Hans Arp, also known as Jean Arp, was born in Strasbourg on September 16, 1887. At the time of his birth, Alsace-Lorraine, the region in which Strasbourg lies, belonged to Germany, although culturally it was tied to France, to which it presently belongs. Arp’s bilingualism, his equal ease with both French and German, which was a product of the history of this region, helps to account for the confusion concerning his Christian name. As Arp explained it, when he wrote in French, he called himself Jean Arp; when he wrote in German, he called himself Hans Arp. In his view, neither name was a pseudonym—the change was made simply for convenience, as one shifts from speaking one language to the other according to the language of the auditor.
This mingled French and German heritage was also reflected in Arp’s home and social environment. His father, Pierre Guillaume Arp, who operated a cigar and cigarette factory in Strasbourg, was of Danish descent. His mother, Josephine Köberlé Arp, was of French descent. At home, Arp recalled, French was spoken. In the state-operated primary and secondary schools he attended, however, standard High German was used, and taught, the Alsace-Lorraine being at the time under German annexation. With his friends he spoke the Alsatian vernacular, a dialect of different derivation from the standard German used in education and for official business.
Arp’s first published poem appeared in 1902, when he was only fifteen. Like most of his earliest poetry, it was written in the Alsatian dialect, although only two years later he had completed, in standard High German, a manuscript volume of poems. This manuscript, entitled “Logbuch,” was unfortunately mislaid by the publisher to whom it was sent. Three poems by Arp in German did appear the same year, however, in Das Neue Magazin.
About 1904, Arp’s involvement with the plastic arts began in earnest. He visited Paris for the first time, and for the next five years he studied art not only at Strasbourg but also in Weimar and Paris. In 1909, Arp, having served his artistic apprenticeship at various academies, moved with his family to Weggis, on the eastern shore of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. In the five years Arp spent at Weggis, two important developments occured. Isolated from the influences of the academies and their avant-garde faddishness, Arp began to develop the personal aesthetic he called “concrete art,” which was to influence the entire course of his career. In addition, he became acquainted with other artists who, like himself, were also pursuing personal aesthetics independent of the Paris academies. During this period, Arp exhibited his work with some of these artists, including Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.
In 1914, Arp returned to Paris only to discover that war had been declared. Because his German money was suddenly valueless in France, and his German citizenship unwelcome, he promptly returned to neutral Zurich, and in order to avoid the draft, persuaded the authorities at the German consulate that he was mentally ill. In Zurich, Arp exhibited the abstract collages and tapestries which are the earliest examples of his work extant. In November of 1915, at an exhibition of his work with his friend and fellow artist Otto Van Rees, he met his future wife, Sophie Taeuber, an artist who was a native of Zurich.
In 1916, Arp and Taeuber participated in the activities of the newly formed Dada group, which met regularly at the Cabaret Voltaire. At this time, Arp produced bas-relief sculptures and woodcuts reflecting the developing aesthetic that he termed “concrete art.” Unlike the earlier geometric productions of his abstract period, these reliefs and woodcuts were composed of asymmetrical curvilinear and bimorphic forms; they were, as Arp later explained, “direct creations,” truly “concrete” art, not abstract representations of already existing forms. In 1921, Arp married Sophie, and together they collaborated on cut-paper...
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