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Word Play

Discover how Dada artists challenged and manipulated the rules, syntax, and symbols of language.


Cover from Merz 5. 7 Arpaden by Hans Arp. Arp Portfolio. Second Portfolio of the Merz Publisher (Merz 5. 7 Arpaden von Hans Arp. Arp Mappe. Zweite Mappe des Merzverlages)

Jean (Hans) Arp
(French, born Germany (Alsace). 1886–1966)

1923. Letterpress with collage addition, composition (front cover): 17 1/16 x 13 1/4" (43.4 x 33.6 cm); composition (back cover): 3 5/8 x 3 3/8" (9.2 x 8.5 cm); cover: 18 1/8 x 14 5/16" (46 x 36.3 cm)

Jean Arp created a series of seven simple but evocative “object pictures” that combine allusions to the body and everyday things—Mustache Hat, One Navel, The Sea, Arabic Eight, The Navel Bottle, Mustache, Watch, Eggbeater. Each sign evokes familiar letter or number forms, but cannot be read as such. Instead, they comprise a set of personal symbols he called Arpaden (a word Arp made up to mean “Arp things”). The portfolio of lithographs was published as the fifth issue of the avant-garde literary journal Merz, a project led by his friend Kurt Schwitters.

In 1915, Arp moved to politically neutral Zurich, Switzerland, seeking refuge from the events of World War I. There he met a group of like-minded artists with whom he established the Dada movement. During this period, Arp evolved the practice of combining shapes and relying on chance to create art and poetry. He created biomorphic shapes, often humorous or slyly suggestive, that resembled figures from nature or everyday objects.

A form, sign, or emblem that represents something else, often something immaterial, such as an idea or emotion.

The form or condition in which an object exists or appears.

A term invented by the artist Kurt Schwitters to describe his works made from scavenged fragments and objects.

A printmaking technique that involves drawing with greasy crayons or a liquid called tusche, on a polished slab of limestone; aluminum plates, which are less cumbersome to handle, may also be used. The term is derived from the Greek words for stone (litho) and drawing (graph). When the greasy image is ready to be printed, a chemical mixture is applied across the surface of the stone or plate in order to securely bond it. This surface is then dampened with water, which adheres only to the blank, non-greasy areas. Oily printer’s ink, applied with a roller, sticks to the greasy imagery and not to areas protected by the film of water. Damp paper is placed on top of this surface and run through a press to transfer the image. In addition to the traditional method described here, other types of lithography include offset lithography, photolithography, and transfer lithography.

The shape or structure of an object.

An artistic and literary movement formed in response to the disasters of World War I (1914–18) and to an emerging modern media and machine culture. Dada artists sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic, favoring strategies of chance, spontaneity, and irreverence. Dada artists experimented with a range of mediums, from collage and photomontage to everyday objects and performance, exploding typical concepts of how art should be made and viewed and what materials could be used. An international movement born in neutral Zurich and New York, Dada rapidly spread to Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, Paris, and beyond.

Derived from the Greek words bios (life) and morphe (form), a term referring to abstract forms or images that evoke associations with living forms such as plants and the human body.

French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.