Jean (Hans) Arp


2. Dada period, 1916–20

Source: Oxford University Press

The effervescence of the Dada movement, to which Arp belonged from its very beginning in February 1916, went far beyond polemics and challenges aimed to shock the bourgeoisie: it enabled ideas and new forms to develop and grow in a climate that was free from prejudice and academic conventions, and it also encouraged inventive spontaneity. It proved to be a fertile soil for the systematic evolution of Arp’s typical style, conditioned by two factors, those of terrestrial form and the concept of chance. He exploited the potential of accidental conjunctions of forms in works such as Collage with Squares Arranged According to the Laws of Chance (1916–17; New York, MOMA). His investigation of Biomorphism in shapes that he later referred to as ‘moving ovals’ was inspired by natural forms, especially by the debris thrown up on the beach at Ascona, such as roots, twigs and shingle. Giving free rein to his brush and to his imagination in irregular and slashed contours outlined in India ink, he developed a direct form of pictorial expression that allowed him to abandon himself to subconscious forces and to the laws of chance. These forms became the basis of his Dada and Surrealist reliefs and of the free-standing sculptures that he initiated some 13 years later. Both the appearance and the structure of his forms were infinitely variable, as they are in nature, their continuous evolution symbolizing the cyclical metamorphosis of all earthly life as growth, decline and rebirth (e.g. in the three woodcuts published in Dada, 3, Dec 1918). Arp’s work came very close at this time to that of Kandinsky, whom he knew and admired through the Blaue Reiter. Arp soon carved such biomorphic forms in wood, superimposing them in bright polychromatic reliefs such as Forest (1916; Clamart, Fond. Arp), so full of movement that they seem to overflow their frames. These works have a genuine rather than illusionistic depth, with up to four separate layers appearing to project themselves into space.

At the end of World War I Arp renewed his contacts with the avant-garde in Germany, France and Italy, and helped to spread Dada in Berlin, Cologne, Hannover and Paris. For Arp, Dada represented the reconciliation of man with nature and the integration of art into life. From 1917 he and Taeuber had also become involved in a utopian community, Monte Verità, at Ascona; in 1918 they rejoined the Neue leben group in Basle (signing their Manifeste des artistes radicaux in 1919), which was also seeking to give the artist a social function, as Dada was doing in Berlin. In Arp’s view, Dada was ‘a moral revolution’. In tandem with his abstract compositions inspired by organic forms, he continued to conceive works derived from the human body, such as Figure (1915; Locarno, Fond. Arp) and Madame Torso with Wavy Hat, Woman (1916; Berne, Kstmus.). Subsequently human elements appeared in his abstract works, in the fragmentary form of eyes, heads or other body parts (e.g. Flake Bois II–V, 1920; see Arntz, cat. nos 52–5), and in greatly simplified reliefs, such as Mask (1918; Paris, Ruth Arp priv. col., see Rau, cat. no. 23).

Greta Stroeh

From Grove Art Online

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