Jean Arp

The French sculptor and painter Jean Arp (1887-1966) was a pioneer of abstract art. His wooden reliefs and sculpture in the round are biomorphic in form and poetically allusive.

Jean Arp was born in Strasbourg. He studied at the Academy in Weimar in 1905-1907 and at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1908. He came to disapprove of formal instruction and moved to Weggis, Switzerland, where he lived and worked in isolation. In 1912, after meeting Wassily Kandinsky in Munich, Arp exhibited with the Blue Rider group, and in 1913 he exhibited in the first Autumn Salon in Berlin. The following year he met Pablo Picasso, Robert Delaunay, under whose influence he began to work in a cubist vein, Amedeo Modigliani, and Max Ernst. In 1915 Arp settled in Zurich, where he met the painter Sophie Taeuber, whom he married in 1921.

Arp was one of the founders of the Dada group in 1916, which held its tumultuous meetings at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. The Dadaists, reacting to the general disillusionment brought on by World War I, held up non-sense as the chief esthetic value to be realized in art and literature. Arp, now a committed Dadaist, abandoned the cubist rigors of the previous 2 years for an art that was whimsical in spirit and biomorphic in form. At this time he constructed painted wooden reliefs, whose curved shapes vaguely call to mind navels, clouds, and lakes. Arp's Dadaist art represented the fanciful and poetic, rather than the nihilistic and morbid, side of the movement, and he gave his works humorous titles. Among his Dadaist collages was a series in which bits of colored paper were pasted on cardboard; these he titled Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance (ca. 1917). But the bits of paper seem to have been placed with a concern for the effectiveness of the design. In 1919 Arp collaborated with Ernst and others to found the Cologne Dada group.

Arp settled in Paris in 1922, where he joined the surrealist movement. He participated in the first surrealist group exhibition held in Paris in 1925 and was officially a surrealist until 1930. In 1931-1932, as a member of the Abstraction-Création group, he made pictures out of bits of twine and torn paper and executed his first sculpture in the round of stone and wood.

His sculpture in the round, like the wooden reliefs, is curving and vaguely suggests the world of nature, such as hills, clouds, or part of a torso, rather than the world of machines. Arp always brought his material, the stone or bronze, to a high degree of finish. He described his sculpture as "concretions." "Concretion," he wrote, "designates solidification, the mass of the stone, the plant, the animal, the man. Concretion is something that has grown." Unlike Constantin Brancusi's sculpture, to which it is superficially similar, Arp's sculpture seems to be expansive rather than distilled or concentrated. Works such as the bronze Shell and Head (1933) and marble Star (1939-1960) seem to turn out to the world rather than turn in upon themselves.

Arp visited the United States in 1949 and 1950. He died in Basel, Switzerland.


Further Reading on Jean Arp

Probably the best overall treatment of Arp in English is James Thrall Soby, ed., Jean Arp (1958), with equal attention given to the Dadaist wooden reliefs and the sculpture in the round. It contains essays by the Dadaist Richard Hülsenbeck, Robert Melville, and Carola Giedion-Welcker, as well as an essay by Arp. Two recent book-length treatments of Arp are Sir Herbert E. Read, The Art of Jean Arp (1968), and Edward Trier, Jean Arp, Sculpture: His Last Ten Years (1968). Hans Arp, On My Way: Poetry and Essays, 1912-1947 (1948), is a collection of remarkably sensitive poems. Good background material is in A. H. Barr, Jr., ed., Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936; 3d ed. 1947).

Additional Biography Sources

Andreotti, Margherita., The early sculpture of Jean Arp, Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989.