The Modern Lives of Charlotte Perriand and Sophie Taeuber-Arp: Notes on an imaginary double exhibition

Two exhibitions I saw recently, about Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999) and Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943), made me wish for a joint one, one that would shed light on the dialogue between art and design that I saw embedded in and generated by their work. This is probably one of those times when the answer to the rhetorical ‘Is it just me, or…?’ is: yes, you’re on your own here, Émilie. The easy counterargument to my proposal is indeed that, surely, in a museum landscape where it feels like, at any given time, there are more exhibitions dedicated to *swears in French* Picasso than to women artists, Perriand and Taeuber-Arp could each have a show of their own. Taeuber-Arp was even granted the privilege of inhabiting the noble setting that is the Tate Modern, where her modernity is consecrated, and the part of her art that would fit under Applied, elevated among the Fine and Finest.

I should be pleased with the attention these women artists get, I should be moved by the presence of so many beauties in one location, I should be grateful for my own presence back in a museum. I felt all of these things. At the Tate, however, I also felt very small, like one of the puppets in the case against the wall. The huge case. Against a long, long wall. I longed for the nooks and corners of the Design Museum, that echoed Perriand’s stylistic exploration of shapes and curves inspired by nature. There I will admit that I was, for a fraction of a second, reminded of an Ikea showroom, but that’s more a reflection of the brand’s marketing flair, or of the workings of my twisted mind. I shall embrace this uncalled for association, and report that in the same way that walking among the Poängs and Billys helps me assess whether I need them in my life, the placement of the exhibits in ‘Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life’ offered me a chance to make that assessment about unique pieces and enhanced the illusion that for the duration of my visit, I did belong in the same space as them. And that was glorious.

The scenography of the Taeuber-Arp exhibition, on the other hand, was reminiscent of a Billy shelf: functional, ubiquitous, albeit self-effacing, with that extra bit that you never know where to fit. (I am thinking of that lonely video screen behind a pillar.) The shelves I mean rooms come in different colours and subtly hint at the various themes of the show, and I cannot deny that they do the trick, at least for these artworks that are easier to categorise under fine arts, like Taeuber-Arp’s 1930s series of ‘multispace compositions’. And while I am on the subject of bookshelves, I don’t think my heart ever beat as fast as in front of Perriand’s modular shelves, the aptly named Nuage cabinets. I realise she resisted being perceived as a furniture maker. Nevertheless, what artistry! Perriand writes in her journal that she was looking for “a free form that gives rhythm to space and enhances the objects it supports.” Ten minutes, nose in the air, daydreaming about how my books would look and feel on those clouds. A conservative estimate. I lost track of time. That is surely something applied arts can and should do to you. 

On the other hand, the vast, echoing rooms of the Tate Modern, in my view, did not always successfully enhance the objects they were meant to support. For one thing, they could have held twice as many exhibits. A retrospective that leaves you wanting is not necessarily a bad thing. I only wish it had conveyed the spirit of playfulness that transpires through Taeuber-Arp’s statements about art and the everyday, like this one from a letter to her goddaughter in 1937: ‘It is gaiety that allows us to have no fear before the problems of life and to find a natural solution to them.’ Gaiety, playfulness, the thrill of entering a space that exalts creativity; all these are intimately linked for me to the experience of walking around the remaining rooms of the Aubette in Strasbourg. Instead, the display of Taeuber-Arp’s gorgeous stained-glass windows for the Aubette and for André Horn’s apartment evoked the solemnity and reverence of a mausoleum.

Gaiety inhabits the Perriand exhibition, not least through the enlarged photographs portraying her at various moments of her career, and acting as additional points of entry into a deeper understanding of the way she wove modernist art with a modern way of life. We see her looking away from the camera with a confident, unassuming smile, vowing the tout-Paris with the boldness of the apartment she designed for herself, around the time she landed a job in Le Corbusier’s studio. Beaming, mouth wide open over a bowl of obviously delicious food, traveling across Japan to find out more about and to advise on the local production of industrial art. The last shot before the exit shows Perriand, acclaimed architect of Les Arcs’ ski resort, pulling faces and sporting what looks like an upside-down fake moustache. It is titled ‘Charlotte Perriand having fun at the Méribel chalet’. Having fun. So was I.

Charlotte Perriand eating from a bowl
Charlotte Perriand in Japan, 1954 – Design Museum London


Sophie Taeuber-Arp in costume for a housewarming party organised by artist Walter Helbig, Ascona, Switzerland August. 1925 Fondation Arp, Clamart, France
Sophie Taeuber-Arp in costume for a housewarming party organised by artist Walter Helbig, Ascona, Switzerland August. 1925 Fondation Arp, Clamart, France

Similarly tongue-in-cheek and joyful images exist of Taeuber-Arp, and indeed some of them are to be found as part of the wall of pictures placed in chronological order in the introductory room, and, as would be expected, in the Dada section. Unlike the celebration of Charlotte Perriand’s full life in images, these photographs of a younger Sophie Taeuber-Arp become retrospectively tragic, once her accidental death aged 53 is revealed in the panel of the last room. I could not help but feel a sense of unease at the  juxtaposition of the last two sentences of that panel; the cause of her death immediately followed with a reiteration of her place as ‘one of the most successful artists of her time’ (or something along those lines). A sign of deference, no doubt, though I feel like this last room would have been the best place for the video montage of extracts from Taeuber-Arp’s letters and texts that welcomes the visitor in the entrance to the show. I so wanted to hear her voice again.

I believe we need to resist the knee-jerk temptation to state that artist women are worthy of canonisation. This sounds contrived and hollow. Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s wonderful work speaks for itself – like Charlotte Perriand’s, it speaks of a truly modern life.

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