Edited by Thomas Schmutz

Scheidegger and Spiess (distributed by the University of Chicago Press). 288 pages. $65. ISBN 978-3-85881-757-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It could be that the name of Sophie Taeuber-Arp will, for most people, immediately bring to mind the antics of the Dadaists at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich while much of the rest of Europe involved itself in the madness of the First World War. She had a key role in many of the performances that were staged in the Swiss capital. As Hans Richter put it in his engaging memoir, Dada: Art and Anti-Art: “There were abstract drawings, extraordinary Dada heads of painted wood, and tapestries, all of which could hold their own alongside the  work of her male colleagues. She was Arp’s discovery, just as he was hers, and in their unassuming way they played a part in every Dada event”.

There was far more to Sophie Taeuber-Arp than the contributions she made to the Dadaist revolt. Born in 1889 in Davos-Platz, Switzerland, she was already established as an artist and designer in 1916, and was a teacher of textile design at the Trade School in Zurich. Prior to that she had studied in Munich and Hamburg. Her training was mostly in the applied arts, and when she returned to Switzerland in 1914 she worked as a “free artisan”. The fact that so much of her work was in the field of the applied arts probably led to her being neglected by critics and art historians. It is pointed out that: “Men were celebrated as avant-garde and pioneers of abstraction in the high arts, while the women were ascribed a supporting role and their occupation with arts-and-crafts was presented as “traditionally ‘feminine’ production in most cases”.

The largely male-dominated avant-garde was not a place to look for enlightened views about the role of women generally. And the Dada movement was noted for its liking for manifestos, which Taeurber-Arp thought were essentially “a means of self-aggrandisement”. She said: “If I were an artist and my name were constantly made to look foolish by such shouting, squealing, howling, scrawling, and printing, then I would stuff mud in the author’s mouth and bite his finger so that he couldn’t do it anymore. All that matters is the work. Making manifestos like that is more than idiotic”. She didn’t need to add that manifestos were often mainly a male prerogative.

The evidence offered in Today is Tomorrow seems to refute the suggestion that Sophie Taeuber-Arp was, in any way, lacking when it came to being seen as avant-garde and a pioneer in the high arts. Richter said that “she was above all a painter of modern abstracts at a time when abstract painting was still in its infancy”.  Her contribution to the activities of the Dadaists appears to have been quite significant. With regard to the masks she designed, Hugo Ball said that they “dictated utterly specific, lofty, even nearly mad gestures”. She herself took part as a dancer in some of the Dada performances.

The Dada movement eventually and inevitably petered out, with individuals moving into different areas of activity in the 1920s. Taeuber-Arp had continued to earn a living by being steadily employed in aspects of the applied arts. But after 1926 she gave up “making small-format wood objects and beadwork………She continued to design textile wall hangings, but at the same time, became more occupied with large-format murals and colourful window designs”.

It was around this time that the Arps decided to move to France, her earnings from interior design and decorating for private houses probably providing the means to do so .They eventually settled in Meudon, and Taeuber-Arp “concentrated on painting and sculpture, which she shaped abstractly, for the most part”. It’s said that she “constantly varied new constellations of different basic forms of the circle, square, and rectangle, and experimented with colour”. Their home became a centre for gatherings of avant-garde artists and writers. There is an interesting comment by Hans Richter regarding Taeuber-Arp’s character: “Sophie was as quiet as we were garrulous, boastful, rowdy and provocative. Even later, when she and Arp were living in their little house in Meudon, her voice was scarcely ever heard. It was Arp who asked their guests to ‘come upstairs` and see Sophie’s work. Left to herself, she would never have shown it to anyone”. Other visitors to Meudon are quoted as saying that they “recalled her more as a host and housewife and less as an artist”.

Despite the suggestion of a reluctance to promote herself, there is plenty of evidence to show that Taeuber-Arp was “internationally well-known, that she corresponded in several languages without any difficulty, held the reigns and ignited the spark for quite a few projects, whether her own or those of others, and accompanied them persistently. She was a networker and a doer, not primarily a dreamer – or at least one who was quite capable of differentiating between dream and reality”.

She became active in avant-garde groups in France and joined the Cercle et Carré, which focused on non-figurative art, and the Abstraction Création movement. Among her friends were Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Jean Miró, and Wassily Kandinsky. She also helped found, and became editor of, the Constructivist review, Plastique, described as “an international forum for abstract-concrete art”. Any publication of this kind requires a benefactor to give it some financial security, and the American collector and painter, A.E. Gallatin, provided the necessary support in this case.

A reproduction of the front cover of the fifth issue lists Hans Arp, Leonora Carrington, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Eluard, and Max Ernst as among the contributors. Earlier issues had illustrations by Malevich, El Lissititzky, and others. As it happened, the fifth issue, published in 1939, was the last one. Taeuber-Arp had wanted it to continue, but with the situation in Europe it became impractical. The Arps soon had to abandon their house in Meudon and flee into Vichy France as the Nazis occupied the rest of the country. A little later they moved to Switzerland, and it was while they were living there that Taeuber-Arp died in a tragic accident in 1943. She was asleep in a room which had a faulty stove and was poisoned by carbon monoxide fumes.

It’s obvious from this profusely illustrated book that Taeuber-Arp was a multi-talented artist. While allowing for the fact of the prejudice that existed, and perhaps still does, against applied art when compared to so-called fine art, it may have been that not enough serious consideration was given to her work because she functioned in so many different fields. It seems to be true, too, that Hans Arp was less than positive in his later appreciations of the work she did: “Hans Arp, in poems and everyday statements, presents Taeuber-Arp to posterity as a dreamer and an artist who primarily works intuitively”. With regard to her activities in the applied arts, he additionally appeared to be concerned “that the inclusion of these practical activities would led to a devaluation of Sophie Taeuber’s artistic achievement, placing it on a par with arts and crafts”.

It’s also worth noting that:  “The authors of the first and to-date only catalogue raisonné on Sophie Taeuber’s oeuvre, although well-intentioned and based on decisions based on decisions made in a particular era, already deliberately ignored works and work genres, or did not recognise them as part of a body of work”.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp Today is Tomorrow is a splendidly informative book in that it illustrates the full range of her activities. The arguments about the supposed differences between applied and fine arts will no doubt continue. And some people will always look at a lot of geometric abstraction paintings and see them as having more to do with design and decoration than with “pure” art. Their opinions might be reinforced by a casual comparison of certain of her paintings and some of her textile designs. It could also be true that the old cliché about someone being a “Jack of all trades, but master of none” might be called into play when Taeuber-Arp’s work is discussed. She involved herself “in the areas of design, painting, textiles, drawing, sculpture, clothing, architecture, theatre, and dance”.   Can anyone be so equally talented in such a wide range of activities? She may well have excelled more in one or other of her involvements, but the evidence provided by the book seems to show that she maintained a high standard in all of them.

This is a second, revised edition of a publication originally designed to accompany the exhibition, Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Today is Tomorrow at the Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau 23rd August, 2014, to 16th November, 2014, and Kunsthaus Bielefeld 12th December, 2014 to 15th March, 2015.