Jean Arp (Hans Arp)

Constellation According to the Laws of Chance


On display at Tate Modern

Original title
Constellation selon les lois du hasard
Painted wood
Object: 549 x 698 mm
frame: 772 x 910 x 100 mm
Bequeathed by E.C. Gregory 1959


Constellation According to the Laws of Chance c.1930 is a small rectangular painted wooden relief by French artist Jean (Hans) Arp. Eight monochrome biomorphic forms have been painted or placed onto the surface of a white painted board. These include three white wooden ovoid forms that sit in low relief casting shadows when under light. They are arranged among five black forms which have been painted directly onto the white background. Three of the black shapes are clustered in the centre but extend towards, and in some cases touch, the white forms, while two others seem to be either entering or leaving the composition, pushed into the lower left corner and top of the frame respectively. The white wooden frame both enhances and extends the composition, mirroring the white relief shapes within it.

It is likely that this relief was produced in Meudon, near Paris, in the studio to which Arp had moved in 1928. The white wooden forms were ordered from a craftsman and subsequently placed by the artist alongside the black shapes he had painted. It is unclear in which order the forms were added but it is evident that Arp determined the composition. In 1983 the collector Pierre Bruguière recalled how Arp, from 1930 onwards, often moved wooden shapes around in his reliefs before deciding on their definitive form (Robertson 2006, p.156).

This relief shows Arp’s preoccupation with abstracted biomorphic forms inspired by constellations of natural forms such as stars and clouds, and his attempts to develop what he referred to in 1957 as an ‘object language’ based on a small number of similar shapes (quoted in von Asten 2012, p.86). He referred to such forms as ‘cosmic shapes’ and is quoted in a posthumous publication of 1972 stating that ‘the forms that I created between 1927 and 1948 and that I / called cosmic forms / were vast forms / meant to englobe a multitude of forms such as: / the egg / the planetary orbit / … the bud / the human head / the breast / the sea shell / … I constellated these forms “according to the laws of chance”’ (quoted in von Asten 2012, p.57). The black and white cell-like shapes of Constellation According to the Laws of Chance express Arp’s deep-seated interest not in replicating the precise forms of nature, but in creating art based on the generative power of nature, like ‘fruit that grows in man, like a fruit on a plant or a child in its mother’s womb’, as Arp stated in 1931 (quoted in Anna Moszynska, Abstract Art, London 1990, p.113). The organic forms in this image coupled with Arp’s tendency to reposition objects indicate this desire to develop abstract art organically through the process of making.

Art historian Eric Robertson has suggested that Arp’s measured approach to the construction of his reliefs, combined with their ‘high degree of finish’, may seem ‘incongruous’ with the word ‘chance’ in many of their titles (Robertson 2006, p.156). However, the element of chance was manifest both in Arp’s rearrangements of the reliefs, which indicate that he did not have a premeditated plan, and also in the making of the white forms themselves: Arp reportedly gave only ambiguous instructions to the craftsman so as to encourage free interpretation.

In 1955 Arp described how black and white shapes could ‘equal writing’ (quoted in Robertson 2006, p.150). Robertson has emphasised the dominance of these colours in Arp’s work of the 1930s and 1940s but has pointed out that the ‘spatial distribution’ of forms within Constellation According to the Laws of Chance is ‘more complex’ than in most reliefs:

The forms continue to designate separate spatial realms, but the similarity of their shapes suggests not so much a tension as a relationship of complementarity in the balancing of opposites … The physical proximity of some of the white relief shapes and the black forms, whose edges occasionally touch, suggests objects of indeterminate scale moving and intersecting through three-dimensional space, an interpretation that Arp’s choice of title, ‘constellation’, consciously invites.
(Robertson 2006, p. 150.)

Constellation According to the Laws of Chance belongs to a body of work titled Constellations that Arp had likely begun to produce in 1928. Early examples, such as Constellation 1928 (Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, Remagen), often show Arp experimenting with white wooden shapes on a white background. He continued to develop the dominant themes of this piece throughout the 1930s in his wooden reliefs such as Constellation with Five White Forms and Two Black, Variation III 1932 (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) and papiers déchirés including According to the Laws of Chance 1933 (Tate T05005). At the time of the production of Constellation According to the Laws of Chance Arp was closely associated with dada and surrealism, both of which fostered an interest in the disruptive possibilities of chance operations as well as the flux and movement of biomorphic forms. Arp’s wooden reliefs also influenced artists such as Henry Moore and Joan Miró.

Further reading
Jane Hancock and Stephanie Pooley (eds.), Arp 18861966, exhibition catalogue, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, and Wurttembergischer Kunstverein, Berlin 1987.
Eric Robertson, Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor, New Haven 2006, pp.150–2, reproduced p.151.
Astrid von Asten, ‘“We want to produce like a plant that produced a fruit”: Hans Arp and the “Nature Principle”’, in Paul Crowther and Isobel Wünsche (eds.), Meanings of Abstract Art: Between Nature and Theory, London 2012, pp.81–96.

Jo Kear
March 2016

Display caption

Arp felt that modern society had become over-dependent on reason. He hoped to redress the balance by developing an art that consciously evoked the forms and laws of nature without copying them. The rounded shapes in this relief may suggest clouds or planets, while the ‘laws’ of the title are those of flux and chance that characterise the ‘inaccessible order’ of nature. Arp’s interest in chance extended to the making of his reliefs. He ordered them from a craftsman, but left his instructions ambiguous in order to encourage the craftsman’s free interpretation.

Gallery label, October 2016

Catalogue entry

Jean Arp 1886-1966

T00242 Constellation selon les Lois du Hasard (Constellation according to the Laws of Chance) c.1930

Not inscribed
Painted wood relief, internal measurements 17 3/4 x 23 5/8 (45 x 60), overall dimensions 21 5/8 x 27 1/2 (55 x 69.7)
Bequeathed by E.C. Gregory 1959
Prov: [?with Mayor Gallery, London]; E. McKnight Kauffer, London (by 1936); E.C. Gregory, London
Exh: [?Recent Paintings by English, French and German Artists, Mayor Gallery, London, April 1933 (39 or 40, both entitled 'Composition')]; Contemporary Art, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, May-June 1936 (174) as 'Composition', lent by McKnight Kauffer; Seventeen Collectors, Tate Gallery, March-April 1952 (58); Pictures without Paint, AIA Gallery, London, November 1957 (10); The Gregory Collection, ICA, London, July-August 1959 (2); Gregory Memorial Exhibition, Leeds City Art Gallery, March-April 1960 (1)
Lit: Ionel Jianou, Jean Arp (Paris 1973), p.59 (dated 1930)
Repr: John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery (London 1966), p.259; The Tate Gallery (London 1969), p.127; Simon Wilson, The Surrealists (London 1974), pl.21

At the time this was made, Arp seldom gave titles to his reliefs; however, reliefs of this type appear nowadays in monographs as 'Configuration', 'Constellation' or 'According to the Laws of Chance'. The artist therefore suggested that this work should be called 'Constellation according to the Laws of Chance'. He thought that it is almost certainly a unique piece; although he made editions of many of his reliefs, this was rather exceptional during the thirties in the case of the larger reliefs and especially those in which certain elements were painted. The first reliefs of this particular kind were made in 1930 (letter from Mme Marguerite Arp, 22 October 1959).

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.21-2, reproduced p.21