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Kettle’s Yard History of Art Intern, Lucy Howie, discusses the importance of our recent acquisition of a drawing by Sophie Taeuber-Arp that is currently on temporary display in the House.  

It is a fantastic opportunity to be writing about Kettle’s Yard’s recently acquired drawing by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, during the first retrospective of her work in the UK at Tate Modern; an exhibition that is long overdue. It is only with this new acquisition and Tate Modern’s display that I have been properly introduced to Taeuber-Arp’s extensive and interdisciplinary oeuvre, and I am glad to see that her work is beginning to be taken seriously in the context of European modernism. Alongside many of her contemporaries who were women, little has been written of Taeuber-Arp’s contribution to the development of abstraction in early 20th-century Europe. The display at Tate Modern, and our hanging of Dessin in the Kettle’s Yard extension will, I hope, go some way to remedy this obscuration from histories of modernism.

Sophie Taeuber was born in Switzerland and began her artistic career studying textile design. Distinct from many of her contemporaries, she developed an interest in blurring traditional lines between fine art, craft and design, and in employing modernist theories of abstraction in the decorative arts.

Dessin was produced in 1915, the year that Taeuber-Arp moved to Zürich and became associated with the Zürich Dada movement. Her works made at this time are notable for their ‘vertical-horizontal’ compositions, based in square or vertical rectangular shapes. During this period, Taeuber-Arp produced numerous works on paper like Dessin. Between 1916 and 1918, she and fellow artist Jean Arp (her lifelong companion and later husband) renounced oil painting altogether so as ‘to avoid any reminiscence of canvas painting, which we regarded as characteristic of a pretentious and conceited world.’

Dessin at Kettle’s Yard

Unlike other artists, who came to abstraction from figuration, Taeuber-Arp’s abstract geometric style derived directly from the grid structure of woven textiles. Visiting the Tate exhibition, what immediately stood out to me were Taeuber-Arp’s geometrical vertical-horizontal compositions created with wool and needlework. Framed alongside her early abstract compositions on paper in the first room of Tate’s display, Taeuber-Arp’s cross-stitch vertical-horizontal compositions are constructed with grid-like structures and have carefully considered colour combinations.

I find Taeuber-Arp’s arrival at abstraction fascinating considering gendered theoretical debates from the time that directly opposed abstraction with figuration. In the Cercle et Carré group, which Taeuber-Arp joined in 1929, abstract artists were noticeably in favour of an ‘intellectualised’ and therefore ‘masculine’ abstraction, removed from the material world. Taeuber-Arp’s abstract compositions challenge this by rejecting the figurative or naturalistic styles that were considered ‘feminine’. This is further complicated by the fact that Taeuber-Arp came to abstraction through methods used in the ‘applied arts’ and crafts, particularly textiles, again considered within the realm of the feminine. In this sense, Taeuber-Arp posed a challenge to the strict ‘either/or’ artistic divisions between abstraction/figuration, and fine art/decorative arts, within which she was embroiled. Taeuber-Arp’s combination of pure abstraction with textile design pushed at the boundaries of modernist theory and nuanced contemporaneous considerations of the male/female dichotomy.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Dessin, 1915. Pencil on paper. Alan Reynolds Bequest, 2019.

You can see Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s ‘Dessin’ on display in the Lower Extension of the Kettle’s Yard House. An exhibition of her work is on show at Tate Modern until 17 October 2021.