Jean Hans Arp

By Alex de Gruy

Jean (Hans) Arp was one of the founding members of the Dada movement.  In particular Arp was closely involved with the start of the Zurich branch of the movement.  Switzerland stayed neutral during World War I, and as a result became a safe haven for many artists fleeing either political backlash or the actual violence itself.  Arp was one of the artists to relocate to Switzerland, and it was in his time there that he became involved with the new style that would call itself Dada.  Arp contributed to the movement through both his sculptures and his paintings, as well as through his written works of poetry and essays.  Through his connection with Dada, Arp sought to form a new type of social commentary which stressed the creation of a new society based on extreme abstraction and individual meaning.

The quote “Dada means nothing,” from Tristian Tzara in the Dada Manifesto is not only a summation of the aims of Dada, but also its methods.[1]  Dada sought to destroy the old ideas concerning art while also making a social commentary.  This was achieved through development of entirely new styles and tactics all based upon the idea of extreme abstraction.  This use of abstraction was based upon the idea of the importance of the individual and the lack of concrete universal truths.[2]  Dada embraced a wide variety of different types of art and different mediums.[3]  It stretched from costumes made for interpretive dance and theatre productions to poetry as well as into painting and sculpture.  The main requirement for joining the Dada movement was an embrace of free artistic creativity and a desire to form a new cultural identity, completely independent from the old ideas.[4]

The other main characterization of the Dada movement was the self-irony and conflict which arose with the implementation of the ideals.[5]  The movement was designed as a reaction against the strict social structures, but inherently contained its own internal structure.  From its inception the movement struggled with this conflict as the movement was defined in a manifesto and had a style with common themes there were no formal rules.  This was due to the fact that Dada was founded on the principles of free expression as art, which means there can be no clear line on what works are Dada and which are not.  Though there were many figure heads associated with the movement, particularly Kandinsky and Marc, they could not be seen as true leaders since the movement was driven by the individual.  For this reason Dada struggled to unite or be governed by any specific set laws.  The movement called for a new order driven by the individual, and art that was controlled by no rules.  Despite these internal issues Dada was able to attain moderate success and thrive with many contributing artists.

One of the major contributing artists, particularly to the early years of the Zurich branch of Dada, was Hans Arp.  Arp was known for many different types of art: costume design, painting and sculpture, however here the focus is primarily on his painting and sculpture.  During his Dada years, Arp employs a few different techniques in both his painting and sculpture, especially the use of collage and non-traditional materials.

Arp used two main types of materials to construct his sculptures, plaster and wood reliefs.  The plaster sculptures come in a series titled Human Creations.  These sculptures, which are from the post war period, are rounded abstract forms that are meant to symbolize the simplicity of the past, which Arp views as a better time.[6]  Through these sculptures Arp sought to reconnect people with the emotional side of life and express feelings through art.[7]  Arp felt that emotion was something that was lost in modern art and through the industrialization and standardization that the factory and the machine brought to modern life.

The other main type of sculpture composed by Arp consisted of pieces of wood built together in a type of sculpture collage.  These wood-reliefs were often constructed from many different cut pieces of wood, and this style was used by Arp throughout his career.  There were two main types of wood-reliefs, those in which the elements used to compose them were hidden and those in which the screws and nails were left visible.[8]  Both of these two different types, however, focused on the elements of construction and building up.  During and following World War I large sections of Europe were ravaged and destroyed, and Dada itself sought to further destroy these old orders.  However, through the use of the different separate pieces coming together Arp proposes the idea that Dada is not only the destruction of the old, but also the creation of something new and different.

In the works where the screws were left visible Arp is making a commentary on the modern, industrial society.  By using these industrial means of construction and making it obvious that this was the means, Arp blends the industrial with art.  This is important to Dadaist because the movement is not against progress or industrialization; however Arp is in particular concerned with preserving a place for art in the new society.  With the growth of industry and mechanization art was being created and marketed to the masses, and as a result the art of the time was not the inspired creation of a single artist, but rather a mass produced icon.  These works symbolize this connection between art and industry, while also reserving a place for specialized pieces of art.

In the other type of relief sculpture Arp chooses to cover the means of construction.  Many of these works come from the time when Arp began to experiment with the connection of nature and Dada.[9]  These works were meant to show the connection between the abstraction of Dada and the concrete forms of nature.  The use of industrial elements would have been out of place in these reliefs, and as a result Arp chooses to mask their existence.  This group of sculptures is particularly interesting as it is an attempt by Arp to connect the seemingly irrational ideas of Dada with something as clearly logical as nature.  Reinforcing the element of logic through abstraction was an idea that the Dadaist struggled with, however through these works Arp attempts to convey, that even nature is abstract.

Alongside his sculptures Arp also contributed heavily to Dada paintings.  In the early years of Dada, Arp underwent numerous different changes in style as he evolved toward abstraction.  Arp began with the use of a grid like structure that was fairly rigid, and then transitioned into the use of almost exclusively fluid lines before moving into collage.[10]  This evolution exemplified the shift that the entire movement underwent as it drifted away from the old styles and rules.  It is the collage works for which Arp is best remembered, and these ranged from collages constructed from only a few elements of his own older paintings to elaborate works done in conjunction with other artists, particularly his wife, Sophie Taeuber.  These collages were made from both traditional and non-traditional art elements and covered a wide variety of themes.  They were used by Arp to demonstrate how the rearranging of things can change their meaning, which spoke to the Dada ideal of the lack of universal truths.  The use of collage also signified that things were not as concrete in nature as people had been conditioned to believe, for example newspapers and other common household objects could be art if viewed from a different perspective.

The level of collaboration between the two was so high many of the works produced by Arp during the time of his marriage to Taeuber, 1917-1943, are attributed to both of the artists.[11]  Their initial meeting came in 1916 when Arp was entering a time in his painting career when he himself stated that “I wanted to work anonymously and collectively.”  The connection between Arp and Taeuber also demonstrated the connection for Arp between his romantic life and his work as a painter.[12]  It was this same emotional connection and feeling that Arp tried to bring into his artwork and connect with people.  Taeuber had one of the largest influences on the life and work of Arp, and even following her death in 1943 he continued to use elements of her paintings in his collage artworks.[13]

The works of Hans Arp were heavily influential in the foundation and advancement of the Dada movement.  Through his growth in the blending of industrial elements and nature, as well as his progressing abstraction, Arp drew a parallel to the Dada ideals of self-truths and embrace of the new mechanized age.  Along with the influence of his wife he sought to convey the emotion and individuality associated with art and stress that art was not for mere aesthetic pleasure.  Arp attempted in all his works to reinforce the idea of a reformation of the old social structures and restraints, and to go in a completely new direction that focused on individual creativity and freedom and far less on universal truths.




Arp, Jean, Jane H. Hancock, and Stefanie Poley. Arp, 1886-1966. Cambridge: Cambridge             University Press, 1987.

Hubert, Renée Riese. “Sophie Taeuber and Hans Arp: A Community of Two.” Art Journal,          Volume 52, Number 4, (Winter, 1993) 25-32. Found in JSTOR URL:

Robertson, Eric, and Jean Arp. Arp: painter, poet, sculptor. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale       University Press, 2006.

Tzara, Tristan. “Dada Manifesto 1918.” In Art in Theory, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood,                 252-257. Malden : Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Turvey, Malcolm. “Dada between Heaven and Hell: Abstraction and Universal Language in the   Rhythm Films of Hans Richter.” October, Volume 105, Dada (Summer, 2003) 13-36.            Found in JSTOR URL:

Winter, Gundolf. “Zurich Dada and the Visual Arts”. Dada Zurich : a Clown’s Game  from Nothing, 1996. 148-150.


[1] Tristian Tzara, Dada Manifestó, In Art in Theory, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 252-257 (Malden : Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 253

[2] Tristian Tzara, Dada Manifestó, In Art in Theory, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 252-257 (Malden : Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p. 255

[3] Eric Robertson, “Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor.”(New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.) p. 23

[4] Eric Robertson, “Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor.”(New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.) p. 15

[5] Eric Robertson, “Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor.” (New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.)  p. 21-22

[6] Eric Robertson, “Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor.” (New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.)  p. 110-111

[7] Stefanie Poley, “Arp, 1886-1966” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 148-149

[8] Eric Robertson, “Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor.” (New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.)  p. 34-35

[9] Stefanie Poley, “Arp, 1886-1966” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 176-177

[10] Eric Robertson, “Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor.” (New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press.)  p. 51-53

[11] Reneé Hubert, Sophie Taeuber and Hans Arp: A Community of Two. Art Journal (Winter 1993). p. 26

[12] Gabriel Mahn, “Arp, 1886-1966” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p. 256

[13] Reneé Hubert, Sophie Taeuber and Hans Arp: A Community of Two. Art Journal (Winter 1993). p. 32

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