Jade French, Suzanna Petot and Lottie Whalen of the interdisciplinary collective, Decorating Dissidence, discuss the recent Sophie Taeuber-Arp exhibition at Tate Modern, how dance informed Taeuber-Arp’s work and practise, and why she is relevant for us today.
Tate Modern’s Sophie Taeuber-Arp exhibition (arranged in collaboration with Kunstmuseum Basel and the Museum of Modern Art in New York) offers a long overdue opportunity to explore the eclectic oeuvre of one of modernism’s most innovative – and quietly influential – figures. In art history, Taeuber-Arp’s name crops up as one of the few women working in the anarchic Dada movement of the early twentieth century, but she was so much more: trained in applied arts, she worked across fine art, textile design, woodwork, architecture, dance, and interior design, endlessly inventing and experimenting in new forms until her untimely death, by carbon monoxide poisoning, in 1943.
Taeuber-Arp was a touchstone for Decorating Dissidence’s 2020 project Take Dada Seriously (It’s Worth It?), which asked how might we re-radicalise Dada’s avant-garde strategies whilst also holding to account its violent appropriation of non-Western art forms. How could we celebrate its anarchic, anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois spirit but critique its perpetuation of racist and sexist stereotypes. The project opened up a space for such conversations through a digital platform, collaborations with contemporary artists, workshops and a series of multidisciplinary Dada salons.
Among Dada’s eccentric cast of artists, writers, and (anti-) intellectuals, Taeuber-Arp stands out as one of the artists who has most to offer us in the present day. Inspired by modern dance pioneer Rudolf von Laban and his method of kinetography, Taeuber-Arp was attuned to the rhythms of our bodies and the world around us. Her fascination with rhythm and movement informed her multidisciplinary practice – from embroidering exquisite beaded bags to designing the sleekly modern Café l’Aubette, from anarchic performances at the Cabaret Voltaire to constructing technical three-dimensional sculptures. Drawing on her background in the applied arts, Taeuber-Arp collapsed boundaries between art and the everyday to transform the spaces of ordinary life. Her work imagines new ways of living and being in the world – a radical, experimental, genre-defying practice that continues to inspire contemporary artists and makers.
Decorating Dissidence’s coordinators – Jade French (JF), Suzanna Petot (SP), and Lottie Whalen (LW) – got together for a digital discussion about their thoughts on the Tate Modern exhibition and Taeuber-Arp’s influence on their 2020 project Take Dada Seriously (It’s Worth It?).
Jade French: I thought we could start with an image that resonated a lot in terms of the way the exhibition took us through the craft, handmade and decorative towards more abstract, austere paintings – it’s titled Geometric and Undulating (1941). This for me sums up the way Taeuber-Arp approached all her work! There’s movement in all her designs even at their most conceptual and sparse. What do you both think?
Suzanna Petot: I love this work! It was in the final room and really captures the way she approached all her work. It was interesting to finish the exhibition with a room of drawings, as that’s how the show started as well.
JF: Oh yes – with her designs for weaving?
JF: I loved this one: Elementary Forms (1917) was made at a time when hanging a piece of embroidery like a painting would have been considered incredibly radical. Another way in which Taeuber-Arp explored ‘movement’ was in her blurring of all disciplinary boundaries.
Lottie Whalen: I really like your phrase ‘movement in design’ Jade – that seems to completely encapsulate the essence of Taeuber’s practice, which is something that I’ve only fully appreciated since the exhibition, seeing all the different dynamic components of her work brought together. It’s fascinating how the sense of rhythm and motion that she developed in those early years performing at the Cabaret Voltaire track right through to her later abstract compositions.
JF: That’s really true about movement – although there was the eerie stillness of the puppets in the opening of the exhibition (brought more to life afterwards in a video outside). They are great representations of her multi-modal modernism (a wonderful phrase coined by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo) and the ways in which she was engaged in a variety of mediums. At times, I was overwhelmed by trying to take in all the details – the minutiae of beads and carved faces and the delicacy of her warps and weft. They seemed a bit enveloped by the hugeness of the space!
JF: What was a stand-out piece in the show that encapsulated the exhibition for you?
SP: Oh that is very difficult to choose! She had such a varied practice, it’s tricky to pick just one!
LW: For me, the most striking thing was the many ways that all the art forms she experimented in were in dialogue with one another, throughout her career – seeing those themes shift and mutate across very different mediums. Especially thinking about the surprising ways her early training in ‘applied arts’ informed her later abstract work; obviously we tend to understand those modes as being opposed, or in tension, but Taeuber-Arp effortlessly broke down disciplinary boundaries.
SP: I think (now having looked back at all my photos from our visit!) a stand-out for me would have to be her 3D paintings.
How she combines the abstract and her interest in space (from her furniture and architectural designs) in these works, which use light and shadow as another element to manipulate and create form, I found wonderful – such a logical progression in her practice that yet feels so much more modern than when it was made! It was interesting how Tate notes that “Taeuber-Arp displayed these works at the 1937 Constructivists exhibition in Basel” but doesn’t really explain Constructivism and why this would be a significant show for her (beyond the fact that it was her largest showing of works to date). The Constructivists were notoriously male-centred, and this pattern of Taeuber-Arp infiltrating and standing out amongst the male-dominated modernist movements is key.
JF: The echoes amongst movements are interesting – the ‘turned wood’ work in 1936-39 (those 3D wooden sculptures) use the same technique as the Dada heads. I loved the way the geometric forms were played with in the space as well – using the light and shadow cast to become part of the compositions. They reminded me of a children’s toy almost – sorting shapes into colour and using negative space to highlight absence. There is a really playful element to a lot of Taeuber-Arp’s early work too (the puppets, costumes and Dada heads in particular). What did you both make of the way the elements of Dada and play were displayed?
LW: I would’ve liked to have seen more of that. It was wonderful to see the puppets in motion in the film (outside of the exhibition space, easy to miss!), but it felt like there was scope to convey that characteristic energy, playfulness, and kineticism in the main body of the exhibition. Although obviously it presents a challenge for the curators, because there’s very little archival material from Taueber-Arp’s time at the Cabaret Voltaire – and the puppets must be so delicate now! Overall, it felt a little too restrained, particularly considering the fact that Taeuber-Arp – and Dada art in general – was interested in revolutionising life through art, not separating art from the everyday. Dada artists also used art as a way of critiquing institutions, which raises issues about how we exhibit avant-garde art (in a way that does justice to its radical impetus) in our modern day institutions. This exhibition felt quite tame.
JF: I’m really on the fence about how her more decorative items were presented too! On the one hand, these were items made to be sold so the department store countertop is appealing in that sense. On the other, they are also objects made to be handled, worn and touched. There was something quite distancing about having them displayed behind glass (although for conservation reasons, I understand!). In the 2018 Tate retrospective of fellow modernist crafter Anni Albers, there was a nod to the tactility of these works towards the end of the exhibition where you had the opportunity to interact with some of the techniques Alber’s would have used. There might have been more of a nod to Tauber-Arp’s similar interest in the haptic. The objects felt a bit lifeless at times (whether that was furniture against a wall, a beaded bag behind glass or a rug pinned up rather than underfoot). This is a larger question for curatorial teams who want to exhibit craft, decorative and handmade objects (like us!). What gets lost in bringing these items into the gallery? No longer in situ, they do important work in showing us another story of modernism (one that was interested in the everyday, in the “applied” and in that which is often coded ‘feminine’) but we probably need conscious spaces like the Craft Council gallery. Weirdly enough I was thinking about how Haegue Yang’s work always seems to fill up a room with some element of tactility and she also commented on the exhibition for Wallpaper* recently: ‘Her accommodating force of hybridity empowers even non-European artists like me to access the Western avant-garde as atonality with ruptures’ (Haegue Yang on Taeuber-Arp).
SP: The space just felt so open…too open, as if everything had been pushed to the corners of the room. Usually it is nice to have space for the works to breathe in an exhibition, but to me it felt as if they were getting lost amongst the volume of the space. I agree with you both that it would have been great to see more of her involvement in the Dada movement. The display case – as you point out Jade – really gives the impression it is from a Department store (which, although a modernist invention itself, doesn’t quite do the work justice). To have all that space and then compartmentalise the works into one case seems odd to me. It would have been great to walk around the hanging pieces, the beaded bags and cushions to get a sense of their full three-dimensionality and fully appreciate the detail in their making.
JF: Yes, to see the full 360-degree view of the objects would have really added to the experience. Even the stained glass windows (although they looked beautiful being backlit) felt like they were another piece placed against the wall. I wonder if this was a way of trying to frame all of her work as ‘fine art’/’painting’?
SP: This question of how to display/curate craft is one that I find particularly interesting and as you rightly point out with the Anni Albers show, seems so much more successful when the tactility of the medium and materials is displayed on parr and with the same attention/respect as the finished object themselves. Although there were many drawings and sketches for what ended up being textile or craft objects, they seemed so far removed from her process of making. The archival images at the beginning of the show were wonderful in giving us a sense of her spirit, the circles she was involved with, her movements across Europe during the interwar period (essential for introducing her to the majority of visitors who would not know as much about her as compared to other modernist masters) – but what would have really added to the vision of Sophie Taeuber-Arp that I think we three have in our minds from our own research would have been images or more contextual information about her process of making – using her hands, in front of the tools she would have used, in action etc.
JF: Just as a side note, this discussion reminds me of artist Susanne Nørregård Nielsen’s response to Taeuber-Arp’s ‘Remarks on Instruction in Ornamental Design’ (1922), which we featured in our ‘Take Dada Seriously! It’s Worth It?’ project last year. Method is brought to life via the materials: ‘Draw a square and try to divide it in its most natural and simplest way, so that you can use those forms or division lines as decoration’ (Sophie Taeuber-Arp, ‘Ornamental Design’ (1922), quoted by Susanne Nørregård Nielsen).
LW: Nielsen’s project offered such an interesting response to Taeuber! Particularly how it shed light on the way Taeuber viewed pattern as ‘natural’ – a space where the decorative and man-made meet the elemental.
JF: Another element I loved was how the decorative glitz of some of her earlier beadwork seemed to find its way into the alternative materials used in abstract pieces. In Composition of Circles and Overlapping Angles (1930) the flatness of the red and blue of the oil paint (calling to mind a more neoplastic approach to colour) is offset by the use of metallic flakes. One thing that really came through in the exhibition was the wide variety of materials she drew on – at once a systematic application and an experimental experience.
SP: Yes! Very 70s beadwork to me…a disco queen before disco! There is also something machine-esque to her use of metallic paint and beads. What do we think her visions for the future were? This idea of the machine age was very present in the modernist movements during the interwar period, especially with Dadaism wanting to reject the destruction/horror that machines had brought in World War One. Yet she seems to celebrate the machine through colours in her work.
LW: Although I think, going back to the puppets, there’s something quite sinister about the way they’re deliberately made to look mechanical, rather than lifelike. The geometric shaped bodies seem to emphasise their inhumanity and exaggerate their jarring, uncanny movements.
JF: Do you think that speaks to the broader aims of Dada?
SP: Oh absolutely. The playfulness of her costumes is transported onto the bodies of the puppets, more mechanical than lifelike, as Lottie says. Perhaps this points to her fear/interest in how humanity seemed to be changing at the time – becoming more and more optimized, traumatized from the war but also set on this path of self-destruction.
LW: I think there’s also an element of questioning identity, or questioning what it means to be human. Through the body, through performance, through her constructions and paintings, Taeuber-Arp expresses a drive to break things down to their essential form, then reconstruct or rearrange that form into a new configuration.
SP: To me, this questioning of identity is evident in her architectural and interior designs as well. By bringing abstraction into the home, the salon, the cafe…it continues this breaking down of boundaries/barriers to reconstruct their essential forms whilst also inviting life and dynamism to enter these traditional private/elitist/dark spaces.
JF: Thinking about it, I wonder if that’s a unique factor of her work? I can’t think of many other abstract/Constructivist artists that would make me feel homely or included. Often that kind of modernist work can leave me feeling a bit alienated or cold. But there is something about her approach to both architecture and furniture that is more inviting, more nuanced – for me it comes back to this idea of playfulness and the hints of texture, sparkle, dimension and colour that peek out even behind the most precise of works.
SP: I wonder if this has to do with her foundation in textiles and costume design. It is noted in one of the wall labels for the unrealised design for L’Aubette’s Foyer Bar (1927) that she seems to approach the space as she would have for one of her textile pieces by flattening and opening out the space. Elements of the space become quite modular, and remind me of the textile work Elementary Forms (1917) that we were discussing before.
LW: I think you’re right, Suzanna. She has such a clear understanding of how form and function work together – that sense of natural harmony within the pattern’s structure that was always so important to her. The designs for the Aubette allowed her to transpose ideas she’d realised through objects and on paper onto the built environment. Interesting to note that Taeuber-Arp’s biographer Roswith Mair suggests that her designs had a subtlety that suited a relaxed cafe atmosphere, but Theo von Doesburg (her collaborator on the Aubette – who took all the credit!) was much more heavy-handed with his designs – ‘he imposed his large, forceful red, yellow, and blue squares and rectangles on everyone’.
JF: Oh no – not the imposed red, yellow and blue squares! Such a specific vibe.
LW: forceful squares!
JF: Of course, and really Taeuber-Arp was all about the curves too! Back to the ‘geometric and undulating’… or the ‘geometric and wavy lines’. Actually, this is making me think of some of those final pieces using crayon. The freehand line again holds within it that sense of freedom and restraint, of specificity and playfulness.
SP: Even restricted to using paper, pencils and crayons due to her exile in France, she is still able to portray the movement and playfulness that defined her earlier works. I do feel the great sense of uncertainty that she must have been experiencing at this moment though, and what a tragic ending to an incredible life. I wish Tate had curated this last room differently given the horrible way in which she died. It did not feel like a sufficient way to end this presentation of her life and legacy. Am I being too harsh? Perhaps the show’s abrupt end emphasizes the abrupt end to her life and the lost potential of the work to come.
JF: In a chronological retrospective, it always feels difficult to do justice to the final years of an artist’s life – perhaps even more so considering she died so young. There was no final word on the matter and no way of looking forward from that moment either. Although perhaps leaving us with the precise play of the crayon drawings was a way of signing off – the Arp Museum describe them as “lines [that] hover in front of the unusually free background, meeting in ever-new variations”, which feels like a generative reading of her life and work in general.
SP: It would have been great to see how her prolific artistic career has influenced contemporary artists and makers. This is something that we strive to do through Decorating Dissidence, connecting the legacy of modernism to the contemporary and having that as the centre of our project. Instead of being pushed to the accompanying public programming, imagine how impactful it would have been to hear the accounts of artists today speaking to or making works that illustrate how Taeuber-Arp’s has inspired their practice in the exhibition space itself, and why this long-due survey of her work (the first ever shown in the UK) is important and relevant today.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp is showing at the Tate Modern until Sunday 17 October 2021. Click here to book tickets and for more information.
About Decorating Dissidence
Decorating Dissidence is an interdisciplinary project that explores the histories and ongoing legacies of craft and design through modernism to the contemporary. Click on the link to see their latest Call for Submissions theme ‘Tools, Mastery, and Use’ guest edited by matt lambert.
Feature image: detail from Nicolai Aluf’s Sophie Taeuber with her Dada head, 1920, Gelatin silver print on card, 12.9 × 9.8Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin.