‘The challenge with Sophie Taeuber-Arp,’ says Tate Modern curator Natalia Sidlina, of the gallery’s new exhibition on the Swiss artist and designer, ‘is that she wasn’t one of those artists who spent life putting theories together and writing manifestos.’
Survey the 200 objects on display and you suspect she was too busy creating. Born in Switzerland a decade before the dawn of the 20th century, Taeuber-Arp was the original multidisciplinarian – abstract painter, performer, teacher, maker of everything from tapestries to tablecloths and beaded bags. ‘She engaged with the entire spectrum of creativity. She didn’t say no to anything,’ says Sidlina.
A key figure in the short-lived but anarchic Dada movement, which relished in abstraction and absurdity, she was a founding member and dancer at the avant-garde Zürich nightclub Cabaret Voltaire, which would become its crucible.
‘Every single work, if you look closely, has that joyful, playful side,’ says Sidlina, who believes her to be the first major artist with a background in contemporary dance – and that sense of theatre and movement is there to see in her vibrant paintings and reliefs, not to mention the turned-wood marionettes which command their own room in the exhibition.
In later years, she turned interior designer and architect, too. ‘Women weren’t allowed to train as professional architects, but she mentioned in a letter to her sister that she studied textiles to get as close as possible,’ says Sidlina.
That wish was finally granted when she was commissioned to work on the design of the Aubette in Strasbourg’s main square – ‘a sort of modernist art and entertainment club’ – alongside husband Hans Arp and friend Theo van Doesburg. Projects for private homes followed, as did the design of her own studio-home near Paris.
As with many of the 20th century’s great artists and designers, war cast its shadow. Fleeing Paris at the outbreak of WWII, she turned to drawing as one of the few means of artistic expression available to a displaced artist.
She died in an accident a few years later, but that compulsion to create endured to the end. ‘She was always more than just an applied artist, a Dadaist, a dancer, architect or painter. She was full of joy and life and incredible creativity.’ ‘Sophie Taeuber-Arp’, 15 July–17 October 2021, tate.org.uk