sophie Henriette Gertrud Taeuber in 1889 at Davos, and as was then the custom, hyphenated her surname with her husband’s when she married Hans (or Jean) Arp in 1922. As the curators note in a catalogue essay, a further reason for neglect was ‘gender discrimination’. But yet another, less discussed, was ‘genre discrimination’.
You quickly notice as you walk around the galleries of the exhibition that, though she produced plenty of accomplished paintings in the early modernist idiom of geometric abstraction, these are not the most eye-catching of her works. Those take many forms: stained glass, textiles, puppets, furniture, a tablecloth, beaded bags and full-scale interiors of rooms. But most come under that unexciting label ‘applied art’.
Museums of applied art are generally the ones outside which you will never have to queue to buy a ticket. We still tend to adhere to the Victorian aesthetic hierarchy, by which painting and sculpture rank high but such objects as cushion covers, powder pots, necklaces and handbags a long way further down.
It’s not quite true to say that in Taeuber-Arp’s output this order is reversed. There are some impressive, not to say prescient, pictures on show. ‘Animated Circles’ (1934), with its engaging use of polka dots, has a distinct 1960s op art vibe (not to mention a premonition of Damien Hirst). But generally speaking, Taeuber-Arp seems to have had a drawback as a painter. Namely, she does not seem to have been particularly interested in paint: its textures, its potential to give energy and gravitas to a surface. That is probably why rather similar geometric motifs, when she executed them in thread, coloured glass or beads, have much more oomph.
If you try to pick a Taeuber-Arp masterpiece, you are more likely to choose a work in wool such as ‘Elementary Forms: Vertical-Horizontal Composition’ (1917). Or alternatively, perhaps one of her three-dimensional pieces such as ‘Dada Head’ (1918), which resembles a cheerfully or perhaps malignly animated newel post from a staircase.
These last seem to have been surrogates for herself. Together with Hans Arp and the Romanian poet Tristan Tzara, Taeuber-Arp was a member of the original Dada group which gathered in Zurich during the first world war. This was of course a raucously subversive rebellion against the stuffy conventions of the society that had led Europe to disaster. In a series of photographs taken in 1920 the artist posed behind one of her Dada heads, sometimes thoughtful but in the most memorable grinning cheekily.
To select individual pieces, however, is possibly to miss the point. Many early exponents of what we call modernism still adhered to an idea that goes back to William Morris and the arts and crafts movement (if not much further into the past). This was a belief that art should not be restricted to certain discrete pictures or objects which can be corralled in museums and collections. It should shape the entire human environment, which was the creed of the Bauhaus and of many of Taeuber-Arp’s contemporaries.
This credo has largely disappeared, which is why you won’t find many stars of contemporary art producing cushion covers. But Taeuber-Arp obviously upheld it. That is why we have probably lost a great deal with the disappearance of the various interiors she conceived (some rooms of the Aubette in Strasbourg, redecorated in the 1920s by her together with Hans Arp and Theo van Doesburg, have been restored and opened to the public).
In their absence, we’re looking at fragments. Similarly, the Dada marionettes she made in 1918 are delightful in themselves, miniature modernist personalities like animated pepper pots, but obviously they are only accessories for a performance which came and went more than a century ago. She herself left the scene before her time, victim of carbon monoxide poisoning by a faulty stove in wartime France. She might easily have lived another two decades, in which case perhaps we would have heard more about her and her works.
The austere installation at Tate Modern doesn’t help bring Taeuber-Arp and her inventions back to life. When you first step in, you encounter huge rooms (in the especially bleak Switch House extension) containing a sparse scattering of paintings plus smallish objects in glass cases. It takes an effort to get engaged; but it’s worth it. She, and her works, deserve to be revived.
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