The Swiss-born painter, designer, and dancer Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) was an active member of the Zurich Dada group, a participant in the "International" Constructivist movement, and an advocate of concrete art and geometric abstraction. She believed that melding the fine and applied arts could establish a visual vocabulary for the technological age and was committed to the concept of the "total work of art."
Sophie Taeuber-Arp, nee Taeuber, was born in Davos, Switzerland, on January 19, 1889. She studied at the School of Applied Arts (St. Gallen, Switzerland) from 1908 to 1910 and at the experimental studios of Wilhelm von Debschits (Munich), a workshop of the Blaue Reiter epoch, in 1911 and 1913. In 1912 Taeuber attended the School of Arts and Crafts (Hamburg) and in 1916 the famous Leban School of Dance (Zurich). From 1915 to 1932 she belonged to the Swiss Werkbund, an organization whose members believed that the applied arts could be used to create an appropriate expression of the technological age, and in 1925 she served as a member of the jury for the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs (Paris).
Taeuber-Arp was a member of the Cercle et Carré group, an organization dedicated to non-figurative art, and of the Abstraction-Creation group which succeeded it, in 1930 and 1931-1934 respectively. In 1934 she protested the organization's policies and formally withdrew along with Jean Hélion, Otto Freundlich, Fernandez, Antoine Pevsner, Naum Gabo, Robert Delauney, Georges Valmier, and Hans (Jean) Arp. In 1937 she was a member of the Allianz group (Zurich).
Taeuber met Arp, whom she married on October 20, 1922, at the Gallery Tanner exhibition (Zurich) in 1915. This initial meeting served as a turning point for both of them, and they were to collaborate on works from that time until her death in 1943. Between 1915 and 1920 Taeuber lived a dual life. During the day she was a lecturer in embroidery and weaving at the School of Applied Arts (Zurich), a post she held until 1929, and in the evenings she participated in Dada sorées, usually in disguise to avoid recognition and the loss of her teaching job.
Arp and Taeuber were involved in many Dada events in Zurich. Taeuber's interests during this period revolved around dance, performance, puppetry, costumes, and artistic collaborations. Her concern for the total work of art was shared by many of the other Zurich Dadaists. Taeuber worked on puppet designs and set decorations for French and Swiss theater productions from 1916 to 1929, and from 1918 to 1920 she produced a series of heads constructed from hatstands, portraits in polychromed turned wood which hold their own amidst any of Dada's sophisticated objects. During her Dada period she collaborated with Käthe Wulff on the choreography for the ballet "The Merchent" (backdrops by Arp and Hans Richter) and choreographed the "Noir Kukado" using the Leban system of notation. The choreographic element, her prowess as a dancer, and her background in textile design continually influenced her two dimensional work.
In 1915 Taeuber worked on a series of duo collages with Arp which he later identified as the first manifestations of "Concrete Art." From 1915 to 1920 the prevailing formal elements of her two dimensional work were horizontal/ vertical sectioning, often compared to her textile designs. The period 1920-1926 marked a relatively inactive period in her career during which she produced costume designs and guaches. Taeuber-Arp travelled to Pompeii in 1926 and that same year completed a mural painting for Paul Horn, an architect in Strasbourg. The mural led to a commission for the interior of the Café de l'Aubette, a total artistic environment and the first realized Constructivist public space which integrated art and function. The project was completed in 1927, in collaboration with Arp and de Stijl (style) artist Theo van Doesburg. Taeuber-Arp coauthored a manual for the decorative arts entitled Design and Textile Arts with Blanche Gauchet in 1927 and ten years later founded and edited the Constructivist review, Plastique/Plastic (Paris).
In 1928 Taeuber-Arp and her husband moved to Meudon-Val Fleury, outside Paris. Their house and its furnishings, which have been described as a merging of art and utilitarian concerns, were designed by Taeuber-Arp, who made use of principles that ran parallel to those of the Bauhaus. In 1930 she began her "ping" picture series, works dominated by circles, a form that she believed contained all forms, and, in 1932, her "space paintings, " based on a straightforward grid. During the mid to late 1930s she worked on biomorphic/geometric pieces, some of which were executed in wood relief. Taeuber-Arp and Arp fled Paris in 1940 and settled in Grasse. In 1942 they executed a series of lithographs with Sonia Delaunay and Alberto Magnelli. For Taeuber-Arp, this was the last of a long series of joint artistic ventures. She died in Zurich, on January 13, 1943 (Arp died in 1966).
Sophie Taeuber-Arp participated in a number of group exhibitions during her lifetime. Particular note should be made of her inclusion in the first Carré exhibition at the Galeries 23 (Paris) in 1930. The show involved representatives from many of the 20th century's most advanced manifestations of modernism, including Futurism, Dada, the Bauhaus, German Abstraction, Constructivism, the Polish Blok group, the French Cubists, Purists, and de Stijl. After her death numerous exhibitions, some of which included works by her husband Hans (Jean) Arp, were organized in both Europe and America. In 1981 the Museum of Modern Art (New York) mounted the one woman show "Sophie Taeuber-Arp" which travelled to the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), and the Musée d'Art Contemporain (Montreal).
Based in part upon eulogies by her husband and her friends, Taeuber-Arp is best known for her work as a painter and as a forerunner of non-objective art. However, her utopian concern with the marriage of the fine and the applied arts and her experiments in dance, choreography, performance, and puppet theater should not be minimized. It was Taeuber-Arp's commitment to the total work of art that guaranteed her an important place in the history of 20th-century modernism.
Further Reading on Sophie Taeuber-Arp
To date, much of the literature on Taeuber-Arp has been published in French and German. Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1970), a catalogue/folio from an exhibition at the Albert Loeb & Krugier Gallery Inc. (New York), is available in both French and English and includes entries by Hans (Jean) Arp, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, and Wassily Kandinsky, among others. Carolyn Lanchner's Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1981), the catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition, is of particular value to the English-speaking public and includes an informative essay, a bibliography, and a selected list of her exhibitions.