Another post from a blog I wrote a while ago, pseudonymously as “Purity” the music and whisky loving lady adventuress, in the days when anonymity was a thing.

And once again I am reminded why I write like this – because it’s how I talk to my future self and remind her of where she has been and where she needs to go next. “Circles close, that’s what they do.” I told myself that several years ago perhaps knowing that one day, today, I’d need to be reminded of it. 


Sophie Taueber

Sophie Taeuber

I’ve been dreaming about Zurich. Not daydreaming, though that too, but real dreaming.

Last week I was in a boat, on a loch, watching a huge white stag running by a field when I suddenly realised that the stag wasn’t a stag but a dog, and the field wasn’t a field but Zurich. And I got such a fright I fell out the boat and started to drown. But then I remembered I could breath underwater so I swam to the shore, though the shore turned out to be Manly Beach in Sydney Australia. I have no idea what it means, though I did once see a huge white stag, on the island of Arran when I was very small. I always imagined I had dreamt that (there’s a legend about a famous White Stag of Arran), until one day talking with my father he mentioned the time he had been out with me when I was a baby and we had seen an albino stag running across a field. Sadly my other vivid childhood memory, of travelling on holiday to Spain aboard Thunderbird 2 (complete with air stewardess in Thunderbirds uniform) turns out not to be true…

Marionettes from 'The King Stag', 1918, Sophie Taeuber, photo (c) NYTimes

Marionettes from ‘The King Stag’, 1918, Sophie Taeuber, photo (c) NYTimes

And the other day, taking a late afternoon nap (when did I become an old person who needs a wee nap of an afternoon?) I dreamt of Zurich again. This time I was sitting outside the Hiltl Restaurant drinking beer on a freezing cold day when I realised my feet had melted in to the pavement and I couldn’t get up. I wasn’t worried about it. Just curious that feet could melt like that. And a little anxious about how I would get my lunch since it’s self-service…

Sophie Taeuber and her Dada Head, Zurich 1922.

Sophie Taeuber and her Dada Head, Zurich 1922.

Now of course one could interpret all sorts of things into those dreams, though personally I always prefer the Dada and Surrealist approach to dreams; they are simply true stories to be recounted ‘as is’. No interpretation necessary. And actually I think that probably is what my dreams are telling me; Zurich is an odd and (oddly) important place in your life Purity. Or rather, Sophie is.

I first encountered Sophie Taeuber when I was about 17. And for me Sophie and Zurich are intertwined (for the Swiss National Bank too, she’s the face of their 50 CHF notes); both odd and oddly important parts of my life. Like all small town 17 year olds freshly landed in ‘the big city’ I was educating myself, and I had reached Dada. Like all teenagers, small town or otherwise, the apparent rebelliousness of Dada appealed enormously, though left me emotionally cool. Until the day I stumbled on the poetry of Jean Arp:

You Were Clear and Calm

You were clear and calm
Next to you life was tender.
When the clouds were about to cover the sky
your gaze moved them away.

[…]

You breathed calmly.
Your eyes were radiant.
Tenderley without trembling you would open the door to light.
I often saw your profile as you worked,
before the window,
before the olive trees,
before the distant sea.
 
Sometimes you beat your wings and laughed,
as you kept on working.
You wanted to frighten me.
You were pretending to fly away.
But the picture progressed
and it was always a bouquet of light.
 
You left clear and calm.
Near you, life was so tender.
Your last painting was done.
Your brushes neatly put away.
 
Sophie Taeuber, Schematic Composition, 1933

Sophie Taeuber, Schematic Composition, 1933

I reeled. Who on earth was this Sophie? Who could have inspired this man to write such words? The more I investigated the more drawn in I was. And yet she is, despite the awe with which the ‘famous’ figures of that period talked of her, largely unheralded today. Perhaps it was her enthusiasm for melding the fine and applied arts (she started out as a craftswoman), perhaps simply the fact that she was the wife of an artist, one who outlived her by many years at that.

Roses and Stars (Jean Arp)

Roses and stars
have Sophie’s face
the softness of her life
the purity of her heart.

 

For some reason the world seems not to have chosen to celebrate this incredible woman, a woman through whose life we learn more about a monumental time in European history. She actively contributed to the movements that changed and shaped our contemporary European notions of art, of culture, of performance.

Very little has been written specifically about her – the enthusiast must piece together a vision of Sophie from glimpses filtered through the eyes of those who knew her – from Hans Richter, Sonia Delaunay, Theo von Doesburg, and of course principally through Hans Arp himself. Of course such a situation is the stuff of myth and addiction; it’s remarkably easy to get obsessed with Sophie Taeuber.

Sophie Taeuber, Géométrique et ondoyant, 1941

Sophie Taeuber, Géométrique et ondoyant, 1941

The bald facts are amazing enough: from bourgeois girl to scion of the Dada and surrealist movements; from artist to architect, modern dancer to interior designer; from participating in Dada Riots in Zurich to fleeing the Nazis. She studied with Laban and danced with Mary Wigman, built a temple to modernist architecture in a sleepy middle-class Parisian suburb, edited the Constructivist journal Plastique, and shocked the good Burghers of Zurich with her performance art at the Cabaret Voltaire. Some have suggested that had it not been for the fact that Mary Wigman was a close friend and fellow dancer, Sophie would be the name most closely associated with the birth of modern dance in Europe.

Her life straddled two world wars, and she moved restlessly across the heartland of a Europe in a constant state of flux as the politics of the time tore countries apart and remade them almost at will. And then there’s her death, usually reported as the result of a ‘gas stove malfunction’. Yet the details (unsurprisingly given the time – 1943) less than clear cut – despite what Wikipedia says!

And then there is the art.

The Dada Head – shocking in its reductionism; the human head, the centre of what most of us believe to be ‘us’, vessel of the soul, reduced to mere geometry.The marrionettes, so apposite given the historical period she lived through, as the military-industrial complex wreaked havoc across Europe and beyond. The experiments in line and colour pursued for years across many media. A circle, broken, exploded, remade. Rectangles juxtaposed endlessly in pursuit of some – what? Harmony? Emotion? Abstract shapes jostling for position inside the implacable, immoveable certainty of a frame.

Sophie in Her Studio

Sophie in Her Studio

This creature full of contradictions – the reportedly shy woman who danced on stage at  the Cabaret Voltaire and was friends with the leading radicals of the Dada world. The kind and gentle soul with the steel to go about building houses and designing cafes in early 20th Century Europe (hardly a common thing for a woman to do in that time and place!). She inspired adulation and devotion amongst all those around her, even years after her death, and yet outside of that close circle of friends she is barely known.

“It was Sophie Taeuber who through the example of her clear work and her clear life showed me the right path, the road to beauty. In this world, up and down, light and darkness, eternity and ephemeralness are in perfect balance. And so the circle closed.” (Jean Arp, ed Marcel Jean. 1974. Collected French Writings: Poems, essays, memories. London: Calder and Boyars)

Circles close. That’s what they do. They have no choice. But do you draw the line thick or thin? Blue or red? Is the circle large or small? Alone or with others? Sophie Taeuber  (like Handel) reminds us that for all our fate may be cast by the roll of some cosmic dice, we still have choices. We are still at least in part the artists of our own destinies, albeit constrained by media, knowledge or skill. But nevertheless free to draw.

I’ve been working hard on my circles the last few years – and some of them are starting to close nicely. Next year I’ll get a chance to teach in Zurich, in the place where Sophie lived and taught. And I’m teaching something I love, something I worked hard to make opportunities to teach. And I’ll be with someone I met and fell in love with in Zurich, again having worked hard to make myself open to falling in love again (even if I wasn’t particularly expecting it to happen, let alone happen on the steps of Zurich Opernhaus!). And I’ll be in the place where Sophie met and fell in love with Jean Arp. Life is again evolving, the picture progressing. The dour Stoic Scot in me resists all of this ‘mere co-incidence’ and ‘thoughtless’ emotionalism. But my life is too full of roses and stars for that voice to succeed.

Circles close. What matters is how.

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