Martin Gayford

Deserves to be much better known: Sophie Taeuber-Arp at Tate Modern reviewed

Her most eye-catching works are in the applied arts: stained glass, textiles, puppets, furniture, a tablecloth, beaded bags and full-scale interiors of rooms

Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Dada marionettes, made in 1918, are delightful, miniature modernist personalities, like animated pepper pots. Credit: © Tate, Seraphina Neville

Great Swiss artists, like famous Belgians, might seem to be an amusingly underpopulated category. Actually, as with celebrated Flemings and Walloons, when you start counting you discover there are more of them than you thought. Paul Klee, for example, and Alberto Giacometti. A third, whose work is reassessed in a large exhibition at Tate Modern, was Sophie Taeuber-Arp.

Clearly, unlike the other two, hers is far from being a household name even in fairly artistic homes. There are several reasons for this, one perhaps being the unwieldiness of that cognomen itself. She was born Sophie Henriette Gertrud Taeuber in 1889 at Davos, and as was then the custom, hyphenated her surname with her husband’s when she married Hans (or Jean) Arp in 1922. As the curators note in a catalogue essay, a further reason for neglect was ‘gender discrimination’. But yet another, less discussed, was ‘genre discrimination’.

You quickly notice as you walk around the galleries of the exhibition that, though she produced plenty of accomplished paintings in the early modernist idiom of geometric abstraction, these are not the most eye-catching of her works. Those take many forms: stained glass, textiles, puppets, furniture, a tablecloth, beaded bags and full-scale interiors of rooms. But most come under that unexciting label ‘applied art’.

If you try to pick a Taeuber-Arp masterpiece, you are most likely to choose a work in wool

Museums of applied art are generally the ones outside which you will never have to queue to buy a ticket. We still tend to adhere to the Victorian aesthetic hierarchy, by which painting and sculpture rank high but such objects as cushion covers, powder pots, necklaces and handbags a long way further down.

It’s not quite true to say that in Taeuber-Arp’s output this order is reversed.

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