by Roderick Conway Morris

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The forgotten Mama of Dada


By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 4 September 2021
Museum für Gestaltung, Zurich
Guards (marionette for The King Stag),
by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, 1918
 

 

 

'When and how Dada began is almost as difficult to determine as Homer's birthplace,' wrote the Dadaist Hans Richter in his memoir of the phenomenon.

Whatever the origins of this anarchic and short-lived movement, its epicentre soon became Zurich, where a disparate group of international artists, poets and performers had taken refuge in Switzerland from the First World. Sophie Taeuber was unusual among the Dadaists in that she was Swiss by birth. She had returned to her native land from Hamburg, where she had been studying textile design, with the outbreak of the conflict in 1914.

Still only in her mid twenties, Taeuber was by then an accomplished dancer, sculptor, painter, designer, needlewoman and costume maker. 'There were abstract drawings, extraordinary heads of painted wood, and tapestries, all of which could hold their own alongside the work of her male colleagues,' as Richter recalled.

In 1915, at an exhibition of tapestries, embroideries and collages, Taeuber met the Alsace-born artist and poet Hans Arp, who had recently relocated to Zurich. By the following year the two artists were collaborating on large compositions on cloth and paper. As Richter put it: 'She was Arp's discovery, just as he was hers, and in their unassuming way they played a part in every Dada event.'

Sophie and Hans went on to marry in 1922, after which in the Swiss fashion she adopted the hyphenated surname Arp-Taeuber. When the couple became French nationals in 1926, Arp adopted the name Jean, the French equivalent of Hans, and Sophie increasingly used Taeuber-Arp as her professional surname.

Jean Arp is now a familiar name in 20th century art, but his partner is much less well known, other than to students of Dadaism and the 'applied arts'. But Sophie Taeuber-Arp is at last the subject of a solo retrospective of her remarkable works spanning multiple disciplines, at Tate Modern, which will travel on to the Museum of Modern Art in New York this autumn.

Sophie Taeuber was born in 1889 in Davos, the fifth child of Sophie Taeuber-Krüsi and Emil Taeuber, who ran a pharmacy and linen goods shop. Her mother gave lessons in embroidery, painted still-lifes and took photographs. Her father died when Sophie was still an infant and the family moved to Trogen. In 1904 she began her formal artistic education in drawing and textile design at St Gallen, then continued on to Munich in 1910 to a new institution much influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement, where her course included lessons in perspective, linocut, typography and en plein air painting. She enrolled at the School of Applied Arts in Hamburg in 1912, where she was disappointed not to be able to study interior design, because its head refused to accept women in his classes, so instead specialized in textiles and graphic art.

On returning to Switzerland at the outbreak of war, Taeuber secured a teaching post at Zurich's Vocational School and Museum of Applied Arts, where she was clearly an inspiring teacher. This job enabled her to support both herself and Arp in their artistic endeavours, but when Dada burst upon the scene, she had to take care to keep from her employers that she was an enthusiastic contributor to the new movement.

As Arp recorded in 'Signposts', his tribute to Sophie published seven years after her untimely death in 1943: 'She taught composition and the technique of weaving and embroidery. She had been forced to do so by the necessities of material life. Her teaching permitted both of us to devote ourselves freely to essential work. I must remind the reader that those were the days of the Dada period and the Dadaists delighted in their terrible reputation. Thus the directors of the School of Decorative Arts told Sophie to avoid any participation in Dadaist manifestations, otherwise she would lose her job. She was consequently forced to adopt a stage name and wear a mask when she danced.'

Taeuber's most outstanding single contribution to Dada was her creation in 1918 of 17 highly original string puppets and sets for an updated version of the Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi's 'Il re cervo' (The Stag King). This version transposed the Italian fairy tale scene to Zurich and transformed the drama into a send-up of psychoanalysis.

In the adapted version, Gozzi's magician Durandarte became the puppet Freudanalyticus and the town crier Cigolotti, Dr Oedipus Complex. The Swiss Marionette Theatre, founded in 1918, which commissioned the play, regarded Sophie's marionettes as 'much too modern and too daring', but the production went ahead nonetheless. Unfortunately, it had to close after only three performances amid the Spanish Flu epidemic.

Happily, the entire set of puppets has survived and is on display at the Tate Modern exhibition. Perhaps the most wacky of all the marionettes is 'The Guards', with its drum-shaped torso, four tubular legs and five, sword-flourishing arms. A replica of this marionette, along with several of the others, can be seen in action in an enchanting video, animated by the master puppeteer Dieter Aegerter of the Marionettentheater, Basel, playing outside the end of the exhibition. It is hardly surprising that 'The Guards' became an emblem of Dada itself.

Artisan makers of wooden toys had routinely turned wood on lathes, whereas marionettes were traditionally hand carved. Although deeply imbued with the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement, Taeuber saw no reason why machine-age techniques should not be used to create contemporary works of art. Accordingly, she not only made her marionettes using turned-wood techniques but also a series of striking painted heads, including her 'Portrait of Hans Arp' and 'Dada Head', which could also double as a hat stand.

Sophie's specialist training in industrial textile design was a primary factor in making her a trail-blazer of abstract art. As Arp recalled in his 'Signposts' memoir of her: 'From 1916 to 1918 she composed her first abstract water colours.' And in the context of 'an interminable debate over the dates of the first abstract pictures', he also pointed out to Richter that the set designs for the King's Cabinet in the Stag King were demonstrably a pioneering work of abstract art.

Moreover, as Marcel Duchamp observed, Taeuber's abstracts had a rare additional quality, already brilliantly manifested in her marionettes for 'The Stag King', in that her pictures had 'a definite sense of humour, so often lacking in abstract art'.

During the 1920s and '30s, Taeuber had the opportunity to branch out into interior design and architecture. As Richter recalled: 'In 1927 Arp received his first big commission to paint the interior of the Restaurant Aubette in Strasbourg, his home town. He invited his wife and Theo van Doesburg to help him. Each of the three decorated one third of the building. In this way they produced the first great abstract frescoes. This was no longer Dada, but quite simply new art, the fruits of Dada. These fruits ripened everywhere.'

In 1929 Taeuber and Arp moved to France. They bought a piece of land at Clamart near Paris for which Sophie created a notable modernist studio-house, but built in stone, with furniture and interiors also of her own design. Over the next decade her work featured in numerous major exhibitions of contemporary art in Barcelona, Lucerne, New York, London and Oslo, sometimes as that of the only woman participating.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Taeuber and Arp first fled to the still unoccupied zone in the south of France, but eventually obtained visas to return to Switzerland. On the night of the 13-14 January 1943, the couple were visiting their friend the Swiss artist and architect Max Bill. Sophie retired for the night to a guest room, where tragically, as a result of the closed flue of a wood-burning stove, she died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Arp was devastated by her death and in 1948 he commissioned a catalogue raisonnÉ of her work to preserve her memory. But even the avant-garde was not without its prejudices, and fearful that Taeuber's posthumous reputation might be damaged by including pieces that could be dismissed as mere arts and crafts productions, Arp left out a large part of her extraordinary oeuvre, including her puppets, and listed her ground-breaking turned-wood pieces simply as 'sculptures'. This decision, along with the general male bias in so much twentieth-century writing on art history, led to Taeuber's virtual disappearance from the record as a significant force in modern art and design.

Ironically, in his more personal tribute to Sophie, 'Signposts', Arp revealed that he understood as profoundly as anybody the interconnectedness of everything she made: 'Her works have sometimes been referred to as applied art. Both stupidity and wickedness are at the root of this appellation. Art can just as easily express itself in wool, paper, ivory, ceramics and glass as in painting, stone, wood or clay.'

Sophie Taeuber-Arp; Tate Modern, London; 15 July -17 October 2021


First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022