Maybe everyone has heard of Sophie Taeuber-Arp but me, but my first introduction to her was a post on Tate Modern’s Instagram advertising this exhibition. If you are as in the dark as I was, Taeuber-Arp was an early 20th century Swiss artist who dabbled in a number of media, including painting, sculpting, architecture, performance, textiles, jewellery, and puppetry (and though I think her name is pronounced “tauber” I have to rhyme it with George Costanza’s description of what the Kruger Industrial Smoothing sign looked like after the “r” fell off (“k-ooger”) and think of it as “tae-uber” in my head to spell it correctly). Because I will go see pretty much anything that looks even vaguely creepy, the images the Tate had posted of some puppets she’d made convinced me that it was worth seeing, and I booked tickets for the opening week.
The exhibition at Tate Modern runs until 17th October, and is £16, or £8 with Art Pass. The galleries were pre-booking only when we visited, and things were strangely quiet for a Friday, not that that’s a problem, perhaps because this and a Rodin exhibition were the only things on. We quickly made it up and into the exhibition, which began with a timeline of Taeuber-Arp’s life, and a video montage of her work, but there were a lot of people gathered around the video (which appeared to be in German), so we skipped it and headed straight for the next gallery.
This exhibition space was very large and open, which made a nice change from some of the narrow galleries I’ve been to lately, as everyone had plenty of space to social distance (I guess people aren’t doing much of that these days, but this was back in July when there were still officially some restrictions). It also helped in terms of social distancing that there wasn’t a huge amount of content in the biggest room, but it was a bit of a disappointment otherwise, because this was my favourite part of the exhibition, mainly because it contained her puppets! These were made in 1918 for a puppet show production of a fairy tale called King Stag. I’m not familiar with the original fairy tale, but this appeared to be a Dada-esque interpretation of it that was probably not aimed at children, judging by the character named Dr. Oedipus Complex (the guy in black with the hat and cape) and the general scary appearance of the puppets.
This gallery also contained some of Taeuber-Arp’s photography, where she would artistically photograph herself in totally insane costumes, and I can definitely get behind that as well. Even her weird creepy Dada head (a very smooth head inspired by her woodworking background) was kind of cool, but it was mainly downhill from there. I know this is already the second time I’ve referenced Seinfeld in this post, but you know the episode where Elaine is dating that artist who makes triangle sculptures who they keep referring to dismissively as “the triangle guy”? Well, Taeuber-Arp was VERY into geometric shapes, so I am tempted to refer to her as “the square and circle woman”.
To be fair, she did embrace a range of techniques, and made her shapes by painting, weaving, and even glass working. The stained glasses were probably the coolest looking (they reminded me of a Catholic church my grandparents attended that was built in the 1960s and had geometric shapes in its stained glass instead of the traditional Bible scenes, I guess in an attempt to be groovy), and I’ve no doubt the weaving took some serious skill to give the shapes such perfectly pointed edges, but really, how many squares can a person look at before getting bored? Yes, there were circles too, but you know what I mean.
The exhibition talked a fair bit about her life and work – she married an artist called Hans Arp in 1922, which is when she began hyphenating, and they moved to a studio home outside Paris in 1929, where they remained until the Nazis invaded in 1940. They fled to the unoccupied south of France, and eventually received visas to travel to Switzerland, where Taeuber-Arp died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty stove in 1943 at the age of 53, which was rather depressing to read. Her work seemed to go from minimalist to even more minimalist, with the exception of a piece she made whilst living in the south of France, when she only had pencils to work with. This sketch of the French countryside confirmed that she was actually very artistically talented in a conventional way, but apparently opted to create shapes instead, which is not the choice I would have made, but I suppose going the Huey Lewis route (“it’s hip to be square”) helped her make her name in the art world.
As you can probably tell, I was pretty damn underwhelmed by the vast number of geometric shape paintings in here – I could have done with about 80% more puppets and photographs, and I can tell why Tate Modern are heavily using the puppets and photos in promoting the exhibition. However, that gives a false impression as to what is actually here. Had I known I would just be looking at room after room full of circles and squares, I would have given it a miss. At least I only paid £8, and I learned about an artist I was previously unfamiliar with, but it only took us 20 minutes to look around this exhibition, and I certainly won’t be rushing out to see more shapes anytime soon. 2.5/5.