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Negative Rhythm: Intersections Between Arp, Kandinsky, Münter, and Taeuber

Bibiana K. Obler—


Here’s an assignment. Read my book. Then read the following excerpt from a letter from Wassily Kandinsky to Hans Arp, dated November 1912:

The disharmoniousness (one might say, the negative rhythm) of the individual forms was that which primarily drew me, attracted me, during the period to which this watercolor belongs. The so-called rhythmic always comes on its own because in general the person himself is rhythmically built. Thus at least on the surface, the rhythmic is innate in people. Children, “primitive” peoples, and laymen draw rhythmically….

In that period my soul was especially enchanted by the not-fitting-together of drawn and painterly form. Line serves the plane in that the former bounds the latter. And it makes my heart race in those cases when the independent plane springs over the confining line: line and plane are not in tune! It was this that produced a strong inner emotion in me, the inner “ah!”[1]

Kandinsky was trying to explain to Arp his state of mind when he made his Sketch for “Improvisation with Horses,” 1911, a watercolor belonging to Arp (fig. 1). Kandinsky had told Arp that he could have one of his pictures included in the Moderne Bund’s second exhibition in Zurich, 1912, and this was the one Arp picked.[2]


Fig. 1. Wassily Kandinsky, Sketch for Improvisation with Horses, 1911, watercolor, dimensions and location unknown. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Fig. 1. Wassily Kandinsky, Sketch for Improvisation with Horses, 1911, watercolor, dimensions and location unknown. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

I read Arp and Kandinsky’s correspondence early in my research for Intimate Collaborations, yet I never managed to incorporate the above passage into my book. What does Kandinsky mean by “negative rhythm,” and how might this exchange matter for our understanding of Arp and Kandinsky’s relationship? Instead of pursuing this line of inquiry, I focused on the artistic interchange between these men and their intimate companions, Gabriele Münter and Sophie Taeuber. These couples were pioneers in a new, relatively equal form of artistic collaboration, in which women and men worked alongside one another, not as muse and helpmate to solitary genius, but as mutually supportive partners (even if there were some discrepancies in the level and kinds of support). The juxtaposition of these two relationships will contribute, I hope, to a shift in the way that art historians map early twentieth-century modernism. One might argue that the Expressionist milieu lent itself to failure—Münter’s interest in abstraction squelched by the domineering Kandinsky—in contrast to Dada’s success in fostering an environment of collaboration without hierarchies. While there is some truth in this assessment, it ignores the ongoing difficulties of negotiating close working relationships between artists of the opposite sex and obscures Münter’s contributions to Expressionism. Instead, I suggest that we attend to what these four artists shared—their engagement with the applied arts, their keen awareness of gender, their concern for peaceable relations both world-wide and in the domestic sphere—the better to understand how changes in public reception and the outbreak of war affected their decisions, and how they came up with different solutions to some of the same problems.

My book, I hope, will serve as a building block towards a richer history of collaborations, communities, and intimate frictions among avant-garde artists. To that end, let’s return to the above quotation. We might start by making sense of the text itself. What is satisfying, to Kandinsky, about the way drawing (line) and painting (plane) relate in this sketch? What else do we learn—for example, why does he put “primitive” in quotation marks? Are his concerns purely formal? Note how he cares about in-born rhythms, and consider how one’s individual rhythms might be disrupted by encounters with others. The relation between line and plane correlates, we might argue, with the relation between self and other.

What did Arp take away from this letter? Why did he choose this watercolor, which was later featured in volume two of the journal Dada (1917)? What resonance did Kandinsky’s sketch have for the Dadaists? (We could ask the same questions of Münter’s paintings, such as her Sofa Table, shown in Zurich in 1917 along with other Sturm Gallery artists, Dadaists, and African sculpture).[3] Perhaps the most productive line of inquiry would be a comparison between Kandinsky’s investigation of line and plane, and Taeuber’s Dada performances, which explored the relation between body and costume. If line and plane productively collided for Kandinsky, so did body and costume for Taeuber—her energetic choreography in tension with the constraints of masks and suits by Arp and Marcel Janco. Tzara described one of her performances in 1917 in terms that we might want to consider in light of Kandinsky’s negative rhythm: “Miss S. Taeuber: delirious strangeness in the spider of the hand vibrating quickly rhythm ascending towards the paroxysm of a mocking capriciously beautiful madness. Costume by H. Arp.”[4] Neither Kandinsky nor Taeuber’s rhythms are conventional, neither harmonious nor clearly patterned. If rhythm, per Henri Bergson, is a means of establishing a connection between viewer and artist—by allowing the viewer to anticipate, say, the dancer’s movements and thus creating an illusion of control—what kind of communication exists between viewer and artist when the rhythm is unpredictable, negative?[5]

Fig. 2. Sophie Taeuber, Tapestry, c. 1916/18, 80 x 67 cm, Fondazione Marguerite Arp, Locarno. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Fig. 2. Sophie Taeuber, Tapestry, c. 1916/18, 80 x 67 cm, Fondazione Marguerite Arp, Locarno. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Taeuber stopped dancing in public performances around 1917, but unpredictable patterns continued to matter to her compositional strategies. One final example before I let you go and think up your own questions and answers: an untitled tapestry by Taeuber (fig. 2).

The weaving was exhibited in 1926 in Zurich as part of a model interior design for “The New Home,” along with at least one other tapestry by Arp, not shown (fig. 3). The weaving calls attention to the process of its making, the warp and weft thematized in the comb-like edges of certain arms, legs, and torsos. The multiple variations on stripes, zigzags, and checks produce a syncopated rhythm at play with the more regular rhythm of the loom, the slow-going addition of line after line of thread.

Fig. 3. Max Haefeli, Das Kubusmöbel, with tapestry (Wandteppich) by Hans and Sophie Arp-Taeuber, as reproduced in Das Neue Heim (Zurich: Wegleitungen des Kunstgewerbemuseums der Stadt Zürich, vol. 68, 1926), 31.

Fig. 3. Max Haefeli, Das Kubusmöbel, with tapestries (Wandteppiche) by Hans and Sophie Arp-Taeuber, as reproduced in Das Neue Heim (Zurich: Wegleitungen des Kunstgewerbemuseums der Stadt Zürich, vol. 68, 1926), 31.

The composition explores the give and take between warp and weft, but also serves, we might suppose, as a portrait of Taeuber and Arp, the shorter figure on the left in something resembling a skirt, gazing wide-eyed, the taller figure on the right, his head a blind cross but his hands reaching upwards, his left hand continuing ad infinitum like a Brancusi column without end. What does this couple, joined by a menagerie of abstract cats and dogs, say about Taeuber and Arp?

Some of these questions were beyond the scope of my book (which ends around 1920), and some of them continue to befuddle me. I’m looking forward, though, to seeing what others continue to come up with.


[1] Das Nichtzusammenklingen (sozusagen der negative Rhythmus) der einzelnen Formen war das, was mich hauptsächlich anzog, reizte zu der Zeit, zu welcher dieses Aquarell gehört. Das sogenannte Rhythmische kommt immer von selbst, da im allgemeinen der Mensch selbst rhythmisch gebaut ist. Also ist wenigstens äußerlich das Rhythmische dem Menschen angeboren. Rhythmisch zeichnen Kinder, “primitive” Völker, auch die Hand der Laien….

In [jener] Zeit bezauberte meine Seele ganz besonders das Nichtaufeinanderpassen der zeichnerschen und der malerischen Form. Linie dient dem Fleck, indem sie ihn abgrenzt. Und bis zum Herzklopfen wirkt auf mich der Fall, in welchem der selbstständige Fleck über die ihn [kurz] abgrenzende Linie hinübersprang: Linie und Fleck stimmen nicht zusammen! Das war das, was in mir eine Starke innere Emotion verursachte, das innere “ah!” Kandinsky, [Brief aus Odessa an Hans Arp] (1912), reprinted in Wassily Kandinsky: Gesammelte Schriften 1889-1916. Farbensprache, Kompositionslehre und andere unveröffentlichte Texte, ed. Helmut Friedel (Munich: Prestel, 2007), 489-90.

[2] For the connection between the letter and this watercolor, see Friedel, Wassily Kandinsky, 489; Vivian Endicott Barnett, Kandinsky: Watercolours: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 1 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 242, does not include Arp in its provenance.

[3] Hugo Ball, Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary, ed. John Elderfield, trans. Ann Raimes (New York: Viking Press, 1974), 100; Galerie Corray, Sturm-Ausstellung (Basel, 1917), cat. no. 70. Further on Sofa Table, see chapter two of my book.

[4] English translation adapted from Renée Riese Hubert, “Zurich Dada and its Artist Couples,” Women in Dada: Essays on Sex, Gender and Identity, Naomi Sawelson-Gorse, ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), 531. The French reads: “Mlle S. Taeuber: bizarrerie délirante dans l’araigné de la main vibre rythme rapidement ascendant vers le paroxysme d’une démence goguenarde capricieuse belle. Costume de H. Arp.“; Tristan Tzara, “Notes,” Dada I (July 1917), as reprinted in Tzara, Oeuvres 558-9. Hubert leaves out the “rhythm,” and it’s true that it’s a little hard to know what to do with it grammatically.

[5] Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F. L. Pogson (New York: MacMillan, 1959/1910), 12.

Bibiana K. Obler is associate professor of art history at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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