“Art is a fruit growing out of man like the fruit out of a plant like the child out of the mother…” - Jean Arp, Dada Diary, 1932
Born Hans Arp in Strasbourg in 1886, son of a German cigar manufacturer, Arp showed distinct talent in both drawing and writing at a young age. His parents fostered his artistic inclinations, sending him for two years to the School of Arts and Crafts in Strasbourg, then to the Academy of Fine Arts in Weimar and finally to the Academy Julian in Paris. But he felt stymied by traditional art instruction, often withdrawing to the Swiss Alps (where his family had moved for his father’s health) to write poetry.
To counteract these bouts of solitude, Arp sought out contact with many of his contemporaries, organizing exhibitions of modern art that included works by Gaugin, Klee, Picasso and Matisse. In Munich, he contributed to the Blaue Reiter Almanach and, in Berlin, worked for the legendary Der Sturm Gallery. Contact with Wassily Kandinsky during this time geared him toward abstraction.
As a pacifist Alsatian, Arp moved to Zurich at the outbreak of WWI. There he was a founding member of Hugo Ball’s Cabaret Voltaire, an intellectual barrage of mindlessness orchestrated by exiled artists and writers in protest against the war. They attempted to remove the boundaries among the arts and out of this emerged Dada. During this period Arp met Sophie Taeuber, an artist who had a major influence on his work and who eventually became his wife.
In 1920, they moved to Paris where, under André Breton’s aegis, French Dada evolved into Surrealism. Although Arp did not strictly adhere to much of the Surrealist mindset, he nonetheless saw it as an appropriate platform for his art, participating in the first Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in 1925 and producing illustrations for almost every Dada or Surrealist publication. Denied Swiss citizenship, he opted for French in 1926, living in Strasbourg with his brother while he and Sophie finished their own house in Meudon.
An important common ground between him and the other Surrealists was his interest in nature. Arp’s works represent nature as a great underlying power in life. His Moving Oval represents the egg or navel, the ultimate symbol of life. Graduating from the spontaneity of his collages to bas-reliefs during the 1920s, his work finally became fully three-dimensional in 1930. Unlike his contemporaries, Henry Moore and Constantin Brancusi, he preferred working in plaster, which was easily shaped and permitted an element of chance in the creative process. His enigmatic but powerful amorphic natural forms made him a leading exponent of abstraction in the 30s.
By 1936, his reputation spread with the participation in his first two shows in New York: Cubism and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism, and the first Surrealist art exhibition in London.
In 1939, he officially changed his name to Jean and left Paris for the Dordogne before the occupation, subsequently settling in Grasse in the South. As the situation deteriorated and they were unable to obtain American visas, in 1942, the Arps took refuge in Switzerland where Sophie died tragically in 1943 of asphyxiation from a coal stove. Her death virtually paralyzed Arp, who stopped working and spent several weeks in a Dominican cloister.
Still profoundly affected by his wife’s death, Arp returned to Paris in 1945, and finally went back to his studio in Meudon in 1946, starting to sculpt again in 1947 paring shapes down to their geometric essence. In 1949, he visited the United States for the first time and went again in 1950 at the invitation of Walter Gropius.
These post-war years brought him the recognition and fame for which he had long waited. Winning the International Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale in 1954 resulted in financial independence and numerous international commissions for sculpture and murals in public spaces.
In 1959, he married his long-time friend, Marguerite Hagenbach in Basel and they bought a villa near Locarno. The accolades and major museum retrospectives continued to roll in unremittingly. Although he is best known as a visual artist, Arp is also a well-known poet who has published extensively in both French and German.
Until his death of a heart attack in 1966, Arp created many works in which the curiosity of his youth combined in wondrous ways with the wisdom of his maturity.