Jean Arp 1887-1966
(Full name Jean Hans Arp) Alsatian-born French poet, essayist, diarist, painter, and sculptor.
As a founder of the Dadaist movement and a participant in literary and visual surrealism, Arp was one of the most prominent artists of the twentieth century. Arp wrote surrealist poetry as well as essays discussing avant garde art and his own artistic vision.
Arp was born in Strasbourg, Alsace, a region of Europe that has frequently been passed between German and French leadership. His father, Pierre Guillaume Arp, was German and his mother, Josephine Koeberle Arp, Alsatian. As a child Arp learned to read and speak German, French, and the Alsatian dialect of his hometown. Arp spent most of his time in school writing poems and drawing pictures, and by the age of fifteen he was one of a circle of Alsatian poets and artists led by the expressionist writer René Schickele and the painter Georg Ritleng. Arp had convinced his parents to let him drop out of high school and enroll in the Strasbourg Academy of Art to study painting, but he was dissatisfied with the instruction he received there and instead studied privately with local artists. In 1903 Arp published some of his writings in periodicals assembled by the group. He traveled for the first time to Paris and Berlin in 1904. When he returned home he asked his father to allow him to enroll in the Académie Julien in Paris. Instead, his father sent him to Weimar to study at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1907 Arp publicly showed his art for the first time, in an exhibit in Paris along with works by Henri Matisse and others. The next year Arp entered the Académie Julien. However, he was again frustrated by formal instruction and dropped out to move to Lucerne, Switzerland. There he founded a group called Der Moderner Bund to promote modern art in Switzerland. Shortly afterwards he moved to Munich and joined another group of expressionist artists called the Blaue Reiter, which included the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. At the outbreak of World War I, Arp found that his mixed French-German background made him a suspicious character to both countries; therefore, he moved back to neutral Switzerland. When German authorities tried to draft him as a soldier in 1915, Arp convinced the German Consulate in Zurich that he was mentally defective to avoid service. While in Switzerland, Arp met other important artists in the abstract movement. He also met his future wife, the artist and dancer Sophie Taueber, and became involved in the famous Cabaret Voltaire, which brought together Dadaist artists for experimental theater and dance performances. In 1925 Arp was denied Swiss citizenship because officials believed his poetry proved he was mentally deranged. The following year he was granted French citizenship. In the 1930s Arp began to work in sculpture and collage, partly as a reaction to the death of his mother in 1929. During the late 1930s many artists were threatened by the rise of fascism in Europe. Consequently, a great number of them, including Arp and his wife, went into temporary or permanent exile outside of the major centers of tension. The couple stayed in Grasse, in the south of France, from 1940 to 1942, along with a number of other Dadaists. Afterwards they attempted to emigrate to the United States. In 1943 Sophie Taueber was killed in an accident; Arp began to compose poetry in honor of his late wife, and most of his work through the rest of the 1940s speaks to his immense loss. By 1955 Arp had achieved financial independence as a world-renowned artist, and he traveled extensively, frequently exhibiting his work in some of the most important museums in the world. In 1959 Arp married Marguerite Hagenbach. Arp was beset by health problems, suffering a series of heart attacks in the early 1960s. He died of heart failure in Locarno, Switzerland, in 1966.
As a founder and adherent of Dadaism, Arp believed that artistic creation should mirror creation in the natural world. Because of this belief, Arp frequently used collage to symbolize the law of chance. Similarly, he used the collage form in his poetry, bringing together seemingly disparate images to form a whole. Arp's earliest poetry is strongly influenced by nineteenth-century German Romanticism as well as by German folk and fairy tales. In 1912 he had begun experimenting with poetic styles that echoed his interest in abstract visual art. In the poems in both Der vogel selbdritt (1920) and Die wolkenpumpe (1920) Arp was still using Romantic imagery, but his forms and style were becoming more spontaneous and whimsical but simultaneously apocalyptic, reflecting the mood of World War I-era Europe. While Arp was in Zurich, he and the other Dadaists involved in the Cabaret Voltaire participated in poetry experiments known as automatic poetry, in which poems were composed verbally onstage by a variety of people speaking different languages at the same time. These poetry performances further influenced Arp's poetry writing, as he explained in Unsern Täglichen Traum (1955), his account of his years with the Dadaists in Zurich. Arp's poetry in the 1920s reflected the end of the Dada period. Rather than focusing on subjects rooted in nature, Arp began to write about commonplace objects in unexpected and unusual juxtapositions. Arp called these surreal combinations “object language.” The poems in Weisst du schwarzt du (1930) revolve around the opposition of black and white. After the deaths of his mother and wife, Arp produced a number of meditative elegies on dreams, life, and death, turning again to the nature imagery of his earlier writing. For the poems in Poèmes sans prénoms (1941) Arp was influenced by medieval and Renaissance mysticism, particularly the elements of alchemy and geometry. In the 1940s and 1950s Arp published some of his best-known poetry anthologies, including Le siège de l'air (1946) and wortträume und schwarze sterne (1953). In the last decade of his life Arp's poetry became more meditative and probed religious issues, particularly his continuing despair over the loss of Taueber and his hope for an afterlife.
Widely considered one of the most important and influential artists of the twentieth century, Arp also bore a strong hand in shaping the century's poetry. Critics have praised his emphasis on the sense and order of the alogical, and especially his focus on chance in the writing of his poetry. Additionally, many critics have found that Arp's poetry gives equal weight to both sound and sense, producing a sense of organic unity. Raoul Hausmann wrote of Arp's influence: “Arp was incontestably one of the most important innovators in French poetry.”