Sophie Taeuber-Arp--Today Is Tomorrow.
Edited by Thomas Schmutz and Friedrich Meschede
Scheidegger & Spiess Publications, 2015
The multi-disciplinary artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) was recently honored with an exhibition that took place in Aargau, Switzerland, before it moved to Germany, where it was shown in Bielefeld. (1) The curators, Thomas Schmutz and Rahel Beyerle, put three hundred works on display. On the German side, the Bielefeld museum contrasted some of her works with those of Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), her friend and contemporary, although the catalogue does not document that. Madeleine Schuppli, Director of the Kunsthaus Aargau, and Friedrich Meschede, Director of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, in their joint preface, mention that although "Textile Designs were first seen as independent artworks through the achievements of the Bauhaus" (9), the historical Bauhaus never intended to raise the stature of textile design to match that of fine arts. Textiles had the lowest status of all the Bauhaus workshops, and the school hardly promoted this department, so that today few people associate the Bauhaus with textiles but rather with architecture and product design.
Thomas Schmutz explains in his introduction that the aim of the exhibition was to show Taeuber-Arp's aesthetic position and the techniques connected to it (13). Clearly, her transdisciplinary work in the realms of arts and crafts, fine art, architecture, and sculpture as well as modern dance has lost none of its fascination. Yet, as Rudolf Suter explains, we still see Taeuber-Arp through the eyes of her congenial partner and husband, Hans Arp, who liked to describe her as a dreamer and as a woman who worked mostly from intuition (255). Contrary to this, Suter observes that Taeuber-Arp constructed her art carefully and purposefully. Many of her works are based on a calculated conception, he claims, consisting of many different layers that may not be visible at first glance. He rightly criticizes that her husband "eulogized his deceased wife as an angelic being" and a fairy-tale creature (255), and, Suter argues, too many art historians have taken Hans Arp as a reliable source instead of critically evaluating his pronouncements (257). The translation of Suter's text entails a strange twist. Hinting at possible rifts in the story of this idealized marriage, Suter argues in the German version of the catalogue that Arp was afraid of his wife's critical judgment of his own work. But this in turn gets translated as "Arp's anxiety about the critical perception of Sophie Taeuber-Arp," which is an entirely different thing. In the end both interpretations might be true, but it is interesting that Suter questions the all too glorious image Hans Arp gave about themselves as a couple, and the translation smoothed it over, just as art historians have done for many years (256). Progress, it seems, is sometimes hard to achieve.
The collaborative essay by art historians Sigrid Schade, Medea Hoch, and Walburga Krupp deals with an interesting research project at the Institute for Cultural Studies in the Arts, at Zurich University of the Arts. The library purchased 445 of Sophie Taeuber-Arp's letters, dating from around 1905 to 1942, which are scheduled to appear in print later this year. Mostly letters to her sister or husband, they read like fragments of an autobiography (259). This project could potentially challenge further Arp's all too bright interpretation of their marriage.
The authors may be jumping to conclusions too quickly when they state that:
What is interesting in this context is that in artists' own legitimation of abstract pictorial design, references to arts-and-crafts and applied arts played a central role, but the consequences of this were different for women and male artists. 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 (259).
Generally, this is true. However, the authors' examples, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, illustrate that men were not that easily "celebrated as avant-garde and pioneers of abstraction" but were sharing the danger of being marginalized should they dare to venture into arts and crafts. During their years in Munich, both artists were criticized for being feminine and too craft oriented. Kandinsky's glass paintings and Klee's small formats were mocked as "decorative." For both male and female artists, the territory of arts and crafts was a dangerous one, as this sphere seemed to be mutually exclusive with that of fine art. This makes Sophie Taeuber-Arp's work all the more courageous. She was not impressed by these demarcations and ventured freely between the disciplines, focusing mainly on her work and little on the reviews she might get. She was an independent spirit as proved by her artwork, which seems timeless and has lost nothing of its attraction.
In "The Line in Focus," Rahel Beyerle analyzes Taeuber-Arp's work in the context of some contemporary colleagues, including Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg (252). Her essay culminates by stating that Taeuber-Arp
presented neither free, spontaneous lines, nor purely calculated ones. Taeuber-Arp positions the viewer between the poles of abstraction and empathy, synthesizes the logical-rational and instinctive-irrational, without having to explain it (254).
Maike Steinkamp's essay discusses the magazine plastique, which first appeared in spring of 1937, with Taeuber-Arp as its main editor. "As an international forum for abstract-concrete art, it was meant to contribute to better networking among the movement's proponents" (233). While she and Hans knew many of the people who were involved in this project (237) the frame of the periodical was much broader. "The magazine not only brought together art scenes in New York and Paris, but also simultaneously offered a forum for those artists in Europe persecuted by national socialism and fascism" (238). On a more personal level, Taeuber-Arp used it to gain publicity for her ideas and her art. The journal ended in 1939, after only five editions, when the couple was forced to flee to southern France. Taeuber-Arp hoped to continue the journal together with Max Bill in Switzerland, but her tragic death (from accidental carbon monoxide poisioning) made this impossible.
The architect Brigitte Maier looks differently at Taeuber-Arp, focusing not only on the artist but also on the designer and architect. In her essay, "In the Bedlam of the Avant-garde," she points out that 1929 was a decisive year for Taeuber-Arp, as she decided to leave her teaching job in Zurich and go freelance. Between 1926 and 1935 Taeuber-Arp worked as an architect, not only at the famous Aubette in Strasbourg, where she contributed to the interior design of the cafe, but at several other projects in Paris, Basel, and Berlin (240). More information about these projects would have been welcome. But the essay is mainly about her social relations and her influence on exhibitions, like the 1937 Constructivist exhibit in Basel, where she displayed more works than Moholy-Nagy, Mondrian, van Doesburg, or Georges Vantongerloo. Maier explains some of the difficulties in researching what exactly was on display, and these remarks are insightful. Taeuber-Arp sold well during this exhibit even though she was still seen as a craftswoman and hardly counted as a fine artist (245). Critics at the time thought it impossible that she would venture from arts and crafts, where she was well known. Also, while women were widely accepted in that field, it was not expected that a woman could succeed in the fine arts (245).
Sarah Burkhalter writes about dance in the art of Sophie Taeuber-Arp, and it seems that the impact of modern dance (Fig. 1) on her work has not received enough attention. After 1916 Taeuber-Arp explored the possibilities Rudolf Laban offered and also worked with Mary Wigman, two of the pioneers of German modern dance. Her dances excited the Zurich Dadaists, among them Hugo Ball, who especially liked "the connection of a clear choreographic structure with an engaged interpretation" (229). Burkhalter concludes that, "in the light of the terminology of [the art historian] Aby Warburg to define the relicts of the 'pathosformel' in European art, the experienced movement can be viewed as an actuality that runs through Taeuber-Arp's entire work like a dynamogram" (231).
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
Walburga Krupp portrays Taeuber-Arp as a pioneer of abstract art, placing her next to Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich (217). (This again is based on a 1955 statement made by Hans Arp.) Later, Krupp compares her to Johannes Itten and Paul Klee (218) and concludes by stating that Taeuber-Arp focused on the "elementary, regardless of whether the application follows as abstracted figuration in the applied arts or abstraction in the fine arts" (225).
Medea Hoch, writing here about the interdisciplinary quality in the work of Taeuber-Arp, explains some of the intricacies connected to her estate and its later reception. Her textile works were marginalized, she argues, because her husband feared they might diminish her status as an artist. Hoch depicts her as a "pioneer of constructivist art. It appears that due to her arts-and-crafts practice, she developed new abstract forms in a more self-evident and radical way than most of her artist colleagues" (215). And Hoch concludes: "Locating Sophie Taeuber-Arp's genre crossing pioneer work within the cataloging of art history shows that even to the present day, it is hardly obvious that 'technical and medial developments have offered the decisive impulses to abstraction'" (216). Here Hoch relies on a reference that is twenty years old. Already Walter Benjamin mentioned the impact photography had on the fine arts and one might wonder if a broad statement like this holds true.
The catalogue has a spacious layout with many high-quality reproductions. It includes a short biography of Sophie Taeuber-Arp and a list of her exhibitions with their respective publications. The bibliography further entails her own writings, monographs of her work, as well as the available secondary literature. The catalogue can be recommended without hesitation.
This catalogue demonstrates the breadth of Sophie Taeuber-Arp's oeuvre, which is exceptional and needs to be recognized more widely. It includes not only architecture but also interior design. Other artifacts could come directly from the Bauhaus but were designed a few years later (162-65) while in France, where she lived most of the time after the mid-1920s.
The idea of the Kunsthalle Bielefeld to show works by Taeuber-Arp together with some of Sonia Delaunay's demonstrates how close these women were in parts of their work, and although this material was not included in the catalogue, it would be fascinating to carry this further for a more detailed and broad comparison of their respective art.
Anja Baumhoff is a Professor in History of Art and Design at Hannover University of the Applied Arts in Germany, specializing in modernism, gender, and the Bauhaus.
(1.) The exhibition was presented at Kunsthaus Aaragu, Aug. 23--Nov. 16, 2014, and at Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Dec. 12, 2014--Mar. 15, 2015.