By 1930, some two years after he disengaged from the Surrealist camp, Arp found himself more and more preoccupied by the expanded volumes of sculpture in the round. Years later he recalled, "Suddenly my need for interpretation vanished, and the body, the form, the supremely perfected work became everything to me" (in Arp, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1958, p. 14). It was from this point forward that he learned to transform the biomorphic shapes of his earlier reliefs into full-fledged sculptural forms. Finding a touchstone in the eternal process of nature, the sculpture of the second half of Arp's career plays infinite variations on this theme, instinctively recasting its elemental motifs--organic bodies, biological shapes--into integral new forms.
Déméter, conceived in the last decade of the artist's life, is a culmination of his life-long study of the human form, interpreted here through the classical trope of the Greek earth divinity. According to classical myth, Demeter was the goddess of fertility and of agriculture. With her daughter Persephone, she presided over the natural cycles of life and death and the annual harvests on earth. Arp has rendered her figure in softly flowing, maternal curves; her broad and furrowed hill-like lap suggests her abundant fertility. Demeter was also the embodiment of maternal attachment, resilience and implacability in the care and defense of her offspring. After Hades, the god of the underworld, abducted Persephone and hid her away in his subterranean kingdom, Demeter wandered the world for a year in search of her missing daughter, while crops languished without her blessing and the earth produced no fruit. At the intercession of Zeus, Hades at last released Persephone to her mother, but with the caveat that she must be returned to the underworld for one-third of the year, for she had eaten three pomegranate seeds--the food of the dead--while she had been sequestered underground. Hence, the mythological origins of the seasons: while Persephone is reunited with Demeter, nature blooms and the earth is verdant and bountiful; when Persephone returns to the underworld, the earth turns barren and cold while Demeter mourns the absence of her daughter.
Themes of origins and love may have held special meaning for Arp in 1960, one year after his marriage to his longtime friend and collaborator, Marguerite Hagenbach. Demeter, earth and fertility goddess par excellence, would have presented a natural muse for the mature Arp, whose "later representations of women fall back on the conventional image of the maternal woman," as Stephanie Poley has observed (in Arp, 1886-1966, exh. cat., Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1987, p. 228). Yet the principles of metamorphosis and fertility had long inspired his creative process, whose organic quality Arp emphasized from the beginning: "Often some detail in one of my sculptures, a curve or a contrast that moves me, becomes the germ of a new work... Sometimes it will take months, even years to work out a new sculpture. I do not give up until enough of my life has flowed into its body. Each of these bodies has a definite significance, but it is only when I feel there is nothing more to change that I decide what it is, and it is only then that I give it a name" (in The Art of Jean Arp, New York, Harry N. Abrams, 1968, p. 87).