Jean Arp
Founder of Zurich Dada, Abstract Sculptor of Biomorphic Organic Works.

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Arp produced delightful examples of 20th century abstract sculpture.

Jean Arp (1886-1966)

The French abstract sculptor, engraver, collagist and poet, Jean (Hans) Arp, was a prominent member of numerous important modern art movements of the 20th century, including the Moderne Bund, the Blue Rider Expressionist Group, Dadaism and Surrealism, as well as the sculptural artist-groups Cercle et Carre and Abstract-Creation. The sculpture of his mature phase (1931 onwards) is highly distinctive, biomorphic in shape, and had an impact on many other artists including Henry Moore (1898-1986) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-75). He was married twice: first to the artist Sophie Taeuber (1889-1943), then finally to the Swiss art collector Marguerite Hagenbach. Of the other abstract sculptors active in Paris, he was closest to Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Immensely influential on the development of organic forms, Jeap Arp is considered one of the great 20th century sculptors.

See: History of Sculpture.

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See: Greatest Sculptors.

For a list of the world's top works,
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

Stone Sculpture
Granite, limestone, sandstone.
Marble Sculpture
Pentelic, Carrara, Parian marbles.
Bronze Sculpture
Lost-wax casting method.

For a list of sculptors like
Jean Arp, see:
Modern Artists.

Artistic Training

Arp was born in Strasbourg in 1887. He began his art studies at the Strasbourg School of Applied Arts. In 1904 he changed his studies to the Weimar Art School and studied under Ludwig von Hofmann (1861-1945) until 1907. Hofmann was a well established German artist who had founded the Berlin Secession (1898) which was the first open revolt against academic traditions and paved the way for modern German art movements such as Expressionism. Hofmann associated with the top influential artists of his day including Arnold Bocklin, Edward Munch, Max Klinger, Gerhard Hauptmann and Stefan George. In 1908 Arp moved briefly to Paris and studied at the Julian Academy.

Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider)

In 1909 Arp moved to Switzerland, where together with Walter Helbig and Oskar Luthy he founded the Moderne Bund (Modern Federation) art movement. Arp was one of the organisers of their first exhibition in Lucerne, which included works by Arp, as well as Friesz, Gauguin, Gimmi, Helbig, Luthy, Hodler, Matisse, and Picasso. In 1911 Arp travelled to Munich to visit Kandinsky, who had requested Arp's help on his publication Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). A few months later Arp participated in the first Blue Rider's exhibition in Munich. He also exhibited at a second Moderne Bund exhibition in Zurich in 1913 and contributed drawings to the Berlin publication Der Sturm (The Storm). Also in 1913 he took part in the first Autumn Salon, at Berlin's famous Sturm Gallery, owned by Herwarth Walden (1879-1941). Here, he met some of the most influential artists of modern art including Picasso, Modigliani (who drew his portrait), Arthur Cravan and Max Jacob. In 1914 Arp had a joint exhibition with Max Ernst in Cologne.


Zurich Dada

In 1915, shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Arp moved to neutral Switzerland. He held his first solo exhibition of abstract works, collages and tapestries at the Tanner Gallery (where he met his wife-to-be Sophie Taeuber), and was one of the founding members of Zurich Dada. Dadaism was an "anti-art" movement that began in Switerland in 1916, spread to Berlin, Paris and across Europe, before peaking in 1922. Its purpose was to ridicule the meaningless of the modern age, and was anti-bourgeois and anarchistic in nature. It mainly involved visual art, but also extended to poetry, theatre and graphic design. It lay the foundation for Surrealism. Arp illustrated poems by Tristan Tzara (who wrote the Dada manifesto in 1918) and created his first abstract wooden reliefs in 1917. He also exhibited at the first Zurich Dada exhibition that year. A sample work from this time is his Dada Relief (1916, Kunsthaus Basle).

Cologne Dada

At the end of the War, many of the artists in the Dada group returned to their home countries and spread the movement locally. In 1919 Arp travelled to Cologne and founded Cologne Dada with Johnannes Baargeld and Max Ernst. In 1920 the First International Dada Fair, organized by photomontage artists John Heartfield and Raoul Hausmann, along with the satirical expressionist painter George Grosz, was held in Berlin. Arp participated, as did Max Ernst, Rudolf Schlichter, Francis Picabia, along with many of the city's leading avant-garde artists. Over 200 art works were exhibited, surrounded by incendiary slogans, but the exhibition made a loss with only one reported sale. While in Berlin, Arp published a series of poems, accompanied by woodcut prints. In 1923 he published Isms in Art, along with El Lissitzky, which defined Dada. They wrote: 'Dadaism has launched an attack on the fine arts. It has declared art to be a magic opening of the bowels, administered an enema to the Venus de Milo, and finally enabled Laocoon and His Sons to ease themselves after a thousand-year struggle with the rattlesnake. Dadaism has reduced positive and negative to utter nonsense. It has been destructive in order to achieve indifference'.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate modernist abstract surrealist sculptors like Jean Arp, see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture. For earlier works, please see: How to Appreciate Sculpture.


Like many Dada artists, in 1925 Arp moved on to Surrealism, and was one of the pioneer surrealist artists who participated in the first Surrealist Exhibition in Gallery Pierre in Paris. Arp moved to Paris permanently in 1926, settling in nearby Meudon. Two works of plastic art from this period include: (1) Torn-Up Woodcut (1920, Tate Modern, London). Here, Arp felt that he could incorporate chance into artistic production, comparing the role of the artist to a plant bearing fruit. According to the laws of chance, this is a random composition, where he dropped painted pieces of paper onto a surface. (2) Moustaches (c.1925, Tate Modern). This is an abstract relief, using random pieces of paper to create symbols. Here the moustache represents authority and pomposity. Arp used it to embody the spirit of stupidity that lead to the First World War. In 1931 Arp broke with the Surrealism movement to found Abstraction-Creation, working with a Paris based group of artists. It was from hereon that he took up sculpture in the round.

Arp's Sculpture

Initially Arp focused on creating relief woodcuts as 'sculpture'. He assembled the woodcuts like collage - carving the shape first (and painting it) and then mounting it on another piece of wood. Arp continued to make these sorts of woodcuts throughout his career, combining aspects of painting, collage, sculpture and relief. A fine example is Overturned Blue Shoe with Two Heels Under a Black Vault (c.1925, Guggenheim New York). In the early 1930s his work began to include free standing reliefs which rested either on carved bases or directly on the ground (eg. Shell Profiles, 1930, private collection). Biomorphic elements gradually entered his work, until he was working in full 3-D form. The first example of this was Bell and Navels (1931, Museum of Modern Art, New York). He went on to create a whole series of forms - known as biomorphic/organic abstraction - iin wood and plaster, some were later cast in bronze. Many of these sculptures can be seen in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris - see for example, Torso (1932, white marble). During the 1930's the artist produced many small sculptures which the viewer could pick up, separate and rearrange into new configurations. Another important sculpture is Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest (c.1932, Tate Modern). This is a biomorphic sculpture; he created it by sanding away at the plaster until he was satisfied with the shape. "I work until enough of my life has flowed into its body", he said. Other organic forms of the period include Giant Pip (1937, stone, Musee National d'Art Moderne Centre Georges Pompidou), and Growth (1938, Guggenheim Museum New York). During the 1940s and 1950s, biomorphic works by Arp and others (including Joan Miro, Yves Tanguy, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore) were labelled Organic Abstraction.

World War II

In 1940 Arp left Paris for Grasse in the south of France. In 1942, he and his wife fled again to Switzerland, where Sophie suffered a fatal accident the following year. Arp returned to Meudon after the war, in 1946. In 1949 he travelled to New York, where he had a solo exhibition at the Buchholz Gallery. In 1950 he was commissioned to execute a relief for the Harvard University Graduate Centre in Cambridge and a mural for the UNESCO building in Paris. He also took up tapestry art. In 1954 he was awarded the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale. In 1959, he married Marguerite Hagenbach. In 1964 he was awarded a sculpture prize at the 1964 Pittsburgh International: one of his outstanding works of the period is Demeter (1961, bronze, Israel Museum, Jerusalem). A retrospective of his work was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1958 and at the Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris in 1962. Arp died in Basel, in 1966.


One of the most important abstract sculptors of the 20th century, Arp strove constantly to extend the boundaries of conventional art. His work is housed at some of the most important museums in the world, including the Tate Modern, London; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Museum of Art, Philadelphia and the Museum of Art, Basel.

Selected Works at Tate Modern

Among Arp's works at the Tate Modern are the following:

- Constellation According to the Laws of Chance (c.1930), wood relief
- According to the Laws of Chance (1933)
- Impish Fruit (1943), wood relief
- Pagoda Fruit (1949), bronze, on view at Tate Liverpool
- Danger of Death (1954), on paper
- Winged Being (1961), sculpture.

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