Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp are two of the most important artists of the twentieth-century avant garde. As pioneers of abstract art they created a unique oeuvre. The two artists met in Zurich in 1915. Although they shared basic values and attitudes to art, their creative work is very different. However, they were both very open-minded and undogmatic. This can also be seen in some of the works which they created together.
Hans (Jean) Peter Wilhelm Arp was born on 16 September 1886 in Strasbourg, which was a German city at the time. Sophie Henriette Gertrud Taeuber was born three years later, on 19 January 1889, in Davos, Switzerland. They both discovered their love of art at an early age.
After several attempts at the art schools in Strasbourg, Weimar and ultimately at the Académie Julian in Paris, Arp decided not to pursue an academic training. He worked as an autodidact to develop his own form language.
In 1907 he exhibited in Paris at the Galerie Bernheim Jeune together with Matisse and Signac. He moved to Switzerland; it was here that he produced his first non-representational pictures, which according to his own reports he then destroyed.
Together with Oscar Lüthy and Walter Helbig, Hans Arp founded the artists' association "Der moderne Bund" in Weggis in 1911; the group would pave the way for the reception of modernism in Switzerland.
In the meantime, Sophie Taeuber continued her school education between 1910 and 1914 with a course of study at the prestigious Debschitz School for Fine and Applied Art. She learned craft techniques which would provide the foundation for her work as an independent artist, but she then interrupted her training there in order to study at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg.
During this time Arp was in close contact with the "Blauer Reiter" in Munich through Wassily Kandinsky. He exhibited his works with the group and contributed to the almanac of the same name. He worked in Berlin for Herwarth Walden's "Der Sturm" gallery and was represented at the first German Autumn Salon in 1913. In 1914 he met Max Ernst in Cologne. When war broke out Arp left Cologne for Paris, but as the conflict intensified he had to leave France shortly afterwards and moved to Switzerland, which was politically neutral.
Sophie Taeuber joined the "Schweizer Werkbund". By this time she was living in Zurich. She and Hans Arp met for the first time in November 1915 during the exhibition "Modern tapestries, embroidery, paintings and drawings" at Galerie Tanner, in which Arp exhibited works together with Otto van Rees and Adya van Rees-Dutilh. Some time later – probably in spring 1917 – they fell in love.
Together with Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara and Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Arp was a founder member of the Dada movement, which had its legendary start on 5 February 1916 in the "Cabaret Voltaire" in Zurich.
Arp published poems and text collages, and illustrated books and Dada periodicals. He and Sophie Taeuber produced their first joint works, including geometric collages and later also wood sculptures. Sophie Taeuber worked at the Kunstgewerbeschule Zurich as a teacher of textile design in order to earn a living. She drew vertical-horizontal compositions and gouaches which served as designs for textile production. These works were already firmly focused on geometrical abstraction.
Since 1915 Sophie Taeuber had been in contact with Rudolf von Laban's School of Art Movement. On the occasion of the opening of the Galerie Dada in 1917 she performed some modern expressive dances. Together, Sophie Taeuber and Arp became members of the artists' association "Das Neue Leben" ("New Life"). Taeuber created the avant-garde stage set and produced the marionettes for the new version of Carlo Gozzi's "König Hirsch" ("Il ré cervo"). She also created a series of portrait-like wooden sculptures, the Dada Heads. For Arp, the woodcut and abstract reliefs became the most important means of expression. He increasingly developed a purely organic pictorial language. The international focus of the Dada movement led to the founding of various Dada centres. Together with Ernst and Baargeld, Arp formed part of the nucleus of the Dada group in Cologne. He published "Der Vogel selbdritt" and "Die Wolkenpumpe", collections of text collages.
Sophie Taeuber began to abandon her rigidly vertical-horizontal grids in favour of arrangements showing more movement. She and Hans Arp travelled to Florence and Siena. In 1922 Arp took part in the international congress of Constructivists and Dadaists in Weimar. Arp and Taeuber married in October in Pura in Ticino. Kurt Schwitters published the "7 Arpaden" in his Merz Verlag. Together with El Lissitzky, Arp published the trilingual work "Kunstismen", in which the main art movements of the avant-garde from the period between 1914‒1924 are described. In Paris, Arp rented a studio in the Villa des Fusains at the foot of Montmartre. Their neighbours included Ernst and Miró. Contacts with the Surrealists led to participation in their first exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in Paris. Arp's application for Swiss citizenship failed. While he lived in Paris, his wife spent most of her time in Zurich because of her teaching position. After returning to Paris she served as a member of the jury for the exhibition "Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes". Following a series of successes in European exhibitions, her tapestries were shown in the "International Exhibition of Modern Tapestries" in the Toledo Museum of Arts in the United States.
Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp moved to Strasbourg and both became French citizens. Sophie Taeuber-Arp received a series of orders for monumental wall designs. Here, too, her designs were based entirely on geometric shapes and strongly abstracted figures. After she had completed some private rooms and the Hôtel Hannong, before long the Horn Brothers awarded her with her biggest commission: the "Aubette". Behind the neo-classical façade of the eighteenth-century building they created a modern entertainment palace with a bar, salon de thé and dance hall. Sophie Taeuber-Arp also involved her husband and Theo van Doesburg, the founder of De Stijl, in the project.
The result is an avant-garde Gesamtkunstwerk, a "Sixtine Chapel of contemporary art".
During the execution of the work Taeuber-Arp continued to commute between Strasbourg and Zurich. Arp's first solo exhibition was held in 1927 in the Galerie Surréaliste in Paris. The artists' studio and residence was built in Meudon near Paris after Sophie's designs. The large number of commissions gave them financial independence. In 1929 Sophie Taeuber-Arp resigned from her position at the Kunstgewerbeschule.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp could now focus on her purely artistic goals. Both artists became members of the artists' groups "Cercle et Carré" (Circle and Square) and – subsequently – "Abstraction-Création" (Abstraction-Creation). Many of Hans Arp's poems were published, including "weißt du schwarzt du", illustrated with collages by Max Ernst. The artist created "papiers déchirés", in which chance and transience are important elements. He practised the principle of arranging similar elements in his "Konstellationen" (Constellations), creating first organic, three-dimensional works in plaster which owed their inspiration to nature alone.
The artist duo exhibited their works in the museum in Lodz. For the first time their works were included in a museum collection. The Museum of Modern Art in New York showed Arp's works in the exhibition "Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism". The collector Marguerite Hagenbach purchased works by both Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp on a regular basis. They produced a number of joint sculptures including the "Eheplastik" (Marriage Sculpture).
Sophie Taeuber-Arp was one of the co-founders of the progressive multilingual artist's magazine "Plastique". She became a member of the Swiss artists' group "Allianz" (Alliance). The Galerie Jeanne Bucher dedicated an exhibition to the artist duo. The volume of poetry "Muscheln und Schirme" with drawings by Sophie Taeuber was published. From the outbreak of the Second World War as a reaction to the National Socialist regime, Hans Arp mostly called himself Jean Arp. He increasingly wrote his poems in French.
The artist duo fled Paris in the face of the German military occupation and travelled first to Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia in Nérac. After a brief stay with Peggy Guggenheim in Veyrier their flight took them to Grasse in the South of France. As a result of the mediation of Susi and Alberto Magnelli they were able to live in the Château Folie. Sophie Taeuber-Arp began dating and signing her drawings regularly. In addition to the "Lignes", her line pictures composed with coloured crayons, she also produced works jointly with Arp, Alberto Magnelli and Sonja Delaunay. The drawings were published in 1950 in Paris as the graphics portfolio known as the "Album Grasse". Arp's poetry volume "Poèmes sans prénoms", illustrated with drawings by his wife, was produced as an author's edition.
After their attempt to emigrate together to the United States had failed, the couple travelled in 1942 to Switzerland. Here Sophie Taeuber-Arp produced a final series of China ink drawings, segmented circles intersected by lines. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the night of 12‒13 January 1943 in the house of her friend Max Bill.
The painful loss of his wife prompted a profound creative crisis for Hans Arp. At first he came to terms with her death in texts. He dedicated his poems »Le siège de l'air« to her, and illustrated them with joint drawings from 1939.
It was not until 1947 that Arp started to produce sculptures once more. From 1945 he worked with Hugo Weber on a monograph on Sophie Taeuber's work. Marguerite Hagenbach, his collector and patron of many years, became his domestic partner.
Arp travelled to the US on the occasion of his exhibition in Curt Valentin's gallery in New York. A first collection of texts in English was published, entitled "Arp – on my way". Walter Gropius commissioned him to create a wall relief for the Harvard Graduate Center in Cambridge, and further commissions for the public space followed. Arp suffered his first heart attack. In 1954 he was awarded the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Biennale in Venice. The Museum of Modern Art in New York dedicated a comprehensive retrospective to Arp's work. A collection of texts entitled "Zweiklang" was published, in which Arp and his companions paid tribute to the deceased artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Arp's "Gesammelte Gedichte" were published in three volumes in the following years. The French collection of texts entitled "Jours effeuillés" was not published until several weeks after Arp's death. At the end of the 1950s Arp started on his series of works entitled "Schwellenplastiken" (Threshold Sculptures). In May 1959 he married Marguerite Hagenbach. They purchased a property in Locarno. An enlargement of the "Wolkenschale" was produced for the University Library in Bonn. Arp was awarded the Stefan Lochner Medal in Cologne. Hans Arp died in Basel of a heart attack on 7 June 1966.
Today, Hans Arp is represented in the collections of important museums and his influence on abstract art, Surrealism and Dadaist poetry has lost none of its relevance.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp was always overshadowed by her husband. For a long time her craft work was excluded from her artistic oeuvre. However, art historians have gradually come to appreciate her fine legacy and her wide-ranging independent work. Her textile works, marionettes and tapestries, together with her paintings and drawings, are being discovered through major international exhibitions.
Thanks to its wide-ranging collection the Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck is the only museum devoted to both artists and the diversity and breadth of their artistic work. You can discover more about the history of the Arp Collection and the foundation of the museum here...