Sophie Tauber at Tate Modern

13 July – 17 October 2021

This gallery tart was invited to a preview of the Sophie Taeuber-Arp exhibition at Tate Modern this week, so I grabbed the chance and headed down to the South Bank on a sunny weekday evening.  This was my first time in the Blavatnik building, strangely enough, it has been open since 2016!  It’s all concrete and angles, very hipster and contemporary, as befits, I guess, a building housing modernist art and exhibitions.   

I didn’t know much about the artist so I was interested to see what she was about. The exhibition starts with her Vertical-Horizontal Compositions, the catalogue describes these as her forays into abstraction based on her textile work, it’s an interesting thought that for this artist abstraction came from this angle, an area she had gravitated towards during her studies and indeed taught design and embroidery herself. They’re interesting, precise, pared-back and beautifully coloured. Vertical, Horizontal, Square, Rectangular, 1917, immediately brings to mind Gustav Klimt, I think because of the gold and the tessellation effect of the different geometric shapes, it shows as well though, Taebur’s interest in interior design.

Taeuber’s work was very diverse including an interest in theatre, she was asked to create the stage sets and marionettes for the play King Stag, staged in 1918 and a whole showcase contains many of the puppets she created. I almost thought they must have been reproductions as they are really well preserved and also look fresh and contemporary. They’re fascinating, very modern looking, simplistic and yet expressive. They are really well displayed by the gallery, many of them have been hung mid-air on their strings helping the viewer to see them as they were meant to be displayed.

Marionettes for The Stag, 1918

The marionettes were made of turned wood and another set of exhibits in this room is the larger wooden turned sculptures. Again we see Taeuber’s fine, simple and precise hand in these objects, Dada Head, 1918, is a nod to the Dada movement, Taeuber moved within the Dada circles and this is her style of interpretation. I would say though that the often violent, and intentionally so, wild nature of Dada is absent here for me, rather you see the designer coming up with a narrative for new art in a more subtle way.

The next room introduces Arp’s work in stained glass, they were created as skylights for the Hotel Hannong, once again it’s amazing they’ve survived.  The catalogue tells us they were developed out of her Vertical-Horizontal Compositions and you can see this.  When you think of Art Nouveau stained glass and it’s ornate references to botanical forms these seem incredibly plain but I guess that was the point and the Dada side of being anti-art.  They also inevitably recall Mondrian’s abstract work, was Arp influenced by Mondrian, was he influenced by her, we’ll never know, what’s interesting is that they both reached for abstraction but came at it from very different beginnings.

Who influenced who?

There’s an interesting aside here as well, looking at the artist’s travels across Europe there are some paintings and photographs from these time.  I mention them because I think they really reveal her style and interests, looking at the photographs it’s all about shapes and geometric angles, even the one on the beach is about shapes on a background.  This translates into the paintings, Sienna but not Sienna, Paris but not Paris, the elements are there, arches, domes, turrets and vivid bright colours for Sienna and sharp angles and trunk shapes for Montmartre cemetery with cooler more sombre colours but they are abstractions, flattened against the paper in her pared-down, essential style.

Sienna and Paris, 1920s

The next area I’d like to mention is her free line drawings made during the second world war, the catalogue suggests they may have a textile background as well as they look like fragments of cord fallen to the ground.  I like their freedom, the colours and shapes suggest dance and joy.  I couldn’t help notice though that in Geometric and Undulating Lines, 1941, the straight lines form the Star of David and I wonder whether this had significance of what was happening at the time.  As this part of the exhibition progresses Taeuber’s work becomes more constructivist, it may just be co-incidental but her work seems to lose it’s free energy into much more compressed geometric balls like Geometric Construction, from 1942.  Still showing that simple, expressive style, the wild freedom seems in retreat.  Or maybe my imagination was running away with me!

Great exhibition, it brings to light an artist I hadn’t heard about or covered in Art History studies, the curators explore the reasons for this which tend to come down the ever present argument of applied vs fine art, which somehow or another tends to reside as female vs male artists.  That’s a whole other discussion but good on Tate Modern for pulling this exhibition together and including all of her repertoire. What came out for me was an accomplished artist who explored the avant-garde through her own interests.  A pioneer in interior design who incorporated abstraction into her work leading to simple, yet complex designs that are still fresh to contemporary eyes.

Go, support our galleries!

Rita – Gallery Tart

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