Hans Arp Analysis

Other Literary Forms

In addition to his large body of poetry, Hans Arp wrote a substantial number of lyrical and polemical essays, in which the metaphysical basis of his thought is given its clearest and most systematic expression. These essays are collected in On My Way (1948) and Dreams and Projects (1952). Arp also wrote about his fellow artists in Onze peintres vus par Arp (1949), a collection that helps to clarify the aesthetic values that influenced his own work as a plastic artist. Arp also published two works of fiction: Le Blanc aux pieds de nègre (1945), a collection of short stories, and Tres inmensas novelas (1935), short novels written in collaboration with the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro.


Hans Arp actually has two reputations: one as a sculptor and painter of long-standing international fame, the other as a poet. Although his reputation as a plastic artist overshadowed his work as a poet during his lifetime, he is now recognized as an important and original contributor to the twentieth century literary avant-garde. As a literary artist, Arp is best known for his association with Dada and Surrealism. Together with Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Richard Hülsenbeck, Marcel Janco, and Emmy Hennings, Arp was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of the Dada movement, which began in Zurich in February of 1916. In the 1950’s and 1960’s he erected sculpures for Harvard University, the University of Caracas, and the UNESCO Secretariat Building, the Brunswick Technische Hochschule, and Bonn University Libary. He also finished cement steles and walls for the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel. In addition to these achievements, Hans Arp is best known for sculptures such as Owl’s Dream (1936), Chinese Shadow (1947), Muse’s Amphora (1959), and Shepherd’s Clouds (1953). In 1954, he won the international prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale.

Arp’s Worldview

Arp’s work consists of more than attacks on the reasonable deceptions of man and satires of his vain pride. Arp devoted a substantial portion of his mature work to communicating, in poetic images and symbols, his distinctive metaphysical philosophy, which has been called variously Platonic, Neoplatonic, Romantic, and Idealist. Arp’s worldview eludes these categories; it is personal and intuitive in character, not critical and systematic.

When Arp spoke about the formation of his worldview, he associated it with two particular experiences. The first was the period of isolation he spent at Weggis, which gave him the opportunity to cast aside the aesthetic of abstraction and formulate his theory of “concrete art.” The second experience was his meeting Sophie Taeuber, whose work and life expressed in an intuitive way, free from self-consciousness, the reorientation of human values that Arp had been seeking.

“In Space”

Arp’s metaphysical beliefs, transformed into poetic images and symbols, appeared with increasing frequency in his poetry in the years following Sophie’s death. One of the best of these metaphysical poems is “Dans le vide” (“In Space”), a moving, imaginative elegy written after the death of Arp’s friend and fellow artist, Theo van Doesburg. In this poem, death is treated as cause for celebration, not mourning. When the poem begins, the soul of Arp’s beloved friend—after having sojourned for a time in the transitory material world below—is preparing to leap out into the unknown, the eternal realm of unbounded space above. The soul, freed from the physical body, realizes that death is a return home, not an exile. This is reinforced by the fact that he enters space, the Above, in the fetal position—which is also the crouch he assumes in order to leap into space.

Refusing to see this death as a loss, Arp focuses on the freedom his friend is now able to enjoy for the first time, as he is joyously liberated from the demands of others. Doesburg now knows neither honor nor dishonor, censure nor obligation; he dwells blissfully alone, in an eternal realm of light. Arp had already described this state of blissful eternal existence in a much earlier poem entitled “Il chante il chante” (“He Sings He Sings”). It is in later poems such as “In Space” that Arp reached the height of his powers as a highly distinctive, imaginative, and lyrical poet.


Cathelin, Jean. Jean Arp. Translated by Enid York. New York: Grove Press, 1960. A short introduction to Arp’s life and art, with many photographs of his artwork.

Fauchereau, Serge. Hans Arp. Translated by Kenneth Lyons. New York: Rizzoli, 1988. Biographical and critical introduction to Arp’s artwork and poetry.

Jean, Marcel. Introduction to Arp on Arp: Poems, Essays, Memories, by Jean Arp. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. New York: Viking, 1972. This introductory essay is an excellent summary of Arp’s life and work, and the rest of the book consists of English translations of his collected French poetry and prose.

Last, Rex W. German Dadaist Literature: Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp. New York: Twayne, 1973. This clear, thorough study of the three major German-speaking poets of the Dada movement helps to dispel the mistaken notion that it was mostly a French phenomenon after the Zurich period ended. Contains useful chronologies and succinct bibliographies.

Last, Rex W. Hans Arp: The Poet of Dadaism. London: Wolff, 1969. Makes the criticism of Arp’s poetry, most of which has been published in German, accessible to an English-speaking audience. The second half consists of translations of many of his German poems.

Lemoine, Serge. Dada. Translated by Charles Lynn Clark. New York: Universe Books, 1987. Introduction to Dadaism with biographical information on Arp and other artists. Includes biblography.

Mortimer, Armine Kotin. “Jean Arp, Poet and Artist.” Dada/Surrealism 7 (1977): 109-120. Explores the important symbiotic relationship between Arp’s poetry and his visual art.

Motherwell, Robert, ed. The Dada Painters and Poets. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. A collection of texts and illustrations by Arp and others in the Dada movement with a critical bibliography by Bernard Karpel.

Richter, Hans. Dada: Art and Anti-Art. Translated by David Britt. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997. A historical and biographical account of Dada by one of the artists involved in the movement. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Rimbach, Guenther C. “Sense and Non-Sense in the Poetry of Jean Hans Arp.” The German Quarterly 37 (1963): 152-163. Argues that Arp is at root a religious poet and that the lack of reference to reality in his work is an attempt to come closer to God.