BY Olivia Sudjic in Profiles | 28 MAY 21
Featured in
Issue 219

Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Body Machines and the Dehumanizing Effects of War

A retrospective at Kunstmuseum Basel, Tate Modern and MoMA pays tribute to the pioneering Swiss dadaist

BY Olivia Sudjic in Profiles | 28 MAY 21

The Swiss-born artist Sophie Taeuber caught the attention of her future husband, Hans Arp, in part thanks to what he described as her ‘courageous use of rectangles’. Although, after her untimely death in 1943, Arp’s reputation eclipsed her own, theirs was one of the more equal, mutually enriching husband-and-wife collaborations of the early 20th century. Taeuber-Arp’s comparatively low profile today would likely not have troubled her, since she, like many other dadaists, sought to undermine bourgeois veneration of the individual artist, removing traces of the human hand (which created art but also war) in favour of the universal, eternal and equalizing hand of chance.

Taeuber met Arp in 1915 in Zurich, where she taught textile design at the School of Applied Arts between 1916–19. Taeuber was already producing constructivist geometric abstractions when dada was founded at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1917. The iconoclastic movement was robustly anti-art in many ways yet, in contrast to other dada figures, Taeuber-Arp’s work is often described in terms of its joyful energy rather than its nihilism. From the rhythm of her abstracted forms to her marionettes and use of dance, motion was key to her multidisciplinary practice; she broke free from the static quality of traditional painting and endowed everything she did with a kinetic spark.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, 1920. Photograph: Nic Aluf. Courtesy: Stiftung Arp e.V. and SUTTON, London

Taeuber-Arp had trained with the modern-dance pioneer Rudolf von Laban at his school in Zurich and performed in his Sonnenfest (Sun Festival) alongside Suzanne Perrottet and Mary Wigram in 1917. Records of her dancing, however, are lost to us, or reduced to static photographs. By way of slim documentation, we have Hugo Ball’s description of a performance at the Cabaret Voltaire: ‘full of flashes and fishbones, of dazzling lights […] The lines of her body break, every gesture decomposes into a hundred precise, angular, incisive movements.’ 

This decomposition allowed her to both embody the art and simultaneously disembody herself, create form and deform it, extend and limit herself, appear and disappear. A photograph from 1916 shows Taeuber-Arp hidden by her dancing costume. The human shape of her body, individual expressions, gestures and all marks by which one might determine gender are concealed by the rigid geometric forms that also seem to obstruct her movement. Even her hands are sheathed in gloves and her face is masked; each abstracted body part appears stiff and disjointed, hanging distended like a marionette’s. (Looking at this image today, I am also reminded of healthcare workers weighed down by cumbersome PPE.)

Formed in response to the dehuman­ization and irrationality of war, dada aimed to critique a reality so brutal and senseless it overwhelmed all logic. That costumes and choreography such as Taeuber-Arp’s provoked outrage in contemporary audiences, however, only underlined the hypocrisy of those all too ready to clap as uniformed men were sent to die in the theatre of war. Via the medium of her body, Taeuber-Arp gave form to the visceral horror and chaotic disorder of the world.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Freudanalytikus, the Magician, from 'King Stag', 1918. Courtesy: Kunstmuseum Basel

In 1918, with the war grinding towards its close, Taeuber-Arp was commissioned to design the stage sets and marionettes for a version of King Stag (1762), to be performed at the inaugural exhibition of the Swiss Werkbund. Carlo Gozzi’s commedia dell’arte is a tale of true love and animal metamorphosis. For this satirical update, Taeuber-Arp created figures composed of geometric shapes, turned on a lathe rather than carved, the metal joints left visible so as to draw attention to their construction. With their mechanics thus exposed and forms abstracted, the figures look more robotic than animal, save for certain uncanny elements. The stag itself features what might appear, in another context, to be a gold cuff bracelet or beautiful bottle opener. Perched atop a series of white cylinders, however, it is instantly recognizable as a regal pair of antlers. 

Audiences complained that the play flouted tradition and it closed after three performances. This only makes the puppets more apt as a symbol of the string-pulling and hierarchies Taeuber-Arp’s artwork sought to resist. While stacking and suspending rigid, abstract forms emphasizes their mechanical inhuman­ity, embodying the paralysis of a world in the grip of war, her marionettes simultaneously demonstrate the possibility of liberation from its power structures – nationality, gender, race – and the hope of transformation.

‘Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction’ is on view at Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland, until 20 June, before travelling to Tate Modern, London, UK (15 July–17 October), and Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA (21 November–12 March 2022).

This article first appeared in frieze issue 219 with the headline ‘Pulling the Strings'.


Main image: Sophie Taeuber-Arp's marionettes featured in Marina Rumjanzewa's 'Marionettes in Motion', 2021, film still. Courtesy: Narrative Boutique and Kunstmuseum Basel

Thumbnail: Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Clarissa, from 'King Stag', 1918. Courtesy: Kunstmuseum Basel

Olivia Sudjic is a writer. Her latest novel, Asylum Road (2021), is published by Bloomsbury. She lives in London, UK.