Major retrospective of Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp's work opens at Kunstmuseum Basel

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Major retrospective of Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp's work opens at Kunstmuseum Basel
Installation view. Photo: Julian Salinas.

BASEL.- The Kunstmuseum Basel dedicates a major retrospective to the Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889–1943), whose face will be familiar to many of her present-day compatriots thanks to her decades-long presence on the 50 Swiss Franc note. Showcasing over 250 works, the exhibition Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Living Abstraction, which is produced in cooperation with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Tate Modern, London, introduces broad international audiences to the interdisciplinary and exceptionally multifaceted oeuvre of this long-neglected pioneer of abstraction and establish her as one of the great avant-gardists of classic modernism.

At the time of Taeuber-Arp’s death in a tragic accident in 1943, her oeuvre spanned an extraordinarily wide range of techniques and materials: textiles, beadwork, a puppet theater, dance performances, costumes, murals, furniture, architecture, graphic designs, paintings, sculptures, reliefs, and drawings. Undaunted by traditional divisions between media and hierarchies of genre, she framed a vision of art as a close companion to life that is without parallel in the era of classic modernism. It is to this vision that her works owe their undimmed fascination and current relevance.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s oeuvre is brought to life by a unique conjunction of technical expertise—she received extensive training in applied art—and the experimentalism of the avant-garde circles in which she moved in Zurich and Paris. Where others associated the novel and revolutionary formal language of abstraction with a spiritual realm of pure ideas, she applied it to enhancing everyday life, designing pillows, table cloths, bags, furniture, and entire rooms, as at the Aubette, a café in Strasbourg that has been called the «Sistine Chapel of modernism.» In the abstract paintings based on simplified geometrical shapes she created in Paris in the 1930s, too, the compositions are cheerily colorful and in rhythmic motion rather than static or austere.

Arranged in chronological fashion, the exhibition Living Abstraction presents an overview of Taeuber-Arp’s output and her various sources of inspiration and vividly renders the apparently playful ease with which the artist dismantled longstanding barriers between art and life and rigid art-historical categories.

Applied art, dance, and Dadaism are Taeuber-Arp’s defining pursuits in her Zurich years between 1914 and 1926. The architecture-related projects she realizes in Strasbourg beginning in 1926 show her creativity evolving in a direction that leads toward her involvement in the Paris-based artists’ groups Cercle et Carré and Abstraction Création in the 1930s. She also had close ties to Basel, illustrated in the exhibition by a spotlight on her important contribution to the presentation of Constructivist art at Kunsthalle Basel in 1937. The latter was not only key to the evolution and dissemination of abstract art; it also helped Taeuber-Arp win a circle of loyal collectors in the city, whose descendants are now among the individuals who have generously agreed to lend her works to the museum for Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Living Abstraction.

The Nazi invasion of France in 1940 prompted Taeuber-Arp and her husband Hans Arp to escape Paris for the south of France; they settled in Grasse, where, living in isolation and poverty, the artist mostly produced drawings. A temporary visa allowed the couple to return to Zurich, where Taeuber-Arp’s oeuvre breaks off abruptly: on a cold night in January 1943, she died at Max Bill’s house of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a stove.

The exhibition Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Living Abstraction gathers ca. 250 works from Swiss and international collections, including Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin, the Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Remagen, the Fondation Arp, Clamart, the Fondazione Marguerite Arp, Locarno, the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, and the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Strasbourg. It also offers Swiss audiences a rare opportunity to see works from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, and numerous private collections.

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