Aesthetic Tea: Sophie Taeuber-Arp Writes to Her Sister. Munich, 1911

Translated by Elizabeth Tucker

Erika Schlegel and Sophie Taeuber-Arp wearing party costumes, Zurich, ca. 1924 © Stiftung Arp e.V., Berlin/Rolandswerth

  • 17 February 2023
  • Ursula: Issue 7

In this installment of our regular Letters column—highlighting correspondence drawn from the archives of artists and estates—we look back to the cultural swirl of pre-World War I Germany, a bohemian revel set against the backdrop of approaching cataclysm.

On February 5 and 8, 1911, when the future Sophie Taeuber-Arp was living in Munich and studying at the Debschitz School, a progressive educational institution combining training in the applied and fine arts, she wrote to her sister, Erika, during the German Shrovetide carnival known as Fasching. The letter paints an evocative picture of life in the bohemian quarter of Schwabing a few years before the catastrophe of World War I. The parenthetical notes below are based on the extensively researched annotations that accompany the German text printed in the three-volume scholarly edition of Taeuber-Arp’s letters edited by Medea Hoch, Walburga Krupp and Sigrid Schade that appeared recently from the Swiss publisher Nimbus.

[Sunday,] 5 Feb. 1911 Kaiserstrasse 36 Munich

Dear Erica,

Fasching is in full swing and because I am striving nonetheless to work as much as possible, I have no time for anything else. Sometimes when I might have a little bit of time in the evenings there isn’t any heat and my standing lamp has been broken since January. You really have to be in Schwabing not to be outraged by so much neglect. It’s a pity that you couldn’t see [Austrian Albanian actor Alexander] Moissi. In the midst of the Fasching chaos, I want to tell you a few things properly. I am enclosing a description of a real Schwabing party, from a newspaper, but please send it back. But you mustn’t think I was there the whole time—we left around 5 am. The Debschitz student mentioned in the article is Frl. Beck, who talked with [journalist] Herr [Wilhelm] Michel (Neueste Nachrichten) and the Jugend writer [René] Prévôt about the school, since the latter is to write about the school. The tall, dark person with the shock of hair and horn-rimmed glasses is the tall Japanese man who is also in our school photo. He calls himself a “decadent aestheticist”—I think the decadent outweighs the aesthetic. Anyway I have to stop again now, we have an aesthetic tea at Frl. Beck’s and afterward I want to listen to [Karl] Schönherr’s [play] Glaube und Heimat (Faith and Homeland) with Frl. Bros. You’ve read about it, right? Our so-called aesthetic tea came about in a really funny way, which I want to tell you about.

My dance partners were mostly doctors, sometimes a lawyer or an architect, but I don’t like to know what they are and it always bores me when people always want to know what your name is and what you do.

Wednesday afternoon

Last Wednesday, about twelve of us Debschitz girls went to the Engravers’ Guild party. Frl. Beck and I went there together. The party didn’t have a particular theme, but it made quite a lovely picture, since there were a striking number of real costumes there, charming old-Munich costumes in dark silk with wide sleeves. Leni Runk had on a real, violet silk Biedermeier dress. The rooms at the [tavern Zur] Blüte are not very big but very comfortable. The men at such parties are mostly university and art students, probably most of the women were applied arts students. I must confess that by half past six in the morning when we danced the last française, Debschitz girls outnumbered the rest. My dance partners were mostly doctors, sometimes a lawyer or an architect, but I don’t like to know what they are and it always bores me when people always want to know what your name is and what you do. During Fasching no one cares. It is grand to come home in the morning to sleep, to bathe before lunch and take a walk afterward. Since Thursday was a holiday, we made very good use of it. In the afternoon, Frl. Beck, Herr Kuhlmann, Herr Reissinger and I went to Nymphenburg because it came into our heads to play servant girls with their sweethearts who have the day off. Frl. Beck was a cook, Herr Reissinger was “sarge,” I was a parlor maid and Herr Kuhlmann a valet. We amused ourselves with this the whole afternoon. The waitress at the Kontrollor didn’t know what to think but went along with it sportingly. After a lovely walk across the mown fields we went back to Munich. In the evening there was another française in my room and then the others left. I wasn’t having fun anymore and my bed was calling me more powerfully than Café Stephanie.

Costume party, Sophie Taeuber at center, Munich, around 1911. Private collection

First page of a letter from Sophie Taeuber [Taeuber-Arp] to her sister Erika Schlegel [née Taeuber], February 5/8, 1911. Zentralbibliothek Zürich (Ms Z II 3068)

On Saturday, there was a costumed gathering at the boardinghouse where Frl. Beck dines. By the way, at the engravers’ ball I wore the Dutch [costume], which looked different enough from the other Dutch ladies, and on Saturday I wore the Empire dress from the bazaar. Although there were quite nice people there, I was rather bored. A pianist from South Africa danced barefoot as Orpheus and looked so ravishing that the men were courting him, and a nun from a disbanded French convent in an outrageous gypsy costume had a tremendous time with an awfully surly Swiss guy. The most beautiful ones, of course after the Greeks, were a very young girl with a Gainsborough dress in green silk and a large, feathered hat; a tall Romanian in a splendidly embroidered Turkish costume; and two Biedermeier ladies in real costumes— and I almost forgot, a Slovakian woman who wore, over a totally embroidered dress, a jacket made from cutout pieces of leather that was edged in fur. On Sunday afternoon—the mornings don’t amount to much now—Frl. Beck and I wanted to go dancing with around three men in the Volksgarten in Nymphenburg and pretend to be department store salesladies, of course dressed the part. We found they don’t believe us when we pretend to be servant girls and we needed the men so as never to be alone. Surely it would have been lovely, but I was content when Herr Kuhlmann came to say that Frl. Beck didn’t want to go because her cough was too severe, we would have an aesthetic tea at her place. But it went downhill fast: I sat on the windowsill and watched while Herr Kuhlmann lay on the sofa—he was surely feeling the effects of the previous night—and Frl. Beck and Herr Merz got into a scuffle so that lamps and dishes were in danger and I was finally very happy when it was time for me to go, but it was fun anyhow. So now I’ve arrived at the “aesthetic” tea again. Around 7 o’clock I went to fetch Frl. Bros at the Ceylon Tea House. Actually we wanted to go to Glaube und Heimat, but we couldn’t get tickets, so we saw Die Kinder (The Children) by [Hermann] Bahr at the Residenztheater. The acting was excellent, Frl. Terwin played the only lady’s role, but we were disappointed by the play, I expected more content after Bahr’s Konzert. Now, about the preparations for our party. A small play will be performed, Herbstzauber (Autumn Magic) by [Rudolf] Presber. Leni Runk plays Pierrette, Herr Kuhlmann Pierrot and Herr Merz Dionysus? Then there is also a monk and a knight but they aren’t important. Frl. Bros plays the accompaniment and I am the prompter, which I enjoy very much. Once they had a rehearsal here. When I came back I found my room full of people and just think how lucky they were since Frl. Höfer from the Hoftheater, a friend of Frau Teibler, was here, and kind enough to help out.

It is grand to come home in the morning to sleep, to bathe before lunch and take a walk afterward.

Yesterday we had rehearsal at her place and we were all enchanted by how gracious and natural she is. After a rather long time at the tea house, and since it was so cold when we had to wait at the tram station, after an Indian dance around a lamppost, Frl. Bros and I came back home to our dear Schwabing but the others dropped in on Frl. Kraut and Tante Joseph, who were sewing costumes. Frl. Kraut is coming as the Princess and the Pea and Tante Joseph, with a fish tail, as the mermaid who becomes human and then can’t talk. If she wants to talk she has to tie on her fish tail, which will be very funny because she is practically a giant and blabbers an awful lot. The party is called “Märchenspuk” (fairy haunt) and at school in the evenings they’re making magical birds and gigantic flying mushrooms, they’re even sculpting a splendid, large dragon. So Frl. Kraut and Frl. Joseph wanted to sew costumes, but finally the evening ended with pea soup with sausage. The soup was in the middle (on the floor) and the “characters” lay on the floor and peacefully ate the soup out of the bowl. These accidental little parties are always the loveliest. Today at Frl. Beck’s it was this kind of thing again, play rehearsal and sewing costumes. Herr Kuhlmann wants to go as a swineherd, Herr Merz and Frl. Beck as the king’s two children, all in white silk. Then one of Frl. Beck’s Africans also came, the pianist, who brought with him two students. If he gets a Dutch costume then we will go as the fisherman and his wife, or else I’ll put on my Indian costume, rather unusually decorated, it looks good on me and is very comfortable. The Debschitz party will surely be grand, so many charming and interesting people will come. Frau Teibler, by the way, will also come. You will certainly think I’m going mad, Fasching no less, but lots of other things are happening and I’m actually sorry I can’t write it all down—and there’s not one word in my diary yet! Just recently Frau Teibler got two tickets, so she took me to [Austrian writer Alexander] Rhoda- Rhoda and [Frank] Wedekind, but we only heard the second part, Wedekind’s prologue to Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) and then some songs by him, sung by his wife, accompanied by himself on the lute. His wife sang like a hurdy-gurdy, then came Rhoda grinning with a red vest and yellow necktie. A sketch by him, Wie ich meinen Glauben verlor (How I Lost My Faith), is delightful and he performed very well, but his silly grin struck me as really dumb. So I was not swept away, but it was really very nice to see the three of them and from so close-up. We had great seats. We were at the Jahreszeiten [hotel] and the audience was very elegant, but I thought most of the people looked common, especially the women who were there. You asked about the Schwabing party—I still have to tell you something. We met a real Armenian, whom I liked very much and who hopefully will come to the Dep party in his real costume. There was also a little sculptor, who incidentally won a prize in the Weltpost monument [competition], who said he wanted to sculpt me. I would have really wanted to get a free bust but I didn’t tell him my name. If I see him again, do you think I should say yes? He seems to be a really nice person & is short & ugly as a frog. I just don’t want to sit in his studio for an eternity, although he promised me I would surely not be bored as he would read to me and play the mandolin now and then.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, patchwork trousers, ca. 1924. Fondation Arp, Clamart, France © gta Archiv / ETH Zürich, Heinrich Helfenstein. Photo: Heinrich Helfenstein

Last time at Dr. Feichter’s it was very nice, but Frau Dr. always had things to do outside, and then I was alone with the men. A young architect just back from Greece enthused with Dr. F. about two old churches on a Greek island. The little students listened raptly and Herr Balmer was also quiet, but sometimes one of them looked at me so shyly as if he wanted to say, “Aren’t you bored?” but there was nothing we could do about it.

At dinner someone brought the conversation to some new plays and then they talked about them very eruditely. I hadn’t seen any of the plays but had heard about them. By the way, I’m pretty glum about the dentist’s bill. On Sunday one of the gold fillings fell out that was causing me so much trouble. I can’t exactly say whether the bill is right, since the guy was always working on two or three teeth at the same time. I think it’s shockingly expensive, but what can I do? Now that this letter is sixteen pages long, I’m also putting two photos in. Pls. send them back. I still want to ask many q.s but don’t have any more space or mainly, time. Pls. give my regards to Zolli and Brüschweiler if you see Frl. B. Now I really can’t write. Tell Aunt C. stories from this letter. Regards to Eugen.

Love, Sophie

I’m sorry to hear Fanny isn’t well.

I’m so looking forward to the ex libris! How is Henriettli doing, did Fanny pay?

You haven’t said whether you are still in a lot of pain.

“Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Mai-Thu Perret: ‘Ich bin wüüüüüüüütend’” is on view through April 30, 2023, at Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich.