Jean Arp’s dynamic and multifaceted oeuvre represents an artist at the core of the 20th century’s most important aesthetic movements, from Dada and Surrealism to Abstraction. Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 16 May and Day Sale on 17 May will offer a group of exceptional works by this celebrated artist, including bronze sculpture and wood relief, two mediums inherent to Arp’s unique repertoire.
JEAN ARP, COLLAGE ARRANGED ACCORDING TO THE LAWS OF CHANCE, 1916-17. THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK. © 2017 ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK / VG BILD-KUNST, BONN.
Born to a French mother and German father in 1886, Arp grew up in Alsace, where he learned to speak the native languages of his parents, as well as the Alsatian dialect distinctive to the region. Arp’s trilingual upbringing would have a profound influence upon the early stages of his artistic development, particularly through the form of poetry, and his dual-nationality would remain a significant part of his identity as an artist, assuming the name ‘Hans Arp’ for his German audience, and ‘Jean Arp’ for his French equivalent. The artist’s effortless linguistic plurality is expressed in his statement that, “I grew up with these three languages, which I use according to circumstances,” (quoted in, Robertson, Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor, New Haven, 2006, p. 4). While Arp benefited from the multi-national nature of his upbringing in Alsace, he grew up during a period of political, cultural, and linguistic strife following the Franco-Prussian War, an event resulting in the annexation of Alsace into Bismarck’s second German Empire. The vivid bitterness felt in the years after this conflict, as well as the impending sense of uncertainty during the outbreak of the First World War in the years following, would inform Arp’s exploration into notions of the irrational and the involuntary in his art practices, experiments that would drive the artist’s overwhelming contribution to the Dada and Surrealist movements.
Arp travelled to Paris in 1912 where he met Sonia and Robert Delaunay, two artists who offered valuable introductions to the city’s exclusive avant-garde circle dominated at the time by figures such as Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Max Jacob. While Arp drifted in and out of Paris over the next three years, his move to Zurich in 1915 marks a critical shift in his career, when he began to create many of the collages and tapestries unique to his repertoire. He shared with the Zurich Dadaists the rebellious aim to demolish aesthetic order and question rationalism, as Arp stated, “dissolution was the ultimate in everything that Dada represented. Philosophically and morally; everything must be pulled apart, not a screw left in its customary place…the total negation of everything that had existed before…the role of chance, not as an extension of the scope of art, but as a principle of dissolution and anarchy. In art, anti-art,” (ibid, p. 23). This revolutionary notion of anti-art, and the expression of chance is present in Arp’s celebrated collage Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) of 1917, executed during his intense involvement within the Zurich Dadaist group. As a part of Arp’s series entitled According to the Laws of Chance, Untitled exemplifies the removal of human intervention, and the submission of visual practices to chance. To create his “chance collages,” Arp would drop scraps of paper at random onto a large sheet, and subsequently glue the pieces exactly where they fell. Through this singular process, Arp pioneered the randomization of visual practices, and his work during this period would have a powerful impact upon the Surrealists and their exploration into notions of automatism. Arp therefore represents a critical link between the Dadaists and the Surrealists, and the works offered in this season’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening and Day sales ultimately exhibit Arp’s significant position as a formative figure within the landscape of Modern art.
Arp’s reliance upon chance and intuition is present in Horloge, a notable work offered as lot 6 in the upcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, executed during the artist’s period of collaboration with the Zurich Dada group. In this piece, Arp manifests irregular, organic shapes evocative of natural forms through the layering of carved wood. Reminiscent of his chance collages such as Untitled, Arp’s reliefs exhibit assemblages of wood pieces screwed together, ultimately transforming his two-dimensional paper collages into three-dimensional tangible forms. In the 1920s Arp adopted brighter, more saturated hues of gray, blue, black and white, while, Jane Hancock argues, “Arp continued to insist on many aesthetic principles he had adopted earlier: clearly defined forms, organic shapes, irregular compositional arrangements, flatness” (J. Hancock, “The Figure and Its Attributes: Dada and Surrealism” in Arp (exhibition catalogue), Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart (and travelling), 1986-99, p. 88). Still guided by intuition, the present lot illuminates Arp’s early development of a highly abstract visual language, yet the artist’s biomorphic carved forms are nonetheless evocative of the natural world and human anatomy – elements that would remain present throughout his career. The reliefs’ simplified forms, monochromatic color palette and complex spatial frameworks further illustrate the German-French artist’s concern for Constructivism, a movement that emphasized pure forms through a distinctive ‘object language.’ The language of Constructivism, as well as Arp’s biomorphic wood forms similarly appear in the work New York I, offered as lot 332 in the upcoming Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale, which exhibits the same layering technique of irregular shapes as present in Horloge. Executed in 1949, New York I has an exceptional provenance, as the relief formed part of the collection of Andy Warhol for many years.
While wood reliefs form a significant element of Arp’s oeuvre, and build upon his early experiments with collage, his bronze sculptures demonstrate a critical highlight of his career. Executed in 1959, one of Arp’s most productive periods, Torse des Pyrénées, lot 16, illuminates the artist’s transformative shift towards a greater level of abstraction, and fundamentally exemplifies Arp’s mastery in the medium of bronze. As a seminal part of the Finn Family Collection, the sculpture embodies the delicate, physical beauty of an elongated and abstracted human torso, the shape of which manifests a distinctly feminine aesthetic. Arp adopted the practice of sculpture in the early 1930s, one that allowed him to further explore notions of chance through collaboration with other artists, as well as in the molding and casting process itself. As such, Arp’s technique as a sculptor built upon his earlier ideas of automatism, as well as the Surrealist notion of the unconscious, as the artist once stated, “the sculptor is a builder, an architect of dreams,” (quoted in Robertson, Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor, New Haven, 2006, p. 106). In his sculptures, Arp sought to unveil the enigmatic and poetic elements hidden in everyday forms, and the amorphous curvilinear figure of Torse des Pyrénées undoubtedly emanates the ephemeral beauty of the human body. Anthropomorphic illusions are also present in the works Figure mythique and Entité Ailée, both offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale as lots 334 and 333, which further evoke Arp’s infinite aptitude for the medium of bronze.
Arp remained productive throughout the last years of his life, and before his death in 1966, he lived to see two momentous retrospectives of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1958, and at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris in 1962. A celebrated and influential artist during his lifetime, Arp’s reputation as a master of 20th century modern art has only magnified since his passing, and the works offered in the Impressionist & Modern Art sales this season manifest this artist’s unique brilliance in a range of styles and mediums.