Exhibition of the week: Sophie Taeuber-Arp at Tate Modern

To see her work here ‘is to be immediately uplifted’, says The Observer

Six Spaces with Four Small Crosses (1932)
Six Spaces with Four Small Crosses (1932)
(Image credit: Tate)

The Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp was “the great overlooked modernist”, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. She was a bona fide pioneer who made “no distinction between high and low, applied and fine art”, combining abstract painting, textile design, interior decoration and even architecture, and rendering it all in a joyous signature style.

Born in Davos in 1889, Taeuber-Arp learnt to sew at a young age and chose to study “practical arts and crafts” rather than follow a more prestigious education in fine art. It was a wise decision: where other artists were restricted to painting and sculpture, TaeuberArp could “turn wood and engineer brackets, warp a loom and solder silver”.

After marrying the abstract artist Hans Arp (better known as Jean Arp in English) in 1922, she became involved with Dadaism and moved around Europe, but settled in Zurich in order to avoid the Nazis. One night in 1943, she missed the last tram home and spent the night in “a snow-covered summer house”. The stove misfired, and the next morning she was found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning.

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Despite earning renown in her lifetime, Taeuber-Arp was “forgotten” following her tragic demise – her legacy eclipsed by that of her more famous husband. A new exhibition at Tate Modern comes as a long-overdue corrective, bringing together paintings, drawings, sculptures, textiles and furniture to assert Taeuber-Arp’s status as one of the great talents of the interwar years. To see her work here “is to be immediately uplifted”.

There’s no doubting Taeuber-Arp’s talent and resourcefulness, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. The show frames her as an avant-garde “jack of all trades” who mastered multiple disciplines with enviable skill. Her work in design is presented just as reverentially as her paintings: the show is “chock-full of rugs and tapestries and folksy cushion covers and pillowcases”, displayed amid “satisfying” abstract canvases “resembling dominoes or wiring diagrams”.

The best of her art, notably a series of “inky” drawings filled with “fractured forms and conical, searchlight-like shapes”, is interesting, while a group of marionettes created for a Zurich theatre in 1918 is “memorable”.

Flight: Round Relief in Three Heights by Sophie Taeuber-Arp

Flight: Round Relief in Three Heights by Sophie Taeuber-Arp
(Image credit: Tate)

Yet while all this is impeccably tasteful and often pleasing, there is little here “to thrill the soul”. Some of what we see is downright dull: there are far too many technical drawings, “boring” photos Taeuber-Arp took on her travels, and numerous pieces of “underwhelming” furniture. It makes for a “dutiful” but never “scintillating” experience.

I completely disagree, said Ben Luke in the London Evening Standard. Taeuber-Arp’s abstract paintings are terrific: there is a “mesmerising” group of canvases depicting “rhythmic, pinging” circles – the artist described this style as “boulisme” in reference to the French game of boules or pétanque; they presage Bridget Riley by a good 30 years.

Other highlights include a number of “exquisite, loosely geometric” works from the 1910s and better still, Relief (1936), a wooden sculptural relief that sees her distinctive emblematic circles tapering into cones to create “a delightful, vibrant spatial flux”. Taeuber-Arp’s art is “playful” and “matter of fact”, but no less “profound” for it. Ultimately, it all adds up to a “superb” exhibition.

Tate Modern, London SE1 (www.tate.org.uk). Until 17 October

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