Sophie Taeuber-Arp review – the great overlooked modernist

Her beaming face is the first thing you see at Tate Modern – the Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) sashaying sideways in a solo dance performance, wearing an op-art dress to the beach or catching the camera’s eye as the only woman in a crowd of dedicated dadaists. Her smile stands out every time. And the fact that most of us will scarcely recognise this prodigiously gifted artist seems to maximise the surprise of everything that follows, from paintings and sparkling sculptures to graphic design, embroidery and humorous puppets. Taeuber-Arp is the great overlooked modernist.

The reasons are not beyond reach. Sophie Taeuber was born in Davos and taught to sew by her mother, a thrifty young widow. She chose a training in practical arts and crafts rather than the usual fine art education, so that she could turn wood and engineer brackets, warp a loom and solder silver where other artists were learning to draw from old plaster casts. She studied with Rudolf von Laban, pioneer of modern dance, designed scintillating posters and created sleek tongue-and-groove furniture. But so little of this survives: the performances that were never filmed, the objects that disappeared, the paper that naturally vanished.

Then she married the much more famous Jean (Hans) Arp in 1922, and became deeply involved in the playful and anarchic activities of the dadaists. Husband and wife made many mutual works of art. They also travelled Europe, eventually in an attempt to avoid the Nazis. And since paper alone was light enough to carry in last-minute border crossings, Taeuber-Arp returned to drawing. In a very moving room at Tate Modern, you can see the works that survived – their lines fluttering, dancing and crisscrossing in exquisite abstract formations.

In Januarie 1943, having escaped back to Zurich, she missed the last tram home one night and slept in a snow-covered summer house. The stove misfired and she was found the next day, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. Unlike her husband, whose biomorphic sculptures found intense success in the postwar era, Taeuber-Arp was forgotten for the next half century.

To see her work at Tate Modern is to be immediately uplifted. The show opens with small watercolours that play glowing rectangles against triangles, squares and discs. They look like the art of their time; think of Malevich, Mondrian or Klee. And Taeuber-Arp is an abstract artist first to last. But these enchanting arrays always carry humorous hints of reality – a quirky face, a tube of lipstick, wafts of summer scent, comical boats and knights on horseback.

Her paint colours are delicate as a Klee, occasionally combined with gold or silver leaf. En toe, just as your eye is growing accustomed to this painted art, the medium suddenly shifts. What looks like watercolour is in fact wool, which somehow shines as radiantly as the gold frame that contains her immaculate geometry. How is it done, you wonder, scrutinising this needlework from 1918? Taeuber-Arp knew exactly how to choreograph each stitch, playing them in different directions to catch the light and generate the sheen.

This used to be known as applied arts (and still is, in some condescending quarters). But Taeuber-Arp believed that the beautiful should be useful, en omgekeerd. She is with William Morris in this respect. Among the most breathtaking works here are a sequence of beaded bags, their surfaces a mesmerising combination of glittering light and glassy opacity, constructed to hang like mobiles from jewelled threads. Of course you can imagine them swaying from a woman’s wrist at some evening party, but in this context they look like what they were to the artist: outlandish new sculptures.

An early cushion cover has been so perfectly preserved it looks as if nobody could ever have leaned back against it. This needlepoint tapestry invents abstract patterns in ever-renewing sequences (including a touching trial-and-error square the artist never repeated) that appear even richer than the paintings. The colours startle: shocking pink and lime green, held in perfect tonal balance. Where on earth did she get such dyes in 1916? One answer is that the artist had very rich patrons. Taeuber-Arp may have been neglected since her death, but she was deservedly successful in her lifetime.

In Strasbourg, she designed the Five O’Clock tea room and elaborate bar at the Aubette, all rectangles and dots. The collector André Horn commissioned stained glass windows for his grand apartment that prefigure 60s minimalism. Taeuber-Arp also designed a house for herself and Arp on the outskirts of Paris: an ochre cube that fused high modernism with the stony walls of an Alpine farmhouse.

The paintings she made there ought to be severely abstract, given their rectilinear forms and restricted colours – often three, sometimes only two – and yet they are marvellously exuberant. Animated Circles (1934) plays arrays of blue discs against a white plane with all the offbeat glee of a boules game in the hot summer shadows. Hers is a nimble art: athletic, gereed, exacting, always on pointe.

Admiration for the art extends (vir my) to the whole professional life. Taeuber-Arp taught for many years, commuting daily by train into Zurich. She performed as a dancer, made puppets for dada theatre productions, edited an art magazine, wrote art books, had a parallel career as an architect and worked in almost every art medium throughout. She signed her tapestries, sold her jewelled chokers to art collectors, made no distinction between high and low, applied and fine art, like her fellow modernists.

And there is a modesty to her inventions. Towards the end of this show hangs a painting composed, as it seems, entirely of discs – red, wit, blue – against a pale ground. They scintillate across the room, popping merrily on the eye. But as you get closer, a mysterious blurring occurs. These circles are in fact the flat fronts of solid cones that recede into a shadowy wooden structure behind. You move, the image shifts. Painting in three dimensions.

The dada poet Hugo Ball compared Taeuber-Arp to a lark, taking the sky with her as she darts joyfully upwards. And it seems as though everything she learned in youth was taken up and carried forward into her art – from the precision of woodwork and stitching to the abstraction of needlepoint grids. She wasted nothing; and the tragedy of her accidental death is fully apparent at Tate Modern, as the show comes to an abrupt end. Beyond doubt, Taeuber-Arp would have continued to invent spry and beautiful objects, sending them out with her declared purpose to brighten this world.

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