Sophie Taeuber-Arp: it's about time the radical dada star got a Google doodle

Today’s Google doodle celebrates the birthday of the radical artist who brought joy to dada, when Switzerland was a revolutionary hotbed of culture

You must remember the place where punk began. The most subversive, dissident and revolutionary centre of modern art. The planet Ziggy Stardust came from. That’s right – Switzerland. Today’s Google doodle celebrating the birthday of Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943) is a nice plug for one of the most radical – but far from best known – women in modern art.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Photograph: Hollaender/Keystone/Corbis

Taeuber-Arp was Swiss through and through. That gave her an entree to an extraordinary moment when the most dangerous artists and poets in Europe came together in a nightclub in Zurich. Trained as an artist and designer, she played a founding part in the movement that blew conventional notions of art, craft, and culture itself to smithereens – and which still influences the most subversive pop culture today: dada.

The first world war destroyed European civilisation. A continent that thought itself the most enlightened on Earth sent its young to die in a bloodbath of psychotic squander. Some young people rebelled. They walked away from the slaughter. Their natural destination was neutral Switzerland. So it was that in Zurich in 1916 the nonsense poet Hugo Ball and the maverick writer and drummer Richard Huelsenbeck – both Germans – led a raggle-taggle band of artists in wild, strange evening performances at the dada cabaret.

Dada – a deliberately nonsensical word suggesting both infantilism and the dadada beat of an angry drum – rejected the very idea of aesthetic beauty. Civilisation had been terminally poisoned by the great war. What could artists do? They decided to destroy art’s last pathetic falsehoods. All the pretensions of Europe’s high culture had to go. Dada was a new kind of creativity to blow away the ghosts: jagged, savage, primal, cynical, hilarious and mad.

Untitled by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, 1932.
Untitled by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, 1932. Photograph: The Gallery Collection/Corbis

Sophie Taeuber-Arp was a leading member of the dada movement – but her works don’t look like our stereotyped idea of what it was. Instead of angry collages, she created joyous abstractions. She met Hans Arp, who came from Alsace, shortly before the foundation of the dada cabaret and they became founders of this revolutionary group. Yet they were interested in its more lyrical possibilities: in playing with blocks and blobs of colour, moving them around randomly, letting patterns emerge by chance, in a kind of visual jazz.

Married in 1922, Taeuber and Arp (who is often known by his alternative French name Jean) created some of the happiest art of the 20th century. If dada’s name suggests both baby talk and a drumbeat, it was above all Taeuber and her future husband who expressed its innocent, childlike, escapist “baby” side. In a world being torn apart by war, her colourful abstract art was a blissful alternative reality – an assertion that freedom exists.

Her work is like dance music – liberating and joyful. Abstract art is often said to originate in the heavily spiritualist ideas of artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian. Yet Sophie Taeuber-Arp invented, along with Hans Arp, a different kind of abstraction that accepts chance and roots itself in the physical rather than spiritual world. It is like a utopian game.

So why is she important? She showed that abstract art was child’s play.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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