BASEL, Switzerland — Just over a century ago, during another pandemic, the Swiss Marionette Theatre in Zurich closed. The play “King Stag” ended its run in September 1918, after three sparsely attended performances. The Spanish flu kept its audience away.
The show’s marionettes, designed by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, were, in any case, “much too modern and too daring” for the production, she wrote later. One is a five-armed, five-legged, robot-like creation in silver-painted wood, a sword in each of its hands. Another is an elongated figure with a fishtail hat.
Though the Zurich theater was skeptical, the art circles in which Taeuber-Arp moved understood the marionettes as important sculptures. In Europe, they were depicted and discussed in avant-garde magazines; across the Atlantic, Vanity Fair noted in 1922 that these “revolutionary” puppets had “caused a real sensation.”
Making marionettes was just one aspect of Taeuber-Arp’s dazzling artistic range, which encompassed beaded bags, necklaces, cushion covers, rugs and stained glass, all in abstract, geometric designs. She made costumes with hats fashioned from paper doilies and designed furniture, interior décor, kitchens — even a meticulously planned broom cupboard. She danced, she taught, and she edited an art journal. Her precise, harmonious, playful paintings hung alongside works by Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky in a 1937 exhibition here in Basel.
Her capacity to blur the boundaries between fine art and applied art is one of the reasons it has taken so long for Taeuber-Arp to receive a major retrospective that would cement her international reputation as a pioneer of abstraction, said Anne Umland, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “She is hard to pigeonhole,” Umland said.
That comprehensive exhibition, “Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction,” opened at the Kunstmuseum Basel in March and runs through June 20. It will move to Tate Modern in London from July 15, and to MoMA from Nov. 21.
The show brings Taeuber-Arp out from the shadow of her more famous husband, the Franco-German sculptor Jean Arp, whom she married in 1922. She is the latest in a series of female artists who were the wives of higher-profile men to receive retrospectives in leading museums in recent years — among them the German textiles artist Anni Albers and the American painter Lee Krasner.
Although Taeuber-Arp is well-known in Switzerland, where her face has featured on the 50-franc note, “in the U.S., she is very far from being a household name,” Umland said. “We want to put her on the map as one of the most vibrant, versatile and multitalented artists of her era.”
Born in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos in 1889, Sophie Taeuber learned a variety of textile crafts as a child from her mother, who ran a shop selling linen goods. After studying applied arts, fine arts and design in Munich and St. Gallen, Switzerland, she began dance lessons in 1915 at an academy in Zurich.
At that time, neutral Switzerland was a haven for antiwar artists from across Europe as World War I raged around its borders. Bourgeois Zurich became a hub for bohemians, who congregated in the Cabaret Voltaire — the nightclub considered the birthplace of the Dada movement — to recite nonsensical poetry, perform experimental music and exhibit art.
The only surviving photograph of a performance by Taeuber-Arp comes from around this time: a figure presumed to be the artist, her head hidden behind a rectangular mask, brandishing tubular arms with spiky metallic hands.
Many of the objects in the Basel exhibition were intended to “dance” — or at least serve a function — and the curators have brought life to the works. The marionettes from “King Stag” are displayed opposite a film of them in action. The beaded purses, designed to twirl from the wrists of fashion-conscious women, dangle from stands, glittering in the light.
Like her paintings and tapestries, the purses comprise geometric shapes in rich and unexpected color sequences. “When the struggle for existence has become so difficult, why conceive ornaments and color combinations when there are so many more practical and especially more necessary things to do?” Taeuber-Arp asked in a 1922 essay. The answer, she said, was “a deep and primeval” urge to “make the things we own more beautiful.”
Arp moved to Strasbourg, which was then part of Germany, in 1926, and Taeuber-Arp, the breadwinner in the marriage, stayed on in Zurich, teaching applied arts at Zurich’s Trade School. She joined him there when they secured a commission to redesign the interior of the Aubette, an 18th-century building in Strasbourg that was to become a multipurpose entertainment complex. With the fee, they bought a property in Clamart, outside Paris, and settled there: Taeuber-Arp’s first architectural project was to design a modern, minimalist house, with studios and a garden.
The couple fled that home shortly before German troops marched in, in June 1940, finding refuge on the French Riviera before visas for Switzerland came through, in 1942. Deprived of painting materials, Taeuber-Arp took up colored pencils and turned away from the clarity of geometric shapes to looping, meandering lines.
Two months after reaching safety in Switzerland, she lit a wood-burning stove before bed, without realizing its flue was closed, and died in her sleep of carbon-monoxide poisoning. She was 53.
Taeuber-Arp’s premature death left Arp in charge of her legacy, Umland said. Although he worked “with the best of intentions,” she added, a catalog he published of her work presented her primarily as a painter and sculptor, and overlooked her architectural designs, interiors, textiles and marionettes.
“The cross-disciplinary, cross-pollinating range of Taeuber-Arp’s approach to abstraction is what, to date, has been neglected,” Umland said. “To put it all together is to see how her approach remains consistent across this wide variety of disciplines — and how abstraction permeates everyday life.”