Playful, ambiguous, sensuous — the alluring art of Jean Arp

A poet, painter and sculptor, the man known as Jean Arp by some and Hans Arp by others was ‘one of the most innovative and inexhaustible artists of his time’


Jean / Hans Arp (1887-1966) in his workshop studio in Clamart, Paris, circa 1948-1950. Photo: © Michel Sima / Bridgeman Images. Artworks: © DACS 2021

Jean (Hans) Arp (1895-1965), Gueule de fleur, executed in 1960; unique. White marble. Height: 20 in (50.8 cm). Estimate: $400,000-600,000. Offered in Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 14 May at Christie’s in New York

Jean Arp was born in Strasbourg in 1886, to a French mother and German father — and tends to be known in German-speaking countries by the alternative name of Hans Arp.

After studying at the Académie Julian in Paris, he moved to Munich in 1912, where he became friends with Kandinsky and was briefly involved with the German Expressionist group, Der Blaue Reiter (‘The Blue Rider’). At the outbreak of the First World War, he fled for the neutral city of Zurich, where his artistic career began in earnest.

Arp was a gifted poet and painter, though it’s as a sculptor that he’s best remembered — for his reliefs, and his smoothly rounded, biomorphic forms, above all. In November 2018, one of these, Déméter, fetched $5,825,000 at Christie’s in New York, the highest price ever paid for an Arp at auction.

Barbara Hepworth, one of numerous sculptors he influenced, called him ‘extraordinary’ and said that ‘seeing Jean Arp’s work for the first time freed me of inhibitions’. He received a host of awards across his career, including the prestigious Grand Prize for Sculpture at 1954’s Venice Biennale, and in 1960 was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour.

‘Arp was one of the most innovative and inexhaustible artists of his time,’ says Valérie Didier Hess, Specialist and Associate Director of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in Paris. ‘He invented — and re-invented — his artistic vocabulary constantly.’

Dada, ‘automatic drawings’ and letting go

In Zurich in 1916, Arp was one of the founder members of Dada, an anarchic movement that protested the way so-called reason (on the part of world leaders) had precipitated a war in which millions died.

‘Dada aimed to destroy the rational deceptions of man and recover the natural and irrational order,’ Arp claimed. His contributions included dragging his artworks through the street on a lead.

Shortly after arriving in Zurich, he met fellow artist, Sophie Taeuber, who became a crucial collaborator of his for many years. They married in 1922. 

With Sophie’s help, Jean produced a landmark set of collages known as Papiers Dechirés, in which he tore paper into pieces, dropped those pieces onto a larger sheet of paper, and pasted each scrap wherever it fell. A fine example, Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Law of Chance), is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s collection in New York.

True to Dada philosophy — which embraced all things random and irrational — the Papiers Dechirés  left a huge chunk of the creative process to chance. This was something of a game-changer in the visual arts, which until then had always striven for a high level of artistic skill and control.

In a similar vein, Arp produced a series known as his ‘automatic drawings’: works in which he deliberately let go of conscious intention and allowed his pen or pencil to roam where it wished. This freestyle approach would later influence Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists.

Arp’s ambiguous forms: veering towards abstraction

Jean and Sophie moved to Paris in the mid 1920s, eventually settling in a house, which she designed, in the suburb of Clamart, in the city’s south-west. Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp and James Joyce were regular visitors.

Arp’s work in the 1920s was dominated by wooden bas-reliefs that he sawed into elaborate shapes and then painted. In La Femme amphore, for example, the form of what looks like a woman can be seen emerging, as a relief, from what the title suggests is an amphora.

Arp’s shapes are deliberately playful and ambiguous, however, often veering towards abstraction — and one might easily see La Femme amphore as depicting a foetus in a womb instead.

The biomorphic sculptures

In the 1930s, Arp began to create his most famous works: the sensuous biomorphic sculptures in materials such as marble and bronze. These would remain the wellspring of his art for three decades.

Where the wooden bas-reliefs hung on walls, these were fully three-dimensional and placed on floors. What the sculptures do share with the bas-reliefs, though, is that they come in allusive, near-abstract shapes. Most of them evoke nature in a certain way, resembling curious life-forms with some combination of human, animal and vegetal elements — the key point being that they’re wide open to interpretation.

Take the streamlined Entité ailée (‘Winged Entity’), for example — might this be an avian or angelic being, or perhaps a seed pod borne on the wind?

‘I only have to move my hands…. The forms that then take shape offer access to mysteries and reveal to us the profound sources of life’ — Jean Arp

Arp admitted that, even with these works, he left a great deal to chance. ‘I don’t reflect,’ he wrote in 1963. ‘The forms come: pleasing or strange... They’re born of themselves… I only have to move my hands…. The forms that then take shape offer access to mysteries and reveal to us the profound sources of life.’

Arp’s sculptures fail to depict a specific subject because he himself never had one in mind; he gave titles to his works only after  he’d completed them.

In the case of Déméter, it may seem to depict the eponymous figure from Greek mythology, in her role as the mother of Persephone: with wide hips evoking abundant fertility and a tilted head suggesting protective care.

Demeter was also the goddess of agriculture, however, and one might well see this sculpture as a germinating plant instead, with a new growth unfurling upward.

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Tragedy and acclaim — the late-career Arp

In 1943 Sophie died in a tragic accident, succumbing to carbon-monoxide poisoning. A grief-stricken Jean would stop making sculpture for a few years and seek solace through reading ancient Tibetan and Christian mystic texts.

When he did return to sculpture, it was similar in style to his previous work but, broadly speaking, even smoother and more lustrous. His final years were filled with prizes and recognition, including a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1958.

Arp died in 1966, aged 79. His influence extended far and wide: from Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Isamu Noguchi to the American minimalists of the 1960s and 1970s.

Investing in works by Arp: where to start? 

For those new to Arp’s market, his lithographs and other prints offer what Didier Hess calls ‘an excellent place’ to start. They boast exuberant, distinctively Arp-ian shapes, yet come in at a relatively low price point.

‘Demand is definitely growing,’ Didier Hess says of the market for the artist's work in all media and genres. ‘His oeuvre has become better appreciated in recent years. Auctions have helped to emphasise his ingenuity and versatility.’

The highest 25 prices for Arp pieces at auction have all been realised in the past 15 years. According to Didier Hess, two types of work are the most sought-after. One are his bas-reliefs from the 1920s, which are rare and bear witness to Arp’s seminal role in the development of Surrealism.

The other, of course, are his biomorphic sculptures executed in prestigious materials such as white marble or black granite — and characterised by their purity of line and immaculate polished surface.

‘The biomorphic works have a real timelessness and elegance to them,’ says the specialist. ‘That, I believe, is the key to their success. They appeal across the board, to collectors of classical, modern and contemporary art alike.’

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