Jean Arp

Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK

It has always been difficult to pigeonhole the sculptor Hans/Jean Arp. Born in Strasbourg in 1886, he spoke French, German and Alsatian, the local dialect, switching personas and savouring his multicultural, multilingual identity. Pinning the maverick practitioner down and assessing the plurality of his practice has been a challenge for scholars of 20th-century art. Indeed, three British publications on modernism dating from the 1990s describe him in turn as a French sculptor, a German intellectual and a Swiss artist.

‘The Poetry of Forms’ is the first show of Arp’s work to be held in a public institution in the UK since 1962. Curators Eric Robertson and Frances Guy have rightly seized on the vicissitudes of his practice, tracing how he moved between art and poetry to create an oeuvre that shifts between words on the page and sculpted forms. The wordplay in evidence across the exhibition spaces seeps into the psyche, joining the dots in Arp’s adroit, multidisciplinary approach. Excerpts from Arp’s poetry – including the famous ‘Kaspar ist tot’ (Kaspar Is Dead, 1912) – are emblazoned across the gallery walls, springing to life in three dimensions through the absurd, beak-like sculpture, Head of a Gnome Called Kaspar (1930).

The other binding element in Arp’s oeuvre is nature, a thread that unifies the show. For Arp: ‘Art is a fruit that grows in man like a fruit on a plant or a child in its mother’s womb.’ The painted-wood relief Flower Hammer, Terrestrial Forms (1916–17) is a masterly amalgamation of natural and manmade components, melding soft and harsh contours in a composition that looks organic but is, in truth, tightly controlled. (Arp looks to nature but cannily refuses to replicate it.)

web_24-2017-10-12125624.jpg

Installation view of 'Jean Arp: The Poetry of Forms', 2017, Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK. From left: Siren, 1942, plaster; Crucifixion. Crucified, after 1915, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK; photograph: Stephen White

Installation view of 'Jean Arp: The Poetry of Forms', 2017, Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK. From left: Siren, 1942, plaster; Crucifixion. Crucified, after 1915, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK; photograph: Stephen White

‘The Poetry of Forms’ charts the artist’s visual vocabulary succinctly and astutely, elucidating Arp’s pivotal role in numerous 20th-century art movements. Initially involved with dada, from 1915 to 1919, and surrealism in the 1920s, he later had connections with the Dutch group De Stijl. 

A series of drawings produced during the dada period, around 1920, are among the first works visitors encounter. In these liberating, anarchic shapes, the germ of much later works can be seen: there is a developmental arc linking them directly to a series of 15 woodcuts made in 1966 – the year he died – entitled the ‘Sun Recircled’ series.

Other key phases in Arp’s practice include the artist’s ‘object-language’, a set of witty, distinctive symbols that took shape around 1920. His painted wood reliefs incorporate, for instance, chairs, bow-ties and butterflies; the navel was also a recurring motif, proof that Arp was nothing if not irreverent. (Thankfully, this show brings to the fore his sense of humour and mischief; amongst the burgeoning, balanced sculptural incurvatures, the title Three Disagreeable Objects on a Face, 1930, elicits a smile.)

web_47-2017-10-12125647.jpg

Installation view of 'Jean Arp: The Poetry of Forms', 2017, Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK. From left: Three disagreeable objects on a face, 1930/1983, bronze cast; Two Heads, 1927, string relief; Head: Scottish Lips, 1927, painted cardboard relief. Courtesy: Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK; photograph: Stephen White

Installation view of 'Jean Arp: The Poetry of Forms', 2017, Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK. From left: Three disagreeable objects on a face, 1930/1983, bronze cast; Two Heads, 1927, string relief; Head: Scottish Lips, 1927, painted cardboard relief. Courtesy: Turner Contemporary, Margate, UK; photograph: Stephen White

From the early 1930s, Arp continued the spatial development of his wood reliefs in a series of abstract sculptures called concretions, advancing the biomorphic forms engendered during his surrealist phase. The exhibition section titled ‘Constellations and Concretions’ crystallizes Arp’s aesthetic, demonstrating how earlier innovations bear fruit.

During his dada phase, for instance, the artist made ‘chance collages’, assemblages comprising random scraps of paper dropped at random and pasted where they fell. In the 1930s, Arp again embraced this approach, creating the extraordinary piece, According to the Laws of Chance (1933). The work, on loan from Tate, comprises a scattering of sugar paper dotted haphazardly around a plyboard canvas.

That Arp was so experimental seems to have bypassed many modern art savants but this small-scale, consummate show underscores the relevance today of his multifaceted work and free-thinking attitude. It is a trajectory across 20th-century art that deserves highlighting.

‘Arp: The Poetry of Forms’ is on view at Turner Contemporary, Margate, until 14 January 2018.

Main image: Jean Arp, Concrétion humaine or Coquille se dénouant, 1936, (detail), limestone. Courtesy: Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Switzerland

Gareth Harris is chief contributing editor of The Art Newspaper.

Most Read

A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander
While we might not see open censorship be prepared for the vilification of provocative aesthetics
From credit scores to algorithmic policing, Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism reveals technocracy as not merely...
Robin Campillo’s portrait of ACT UP Paris puts militancy before mourning
In other news: open letter demands reinstatement of documenta’s Annette Kulenkampff; ‘Russian Modernism’ show at Ghent...
Monochrome painting at the National Gallery, London
Highlights from the 2018 edition of Condo London, a collaborative exhibition by 46 galleries across 17 citywide...
Why the 40-year-old Mute record label remains an enigma
Kirsty Bell, Ahmet Öğüt, Ming Wong and Slavs and Tatars share their highlights of the coming year’s shows: can we break...
The New York museum’s introduction of an admission charge shows us the problem with donor dependence and a hands-off...
Remembering the visionary ceramic artist whose aesthetic was that of a painter: ‘Everything she touched was edged with...
Four UK-based museum directors and curators, and a Turner Prize-winning artist, select the shows they are looking...
The best films, books and shows focusing on representations of gay life in 2017
In other news: the inaugural Lahore Biennial will go ahead and the controversially cancelled Max Stern exhibition is...
A year of protest and performance in Los Angeles
Melissa Gronlund on the best of a bad year: from activists in Jakarta, images of Mecca and labour negotiations in the...
In a year marked by natural disasters, some of the best exhibitions in Latin America were attempts to make sense of the...
From Anthropocenic doom in Cecilia Alemani’s Italian Pavilion in Venice to Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting...
Contributing editor Max Andrews looks back on 2017, from turbulence in the Catalan capital to Pierre Huyghe’s...
When musical signifiers for sex so often become sonic pornography, LCMF 2017 showed alternative ways of marrying sound...
Our culture is terrified of sexually-awakened girls – controlling the way we look at Thérèse Dreaming would erase...
Where the fight against reactionary conservative activism in Brazil stands ahead of the 2018 presidential elections
In further news: documenta artists protest ‘profit-above-everything’ motive; Monir Museum opens in Tehran; Beijing...
From debates around colonial histories to resonant conversations around precariousness, a year of questioning long-held...
In further news: Abu Dhabi authorities now say they acquired USD$450 million Leonardo; removal of artworks in Catalonia...
A year marked by new visualizations, both controversial and celebrated, of the black body

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018