A sculptor, painter, and poet, Jean (Hans) Arp (1886 – 1966) is best known for his pioneering, biomorphic approach to abstraction and his pivotal role in the development of Dadaism and Surrealism in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Arp was born in Strasbourg, Alsace-Lorraine, then a contested region in present-day France which the German Empire had annexed after its victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. Arp’s mother was French and his father was German, and he grew up speaking both languages in addition to the native Alsatian dialect. After World War I, when Alsace-Lorraine became a French territory again, French law required Arp’s name be changed to “Jean” from the German “Hans.” Growing up in an unrooted period of political and cultural uncertainty would have a formative influence on his life and work and shape his later experimental practice.
From 1901 to 1908, Arp attended art schools in Strasbourg and Weimar as well as the Académie Julian in Paris before exhibiting with the Moderne Bund, a Swiss modern art alliance, in Lucerne between 1911 and 1913. Arp went to Munich in 1912 and briefly exhibited with Wassily Kandinsky’s group, Der Blaue Reiter, before returning to Zürich to take advantage of Swiss neutrality during World War I. While in Zürich, Arp met the poet Hugo Ball and his future wife, the artist Sophie Taeuber, and together with others they founded the subversive avant-garde Dadaist group, an artistic and literary movement formed in resistance to the war. Rebellious, rejecting logic, and often nonsensical in nature, Dada sought to demolish contemporary social, political, and cultural values in order to create a revolutionary new aesthetic order. As Arp proclaimed, “dissolution was the ultimate in everything that Dada represented. Philosophically and morally; everything must be pulled apart, not a screw left in its customary place… the role of chance, not as an extension of the scope of art, but as a principle of dissolution and anarchy. In art, anti-art.”Arp helped compose the Dada Manifesto and participated in Ball’s famed Cabaret Voltaire, the satirical Zürich nightclub which became the nexus of Dada activities. Embracing the Dadaist principles of chance and randomness, Arp began making chance collages, indiscriminately dropping pieces of paper onto larger sheets and then gluing the scraps where they fell. He often collaborated on these collages with Taeuber during this time. His interest in chance and spontaneity also led him to construct a series of painted wooden reliefs with ambiguous, biomorphic forms placed in unconventional, seemingly random arrangements.
In the 1920s, Arp published writing in a variety of magazines including Merz, Mécano, De Stijl, and La Révolution Surréaliste. He married Taeuber in 1922 and the two became French citizens in 1926 after moving to Paris the previous year. Throughout the 1920s, Arp continued working on his series of painted wooden reliefs which had evolved from his earlier abstract experiments to feature cut-out images of stylized but recognizable human forms or everyday objects, often rendered with a humorous or irreverent quality. These enigmatic and suggestive shapes helped pioneer a new biomorphic language that was simultaneously being explored by artists like Joan Miro and André Masson. Arp’s experimentation with biomorphism and exploration of the random influenced the development of the Surrealist movement and its embrace of automatist practices, forming a pivotal link between the avant-garde movements. In 1925, he participated in the first exhibition of the Surrealist group at the Galerie Pierre in Paris, his work appearing alongside that of Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Masson, and Miró.
In 1929, Arp and Taeuber moved to Clamart, a small town outside of Paris and two years later he became a founding member of the Paris-based group, Abstraction-Création, and participated in the periodical Transition. In the early 1930s, he transitioned from relief sculptures to making sculptures in the round, broadening his exploration of organic, abstract shapes into freestanding, three-dimensional works. In 1940, during World War II, Taeuber and Arp fled the German occupation and moved to Grasse in the South of France where he began his crumpled paper series known as his papiers froissés. After his wife’s sudden death in 1943, Arp consequently paused producing artwork while he dedicated his time to developing her catalogue raisonné. Arp moved back to Clamart after World War II and began making sculpture again in the late 1940s. He would continue working on his biomorphic sculptures for the rest of his career, fashioning suggestive works out of plaster, stone, and bronze. Developing his sculptures without pre-determined plans or agendas, he instead preferred to let his forms grow “naturally” and only named the sculptures upon their completion, making the process of organic transformation and metamorphosis central themes of these works.
In 1954, Arp was awarded the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale. A retrospective of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1958, followed by another at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, in 1962. Arp died in 1966 in Basel, Switzerland.