The Patrons Who Sustained Sophie Taeuber-Arp

In Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s household, it appears she was the one who handled the paperwork. She made sure bills were paid and kept up with correspondences. She and her husband, Hans (Jean) Arp, were both active Dadaists who dabbled in the nonsensical, but Taeuber-Arp was the practical one, while Arp was the stereotypical head-in-the-clouds type of artist.

Taeuber-Arp’s prolific body of work, which spans painting, sculpture, design, dance, textiles, and architecture, has seen renewed interest lately — partly due to her high-profile solo exhibition, Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction, shown at Kunstmuseum Basel, Tate Modern, and MoMA. In 2020 her estate also joined the roster of blue-chip gallery Hauser & Wirth. Complementing this recent attention is a cluster of projects focused on her writing.

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For an artist whose legacy was shaped by her husband for so long, Taeuber-Arp’s voice provides important insight into how she defined herself. Most of these texts have appeared in the Swiss artist’s native German, but the recently released Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Letters to Annie and Oskar Müller-Widmann (Scheidegger & Spiess, 2022) is an English translation of the 35 missives she penned to the couple’s major Basel-based collectors between 1932 and 1942. This one-way correspondence (the Arps didn’t keep their letters from the Müller-Widmanns, evidently), handwritten on postcards and stationery partially reproduced as facsimiles, is the first volume in a series initiated by the Fondazione Marguerite Arp to publicize texts from its collection.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp to Annie Müller-Widmann, postcard with illustration of Dragon (Tarasque) of the city of Tarascon (courtesy Fondazione Marguerite Arp, Locarno)

Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Letters trails volume one of Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Briefe 1905-1942 (Nimbus, 2021), an anticipated three-volume compilation of her correspondences assembled by scholars with access to her archives. (Thus far the compilation is available only in German.) The Zurich Central Library also purchased around 450 unpublished letters and postcards by her, from the same years, in an effort to make primary source material about her widely available.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Letters, though, zeroes in on the correspondence that nurtured a relationship with the Müller-Widmanns, who were a major financial lifeline for the Arps, especially after World War II broke out. Fondazione Marguerite Arp director and curator Simona Martinoli writes in the opening essay, “The letters reveal how the artist’s relationship with her most important collectors unfolded, lending much insight into her life and personality while also revealing interesting aspects of her relationship with her husband Jean/Hans Arp.”

The Arps’ relationship with the Müller-Widmanns could have ended swiftly and badly, soon after they met at Arp’s Meudon studio in late 1932. The collectors bought a plot on Basel’s Fringelistrasse 16 and commissioned Taeuber-Arp to design their house. Soon after, they contracted a local architect who drew up separate plans that incorporated Taeuber-Arp’s designs — without permission. When she met with this architect in 1933, she fully rejected the mere advisory role he offered her and quit the project.

Not long after this fiasco, the Müller-Widmanns initiated a monthly stipend to support Arp’s work. This created a need for polite, regular correspondence. The ensuing string of letters, which began with Taeuber-Arp addressing her patroness as Mrs. Müller and progressed to a more affectionate “Dear Anni,” shows the usually invisible tending that goes into an artist-patron relationship. Taeuber-Arp was likely highly motivated to do this tending, since she’d been supporting herself and Arp by teaching at Zurich’s School of Applied Arts until 1929; keeping the Müller-Widmanns engaged was a way to safeguard against being in a financially unstable position again.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp to Annie Müller-Widmann, postcard with personal photograph, likely taken by Arp. From left to right: Marguerite Hagenbach, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Hans Hagenbach (courtesy Fondazione Marguerite Arp, Locarno)

On the flip side, the Arps could help the Müller-Widmanns gain entrée to the art circles in which the Arps traveled. The Arps bought artworks from their friends on behalf of the Müller-Widmanns, and arranged studio visits when the latter couple visited Paris.

Beyond presenting the ways in which an artist couple rich in creative capital could scratch the backs of an established Swiss professor of dentistry and his connoisseur wife, and vice versa, these letters are a testament to the tumultuous period leading up to WWII. On sheets of paper or postcards illustrated with mythic Provençal dragons, Taeuber-Arp narrated her experience of being a refugee during World War II — a testimony that feels especially timely given the current war in Ukraine.

“Your letter arrived just as I was closing our suitcases to leave. We’ve decided quite suddenly to go because a friend found us a room,” wrote Taeuber-Arp in June 1940, right before German forces invaded Paris; she and Arp were fleeing to southern France. “Hopefully Hans will be in better spirits, he was inconsolable as he had to leave his sculptures and everything he’s been working on for fifteen years without knowing when or how we’ll see these works again.”

The letters that follow describe the flood of refugees in southern France and the difficulty of resuming studio work, as well as their worries and the stress of securing paperwork to enter Switzerland or the United States. “In her letters, Sophie Taeuber-Arp gave life to the unfolding situation,” writes independent scholar Walburga Krupp, who annotated Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Letters and contributed an essay, in addition to co-curating Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Living Abstraction. “The rapidly dwindling food supply, which she described to her sister with unsparing candor, she initially hinted at to Annie Müller-Widmann only vaguely, but later she spoke openly of their hunger.”

Letter from Sophie Taeuber-Arp to Annie Müller-Widmann (courtesy Fondazione Marguerite Arp, Locarno)

Taeuber-Arp began a January 1942 letter by writing, “I’ll try to explain why our letters for some time now have been so few and far between.” She then shares their deliberations over whether they should go to the US, only halfway through the letter admitting that “most of my time is taken up with procuring food, which is becoming increasingly difficult.” As of late 1940 she started to describe artworks she and Arp were working on in her wartime letters, maybe as a concession to the Müller-Widmanns for sending a monthly stipend to support art making. In one letter, Taeuber-Arp asks, almost sheepishly, if they could retry dispatching food parcels that could be sent through Portugal. “Our friends regularly receive some,” the artist nearly pleads. “It would mean so much to us.”

As convivial as her correspondence was, the last line of her final letter to Anni (dated a year before the artist’s accidental death from carbon monoxide poisoning) reminds readers what kept the two women connected: “I’ll let you all know as soon as the dispatch [monthly stipend] from Oskar arrives,” she signed off. In Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Letters to Annie and Oskar Müller-Widmann we are privy to a friendly exchange, set against a harrowing wartime backdrop. There was also much left unsaid. Gracefully, Taeuber-Arp’s voice tells us that the artist-patron relationship is a balancing act.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s Letters to Annie and Oskar Müller-Widmann (2021) is published by Scheidegger & Spiess and is available online and in bookstores.


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