Jean Arp Revels in Contradiction

Katherine20th Century Art, Artist Spotlight, European PaintingsLeave a Comment

Jean Arp

Fascinated by the natural world and fractured lens of the surreal Dada movement, Jean Arp sought many different modes of expression. Sculpture, painting, screen-printing, and writing were among his many talents. The organic and sometimes unusual structure of the natural world served as inspiration. Many of his works are formless, amoeba-like shapes that challenged traditional ideas of structure.

Jean Arp was born caught between two cultures. Strasbourg in the Alsace region sits between France and Germany. Both countries have laid claim to the region for centuries. Because his father was German and his mother was French, Arp was given two sets of names – Hans Peter Wilhelm and Jean Pierre Guillaume. From 1900 to 1908, Arp studied at various art schools in Alsace and Paris, but soon became disenchanted with academia, finding it tedious and pedantic. In 1910 Arp began to network and connect with artists he had met in Paris. In 1912 he was published in Blaue Reiter Almanach and found work in organizing and reviewing exhibitions. Thanks to these connections and easy access to modern art, Arp soon found himself in the company of Tristan Tzara and Hugo Ball. Together in 1916 Zurich, Switzerland, they founded the Dada movement.

Dada was born in the midst of chaos and confusion. The coming of World War I and the rapid changes of western culture made the public unsure of the reality they where inhabiting. Dadaism was the reaction to this sense of disorder. Objects were painted like people and people like objects. Writers recited poems comprised only of nonsense words. It was part protest to the coming of war and completely a celebration of the illogical and absurd.

Jean Arp Paper collage

Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) © 2013 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

A contribution that Arp was known for was his cutout compositions. Dadaists mistrusted human judgment, believing that was what led to atrocities such as war. Dadaist artists attempted to find ways to eliminate human subjectivity in the creation of art. Arp achieved this by dropping pieces of paper onto the canvas and gluing them where they generally fell. In these works, very little human judgment is forced onto the composition. Arp would go as far as to cut the paper with a paper-cutter to further remove himself from the process. However, some of these collages do have glue smears on them, indicating that Arp may have reordered some pieces before allowing the paper to dry. This does not go against the Dadaist spirit – Dadaism revels in contradiction and doublethink.

Arp’s sculptures had an element of change in them. Among the first to utilize biomorphism, Arp took organic shapes from nature and turned them abstract. The sculptures were often first molded in plaster, which is easily malleable and allows for a greater amount of change. The final works were then done in bronze. These sculptures were among the first of their kind and are as intriguing now as they were then.

In the late 1920s, Arp become more involved in the Surrealist movement and in 1931 turned towards a more geometric mode. He went on to join similar movements and art groups. Like his works, he was fluid and always shifting. However, even in his later career, he remained true to what had initially driven him.


Kenny Ackerman is an Art Dealer in New York, specializing in Fine Art Paintings from 19th-21st century Europe and America. To buy or sell original paintings by artists we represent, contact Ackerman’s Fine Art here.


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