Hans Arp

Hans Arp – Learn More About the Famous Dada Artist

The famous Dada artist who feigned mental illness to escape German military service and member of the Abstraction-Création movement, Hans Arp, was perhaps the most fascinating personality of the 20th century. Widely known in English circles as Jean Arp, the esteemed German-French artist was among the most successful Dadaists. In this article, we will unpack the complete Jean Arp biography, including some of Arp’s most famous works and contributions to Modern art. Keep reading to discover the interesting details about the life and art of Hans Arp!



Creating With Chance: A Jean Arp Biography

Artist Name Hans Peter Wilhelm Arp (Also known as Jean Arp)
Date of Birth 16 September 1886
Date of Death 7 June 1966
Associated Movements, Themes, and StylesModern art, Dadaism, Abstract art, Surrealism, and Abstraction-Création
MediumsPainting, sculpture, and poetry

With posthumous exhibitions at institutions like the Harvard Art Museums and the Nasher Sculpture Center to awards like the Carnegie Prize and the Goethe Prize of the City of Frankfurt, Hans Arp was a luminary of his time. The famous artist specialized in painting, sculpture, and poetry, and was best remembered for his contributions to Dadaism and the Parisian movement known as Abstraction-Création.

Famous Dada Artist Hans Peter Wilhelm Arp with Naval-Monocle (c. 1926); See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Arp was also a key member of the first modern art alliance in Switzerland Moderne Bund in 1911. Jean Arp’s biography has much to inspire one about the ways that 20th-century artists like Arp navigated the complex political environment of their time. Below, we will take a closer look at the artist’s early life and career as a Dada artist, writer, and poet, and later explore some of his best works to learn more about his art style.


Early Life and Education

Born in 1886 under the German Empire, Hans Arp’s early life was rooted in Straßburg, during a complicated era caught between the Franco-Prussian War and World War I. Arp was born to a German father and a French mother, who raised him during significant political changes as the city was moving under French control after the First World War. During this time, Hans Arp was required to change his name according to legal obligations under French law and he took on the name of Jean Arp.

Despite the change in his name, Arp maintained his connection to his German heritage and often referred to himself by his previous name, Hans, when conversing in his home language.

As such, his childhood was largely shaped by the cultural influences and linguistic nuances around him, which later informed his artistic journey. Arp studied at the Ecole des Arts et Métiers in Strasbourg, which he then left in 1904 and visited Paris instead. Here, he published his poetry for the first time and enrolled at the Kunstschule in Weimar, where he studied between 1905 and 1907. In 1908, Arp moved to Paris to attend classes at the Académie Julian.


The Evolution of Jean Arp’s Artistic Career

By 1911, Arp had already founded the Moderner Bund group in Switzerland and exhibited widely with the group for the next few years. He then gained the acquaintance of Russian art theorist Wassily Kandinsky, who motivated Arp to experiment with his art and invited him to show his work alongside the German Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter in 1912. Arp’s interest in avant-garde art was perhaps the most evident throughout his career since he always seemed to be drawn to the works of pivotal and radically modern artists of his time. He also exhibited alongside the likes of Robert Delaunay and Henri Matisse, which enabled him access to networks among the giants of European modern art.

Dada Artist Constellation According to the Laws of Chance (c. 1930) by Hans Arp; Wmpearl, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1913, Arp was invited by one of the most powerful German expressionist art dealers in Berlin, Herwarth Walden, who was known to be an expert across many disciplines. Walden was also the founder of Der Sturm magazine and a promoter of many avant-garde art movements across the 20th century, from Magical Realism to Futurism and Dadaism. Arp also exhibited his work in 1913 at Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin for the Erste deutsche Herbstsalon and returned to Paris in the following year to gain the acquaintance of fellow modernists such as Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani. By 1915, Arp had moved to Zurich, where he created new tapestries and collage artworks in a collaborative effort with his soon-to-be wife, Sophie Taeuber, whom he married in 1922.


Escaping Military Service

It is believed that Arp moved to Switzerland to leverage Swiss neutrality and eventually avoid his military service in the German army. Arp feigned being mentally ill to avoid being drafted into the military after he received a report to make himself present at the German consulate in Zurich. Arp accomplished this by crossing himself whenever he encountered a portrait of Paul von Hindenburg and when he was given paper to record his date of birth, he strategically wrote his date of birth on each line of the paper, drawing a final line beneath each date, and calculating their sum.

According to Hans Richter, the German authorities believed Arp’s charade and let him go.


Dadaism and Surrealism Circles

One of the founders of the Dada movement, Hugo Ball, opened up an establishment known as the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, which was to become the hub of Dadaist activities in Zurich. Arp joined the movement alongside a group of other Dadaist artists like Tristan Zara and Marcel Janco. In 1919 he moved to Cologne where he continued his involvement with the Dadaist group. By 1922, he exhibited at the Exposition Internationale Dada in Paris, as well as the Kongress der Konstruktivisten in Weimar. As an established Dada artist and prominent ambassador, Arp also recruited other like-minded artists from Berlin such as Coach Schwitters, Hannah Höch, and Raoul Hausmann. By the 1920s, Arp was already a published writer with works published in various magazines, including La Révolution Surréaliste, Merz, De Stijl, and Mécano.

Dadaism Woodcut and collage for the cover of Dada 4-5 (1919) by Hans Arp; crédit photo : Mathieu Bertola, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hans Arp was also a contributor to the Surrealism movement in 1925, when his work appeared at the first Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in Paris, alongside the likes of Man Ray, Max Ernst, and Joan Miró. This was a period in Arp’s career when he started to enjoy his commercial success and also received a large commission in 1926 to redesign the interior dance hall of the Aubette. For the project, Arp worked closely with Theo van Doesburg and his wife, who was then called Tauber-Arp, to complete the commission by 2006. The design was such a success that it had been dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of abstract art”. Arp’s network and recognition had grown significantly and by the end of the 1920s, he was deep in the network of French creatives. He also held his first solo show at the Galerie Surréaliste and became a French citizen.


Hans Arp and Sculpture

By the 1930s, Hans Arp was recognized as a luminary figure in sculpture. His approach to avant-garde abstraction in sculpture was noted in his distinct style, as he sculpted in the round and transcended the traditional conventions at the time. His exploration of biomorphism was perhaps one of his best contributions to sculpture, where he drew inspiration from organic shapes and natural forms to create organic-looking sculptures. Arp’s sculptures are also described as having a sort of fluidity in terms of their structure and were abstracted to a point where they did not emphasize rigid geometry, rather, they embraced a more intuitive form.

Drawing from his surrealist roots, Arp’s sculptures also reflected on the concepts of chance and randomness, which he embraced by using a method known as chance collage.

This method involved the artist dropping cut-out squares on a surface and adhering them to whichever spot they landed on. The concept of chance collage was crucial to Arp’s sculptural practice since the style not only contributed to the development of abstract sculpture but also challenged notions of structure and form in traditional academia. Hans Arp’s work was thus a reminder of the spontaneity of nature and abstraction that can be found within organic forms. Arp exhibited his sculptures in two major shows in 1937, one of which was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York titled Cubism and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism


Personal Trials

By the end of the 1930s, Arp helped establish two major organizations in support of abstract art. These were the Abstraction Création and Cercle et Carré groups, which Arp later moved on to join a third group in Switzerland known as Allianz. Hans Arp was seemingly on the run in the 1940s after the German occupation, which led him to the South of France. Two years later, Arp experienced a great loss. His wife, Taeuber-Arp passed away from an unfortunate and accidental carbon monoxide poisoning after staying with a friend in Zürich, where they kept a malfunctioning stove. This caused Arp to spiral into a stage of deep depression, which lasted for the rest of the decade. Arp’s public appearances declined as he took to poetry to fill the missing pieces of his heart.

Jean Arp Biography Feuille se reposant (1959) by Hans Arp; Gerardus, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After the Second World War ended, Arp picked up his sculptural practice once again and went on a trip to the United States for his first solo show in New York. At the time, he was in a relationship with Marguerite Hagenbach, who was a friend and collector, who journeyed with Arp in 1949. The two only married a decade later. It was in America where Arp gained recognition from architects such as Walter Gropius, who commissioned Arp to produce a relief sculpture for the Harvard Graduate Center based in Massachusetts. In 1953, Arp produced another large sculpture for the University of Caracas in Venezuela titled Cloud Shepherd.


Awards and Recognition

Arp’s career was incredibly successful as he approached global fame as a master modern sculptor in the 1950s. In 1954, he won the Grand Prize in the field of sculpture at the Venice Biennale and the Grand Prize for sculpture at La Biennale di Venezia two years later. His late career saw an abundance of productivity in the artist’s production rate and held a retrospective at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in 1962. A year later, he bagged the Grand Prix National des Arts with other sculpture prizes from Pittsburgh International in 1964. In the same year, he also won the Carnegie Prize, followed by the Goethe Prize in 1965 and the Order of Merit with a Star of the German Republic.

His three most famous large-scale relief sculptures were created for the University of Caracas, the University of Applied Sciences in Braunschweig, and a UNESCO branch based in Paris.


Death and Legacy

Hans Arp died June 7 1966 in Basel, Switzerland after a period of ill health, which prevented the artist from traveling. Arp died shortly after a heart attack and left behind a significant legacy, which inspired many artists. From his organically charged sculptures to his contributions across Surrealism and Dadaism, Hans Arp was most appreciated for his poetry and random wordplay, which inspired artists like Tristan Tzara.

Hans Arp Exhibition view with Hans Arp’s Arpaden (1923); GKM Berlin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

His biomorphic designs also shaped the artistic designs on furniture created by Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames. His best efforts were rooted in his approach to art, which prioritized randomized outcomes of production, thus giving his work a fresh edge and innovative quality that conveyed a gestural form of expression rather than the rigidity that was expected from modern art at the time.



Famous Artworks by Hans Arp

Hans Arp, better known as Jean Arp, was a revolutionary thinker whose sculptures, poems, and paintings captivated those around him. Arp’s dedication to creating art is felt strongly in his work, which echoes his strife toward harmony and relinquishment of control from the process.

Below, we will introduce you to a few famous artworks by Hans Arp that will give you a sense of his style and approach to abstract art, Surrealism, and Dadaism. 


Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance (c. 1916 – 1917)

Datec. 1916 – 1917
MediumTorn-and-pasted paper and pigmented paper on colored paper
Dimensions (cm)48.5 x 34.6
Where It Is HousedThe Museum of Modern Art, New York City, United States

This is an example of one of Arp’s chance collages, which showcases his signature approach to incorporating change in his process. Here, Arp tore sheets of paper into rough shapes and let them fall onto a larger sheet of paper. He then proceeded to glue down the pieces where they had landed, thus producing a collage of chance. The chance factor in this artwork is, however, put into question since the shapes appear to be evenly spaced and in alignment with the frame.

The chance artwork was uniquely in harmony, to say, perchance, it fell into the right place. Arp created the collage in Zurich, which was also the hub of Dada in 1916. Arp, like many, was deeply affected by the effects of modern warfare and joined hands with the Dadaists to seek new ways of connecting nature and art. Strategies like the one employed by Arp were part of Dada’s experiments to integrate more organic processes into art-making since they viewed logic and rational thinking as culprits of the war. While Arp may have guided the way that the paper pieces fell over the artwork, his idea was considered radical for its time, since it was one of the first attempts that engaged with the notion of chance. The artwork also demonstrates Arp’s engagement with one of the hallmark concepts of Dadaism, chaos. A careful study of the work also revealed that Arp may have used heavy-weight fine art paper to guide the composition, thus indicating that he did not completely relinquish his control.

However, his approach and desire to communicate the role of chance was smart.


Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest (1932)

Dimensions (cm)9 x  22.2 x 15.4
Where It Is HousedTate Gallery, London, United Kingdom

Between the 1920s and 1930s, Hans Arp experimented with a form of biomorphic sculpture that merged the spheres of creation and innovation in nature. The form he employed for Sculpture to be Lost in the Forest evokes the natural forms of worn pebbles, created using a  quasi-automatic method of sanding off the plaster model until he felt satisfied with the form.

Arp’s approach to sculpture and his emphasis on the process in connection with his vision shows just how dedicated Arp was to his craft. Arp also placed a series of sculptures near his home in Meudon, where people could discover them in the forest like little treasures.

The sculpture also reflects his ability to merge allusion and abstraction, since many of his works appeared to morph in form, as though they were in a state of flux.


Ptolemy (1953)

Dimensions (cm)106.7 x 50.8 x 42.5
Where It Is HousedThe Museum of Modern Art, New York City, United States

Not only did Jean Arp explore the concept of chance in the creation process, but he was also deeply invested in exploring the concept of opposites. Ptolemy shows us the contrast between emptiness and materiality through the presence of voids and the texture of the limestone.

The elegant and distorted form of the work also appears to embrace the gaping voids. The sculpture itself was named after the astronomer and mathematician Claudius Ptolemy, who was also interested in the idea of opposites. Simultaneously, Jean Arp’s sculpture conveys the existence of both nothingness and being, which also reflects the complex relationship that nature shares with humanity. In Arp’s view, humanity and nature were inseparable, continuously challenging each other through the cycles of birth and death.

This is also reflected in the constant growth and change that can drastically shape the experience of life and our conception of creation.


Déméter (1961)

MediumWhite marble
Dimensions (cm)100 (h)
Where It Is HousedPrivate collection

In 2018, this famous white marble sculpture sold for $5.8 million at a Christie’s auction in New York, which marked one of the highest prices ever paid for a sculpture by Jean Arp on auction. The sculpture, titled Déméter, was created in 1961 and reflects the artist’s interests in themes of renewal and growth, as documented in the figure of the Greek goddess Demeter, who was also the goddess of agriculture that ruled over the cycle of the seasons. Throughout Arp’s Dada and surrealist phases, he threw himself into relief sculpture and expanded on the use of classical motifs by incorporating abstract sculptural languages.

In this sculpture, Arp represented the seated figure of Demeter and accentuated her volume to emphasize her maternal and nurturing role as the mother of Persephone.

The tilted head on the sculpture also alludes to her character as a protector, while the entire form of the sculpture can also be read as symbolic of new growth since it also represents a germinating plant. Scholars believe that Arp was inspired by a trip across Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, which he took in 1960 to explore the agricultural “Fertile Crescent”, where the first fruitful forms of agriculture emerged with some of the earliest human civilizations.

Arp’s sculpture also revives the primordial connection between motherhood and the Earth, which early civilizations explored when representing agricultural goddesses. This was emphasized by the use of exaggerated body parts in votive sculptures that were used as “fertility figurines”. Arp also created a smaller version of the figurine using a single marble piece with five bronze casts and an additional plaster model, which is located in Strasbourg at the Musée d’Art Moderne. Arp’s choice of marble and the process of polishing and smoothing the white marble surface was a nod to the material’s “elemental purity” and the sculpture’s origin, as sourced from the natural world.


Hans Arp’s dedication to testing the boundaries of chance and concepts of nature, organic form, growth, and transformation to develop abstract art is a testament to his intuitive art practice. Arp’s experimentation with biomorphism and his harmonious sculptures also provide an interesting framework for aspiring sculptors to explore non-rigid and non-traditional approaches to the medium. In discovering the inner worlds of famous artists like Jean Arp, we hope that you will feel more inspired to embrace abstraction.




Frequently Asked Questions


Who Was Hans Arp?

Hans Arp, also known as Jean Arp, was a renowned German-French artist. Arp worked across the mediums of painting, poetry, and sculpture, and was associated with movements such as Dadaism, Surrealism, and abstraction.


What Was Hans Arp Best Known For?

Hans Arp was best known for his contribution to abstract sculpture through his biomorphic sculptures. His approach was intuitive and relied on organic forms that he created from marble, plaster, bronze, and stone. Arp was also a famous member of many modern art groups, including Dada and Surrealist art circles.


What Inspired Hans Arp?

The famous German-French painter and sculptor, Hans Arp, was inspired by artists like Wassily Kandinsky and styles promoted by German Expressionism. Arp was also motivated by his interest in nature and its unpredictability, which moved him to explore biomorphism, chance, and organic form in art.


Cite this Article

Jordan, Anthony, “Hans Arp – Learn More About the Famous Dada Artist.” Art in Context. November 28, 2023. URL: https://artincontext.org/hans-arp/

Anthony, J. (2023, 28 November). Hans Arp – Learn More About the Famous Dada Artist. Art in Context. https://artincontext.org/hans-arp/

Anthony, Jordan. “Hans Arp – Learn More About the Famous Dada Artist.” Art in Context, November 28, 2023. https://artincontext.org/hans-arp/.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *