Jean Arp was a very prominent member of two of Modernism’s most perplexing art movements: Dada and Surrealism. Dada, often also called Dadaism, was less a coherent group of artists than a collective of like-minded and disaffected people whose ideas and art were propelled by an abiding disgust with the First World War. It made its headquarters in pacifist Switzerland in 1916 and launched a wide-ranging attack on pomposity, militarism and all bogus authority. Much of its artistic activity was energised by the devastation and inhumanity caused by the War from 1914 to 1918 – it was pricked and prodded by revulsion. The Dadaists saw their contemporaneous society as being complicit in a senseless destruction of the civilising attributes that wondrous Old Europe stood for – they were repulsed by its pointless murder. For them, society had become moribund and its methods of social control through jingoism, honour, religion, the family, practicality, rationalism, logic and positivism were bankrupt. The absurdity of seeing young men marching off to almost certain death with copies of Novalis or Goethe’s sublime poetry in their pockets, struck the Dadaists as a monumental social and ethical absurdity - an absurdity well worth mocking. Therefore, anything that contributed to humankind’s social or political enslavement or lack of integral freedom through propaganda or authoritarianism was to be attacked. World War I was an insult to Humanism and no Church, State or Military official or lackey was safe from censure. The Dadaists were white-hot livid! Oddly enough, the quiet, gentle and saintly Arp was one of their leaders.
Curiously, Arp’s attack was a kind of retreat. Arp turned away from anger and agitation and simply rejected and mentally disowned oppression, authority, dogmatism, pomposity and control. Instead, he put in place a personal monk-like program of art-making that rested upon a type of aesthetic reversal: where there was oppression, he installed release; where there was dogmatism he stressed openness; where there was pomposity he reacted with humility and where there was control he acted with freedom. This was not simple contrariness or wimpishness; it was a personal neutralisation that was lived out and worked through. In all of this, there is something of the Samurai warrior who stops to admire an azalea, or catches sight of the moon glinting on his blade – and then retreats to write poetry or practise calligraphy.
These are the attributes that attracted him to Surrealism – and it to him. Surrealism promised a ‘vertiginous descent into ourselves’ and in the heady air of the Paris of 1924, its psychological underpinnings (Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were never far from their minds) and artistic innovations seemed to point beyond the absurdities and negativities of the recent past. Arp was particularly taken with the concepts of chance, arbitrariness, happenstance and automatism that enlivened Surrealism: for him, these invigorating concepts acted as antidotes to the excessive rationalism and totalitarianism that he blamed for the War. The mild-mannered Arp soon became entrenched in a quietistic mode of artistic production that both needed and combined the attentiveness of a naturalist, the tenacity of a spawning salmon and the innocence of a child. He scoured his world looking for and remaining keenly aware of the unappreciated and the overlooked – the drop of water on a leaf; the stain of a spill; the image in a microscope; the hoarfrost on a fence; the shape of a worn pebble. All these simple, generally unnoticed elements revealed an alternative realm teeming with artistic possibilities. His art has no portraits, no history stories, no religious subjects and, needless to say, no generals on horseback. Arp’s artistic imagination did a ‘U turn’ and returned to natural and elemental principles – not as an escape, but as a check-in to a lavish retreat. Thereafter, he found great aesthetic solace in Surrealism’s internalising processes such as ‘pure psychic automatism’ and ‘found objects’ that enabled him to created finely finished art works that pulsed with inner life and were as carefully selected as rocks in a Japanese garden.
His bronze sculpture Torse Fruit, cast from a marble of 1960, is a characteristic example of his mature work. Its smooth surfaces delineate a luscious shape that is part fruit and part human body. This form of anthropomorphic imagining is common in Surrealism and is first and best seen in two strikingly original novels. In 1928, André Breton (1896-1966), the brilliant leader of Surrealism, published an enigmatic book entitled Nadja. Its semi-fictional story relates how Breton bumped into a young woman in the streets of Paris and how their accidental meeting sparked a series of remarkable events, which are described in an intriguing way that combines happenstance and meandering thought. The book presents a lived parapraxis of urban Paris – things slip and reveal throughout. The novel contains photographs, the first to do so, that illustrate the passage of strange and disclosing events. In 1937, Breton published the book Mad Love (L’Amour fou), which also uses photographs. One of these photographs shows a root vegetable that he found in a Paris grocery stall, whose shape had a very close resemblance to the famous marble sculpture of Aeneas and Anchises fleeing the Burning of Troy of 1618 by the great Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), which is now held in the Borghese Palace in Rome.1 In both splendid books, Breton explains in his typically eloquent manner, how precious inspiration can come from the unexpected, how anthropomorphism always beckons and how simple chance events and discoveries in everyday life can unfold great insights and prick the creative imagination. Inspiration does not fly in through the window – it is under one’s very feet. Thereafter, hunched-over artists everywhere pounded pavements, beaches and back alleys searching for coincidences and connections – for the unexpected ‘found object’ (objet trouvé) that would trigger an artistic moment – that would provide a type of involuntary insight – even a quick fumble through Louis Aragon’s wonderful ‘mythology of the modern’ novel Paris Peasant of 1926 establishes this. Never have artists walked so much. Arp was one of these! Not to put too fine a point on it, so too were Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Henry Moore (1898-1986), Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Max Ernst (1891-1976), Man Ray (1890-1976), Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), Hans Bellmer (1902-1975), Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985), Edward Weston (1886-1958), Bill Brandt (1904-1983) and even our own Robert Klippel (1920-2001) and Max Dupain (1911-1992).
The point is that what both Breton and Arp were propounding was a return to the seizing power of the imagination - the ability to grasp multiple readings, the ability to extrapolate from observation and the ability to transform mundane leaden reality. This essentially is the raison d’être and aesthetic nub of Jean Arp’s bronze sculpture Torse Fruit. It’s voluptuous smooth shapes, both flesh and fruit to unguided hands, reminds one of the sensuous pleasures of sculpture. Of course, it is not based upon a likeness, but rather an analogy – it is not a body or a fruit but an artistic symbiosis of the two forms. Arp’s analogically inspired sculpture is made to be touched and appreciated by the eye as well as the hand and it clearly possesses that essential element of most good sculpture: a sustained sense of monumentality that remains whether the work is minute or massive – that coheres no matter if the sculpture is large or small.
Arp’s bronze Torse Fruit may be profitable compared with his similar sculpture entitled Human Concretion of 1935 in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which was purchased from the artist at his home in Meudon-Val-Fleur in France. Both sculptures twirl and roll in their own spaces and both have a self-sustaining natural volumetric and visual impact. Neither work is a copy of anything in Nature and yet each seems to be an outgrowth of Nature itself; they are what Arp called ‘nodules’ – they are works of emergence. The present sculpture Torse Fruit reminds one of the nascent essentials of Nature – of the beauty of all but invisible worlds: the worlds of the cotyledon, the radical, the spore, the nodule, the polyp and the embryo.
1. Breton, A., Mad Love, (trans. Mary Ann Caws), University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1987, p.18
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Motherwell, R., (ed.) The Dada Painters and Poets: An Anthology, George Wittenborn, New York, 1951
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Shattuck, R., ‘The Dada-Surrealist Expedition’, New York Review of Books, 18 May and 1 June 1972
Wach, K., ‘The Souvenirs of Sensation: Surrealism and its Objects’, in The Aberrant Object: Women, Dada and Surrealism, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 1994
Watts, Harriet A., Chance: A Perspective on Dada, University Studies in the Fine Arts: The Avant-Garde, no. 9, (ed.) Stephen Foster, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, 1980
Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head, School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne