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Sculptor Jean Arp gets major show in UK after 55-year hiatus

Artist's ideas on "borderless space" particularly potent against the backdrop of Brexit

Installation view of Jean Arp: the Poetry of Forms at Turner Contemporary Photo: Stephen White, courtesy Turner Contemporary

The work and vision of the French-German artist Jean Arp is being brought to the fore in a new survey show that opened last week at the Turner Contemporary in Margate (Jean Arp: the Poetry of Forms, until 14 January 2018). The exhibition dedicated to the sculptor is the first major show dedicated to the Strasbourg-born artist held in the UK since 1962. 

Arp was a multidisciplinary artist, straddling sculpture and poetry, and the show highlights the artist’s many innovations that continue to resonate today. “His works convey the sheer pleasure he took in working with materials of all sorts,” says the co-curator Eric Robertson, the professor of Modern French literary and visual culture at Royal Holloway, University of London.

In the post-Brexit era, Arp’s ideas stand out. He spoke German, French and Alsatian, the local dialect in the city of Strasbourg, and he “embraced his multicultural and multilingual identity,” writes Frances Guy, the co-curator, in the show’s accompanying publication. “He wrote about living in borderless space. He was a real polymath with a very quirky vision,” Robertson adds. “Much of his creative work seems intent on transcending boundaries, be they national, linguistic or artistic.”

The exhibition includes more than 70 sculptures and reliefs, including the painted paper and cardboard piece Head. Milking Object (1926) and the bronze sculpture Three Disagreeable Objects on a Face (1930). The latter with its biomorphic forms reflects Arp’s unconventional style, looking to Surrealism. The sculpture Star (1939) was loaned by the Kröller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, where the show launched earlier this year.

Robertson and Guy underline key phases in Arp’s practice including the artist’s “object-language”, a set of witty, distinctive symbols. His painted wood reliefs incorporate, for instance, chairs, bow-ties and butterflies; the navel was also a key recurring motif. How the sculptor worked between the fields of literature and art is highlighted in the show (excerpts from Arp’s poetry including Kaspar ist tot—Kaspar is dead (1912)—are emblazoned across the gallery walls).

Arp’s pivotal role in numerous 20th-century art movements is also elucidated. The show throws light on the anarchic Zurich Dada school which was co-founded by Arp and Sophie Taeuber—his artistic partner and wife—in early 1916. A series of drawings produced during the Dada period are among the first works visitors see in Margate. Arp also made “chance collages”, assemblages comprising random scraps of paper pasted where they fell. “His artistic experimentation in these years gave rise to works that hold opposing forces in delicate balance… between chance and conscious control,” Robertson says.

In the 1930s, Arp further embraced this approach, creating one of his most beautiful pieces, According to the Laws of Chance (1933). The work, on loan from the Tate in London, comprises a scattering of sugarpaper dotted haphazardly around a plyboard canvas. “Despite, or perhaps because of, the plurality and collaborative nature of his practice, Arp maintained his own artistic identity and never became defined by any one style,” Guy says.