Abstract composition, stained glass, 1926–27

January 13, On This Day

There’s many an artist who has been overlooked, and even more so female artists in human history. And yet, Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp, who died tragically in an accident with a leaking gas stove on January 13, 1943 at just the age of 54, still managed to establish herself as a painter, sculptor, textile designer, furniture and interior designer, architect, and dancer in her relatively short but prolific life. In fact, she is considered one of the most important artists of concrete art and geometric abstraction of the 20th century.

Born on January 19, 1889, Sophie lived her initial years in Switzerland and Germany, studying various fine arts in her formative years. Down the line, she and her husband, German-French artist Jean “Hans” Arp, eventually became associated with the Dada movement, which emerged in 1916.  Her most famous works – Dada Head (Tête Dada; 1920) – date from these years.

When Sophie taught weaving and other textile arts at the now Zurich University of the Arts from 1916 to 1929, her textile and graphic works are among the earliest Constructivist works, along with those of names like Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. “These sophisticated geometric abstractions reflect a subtle understanding of the interplay between colour and form,” critics have said.

Coupe Dada, sculpture, 1916
Relief at three levels, 1937 or 1938

She took part in Dada-inspired performances as a dancer, choreographer, and puppeteer, and she designed puppets, costumes and sets for performances at the Cabaret Voltaire as well as for other Swiss and French theatres. As both a dancer and painter, Taeuber was able to incorporate Dada in her movement for dancing and was described as “obscure and awkward”.

The Guardian called her a “radical artist who brought joy to the dada”. Critics say her “joyous abstractions” used to “let patterns emerge by chance, in a kind of visual jazz”.

Oval Composition with Abstract Motifs, 1922
Abstract composition, stained glass, 1926–27
Grasse – geometric and wavy lines, 1940 (colored pencil on paper, 26 x 34.4 cm)

Wassily Kandinsky said: “Sophie Taeuber-Arp expressed herself by means of the ‘colored relief,’ especially in the last years of her life, using almost exclusively the simplest forms, geometric forms. The forms, by their sobriety, their silence, their way of being sufficient unto themselves, invite the hand, if it is skillful, to use the language that is suitable to it and which is often only a whisper; but often too the whisper is more expressive, more convincing, more persuasive, than the ‘loud voice’ that here and there lets itself burst out.”

Sophie was the only woman on the eighth series of Swiss banknotes; her portrait was on the 50-franc note from 1995 to 2016.

Taeuber-Arp on the 50 Swiss Franc note