Jean Arp Arp, Jean (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Jean Arp 1887-1966

(Full name Jean Hans Arp) Alsatian-born French poet, essayist, diarist, painter, and sculptor.

As a founder of the Dadaist movement and a participant in literary and visual surrealism, Arp was one of the most prominent artists of the twentieth century. Arp wrote surrealist poetry as well as essays discussing avant garde art and his own artistic vision.

Biographical Information

Arp was born in Strasbourg, Alsace, a region of Europe that has frequently been passed between German and French leadership. His father, Pierre Guillaume Arp, was German and his mother, Josephine Koeberle Arp, Alsatian. As a child Arp learned to read and speak German, French, and the Alsatian dialect of his hometown. Arp spent most of his time in school writing poems and drawing pictures, and by the age of fifteen he was one of a circle of Alsatian poets and artists led by the expressionist writer René Schickele and the painter Georg Ritleng. Arp had convinced his parents to let him drop out of high school and enroll in the Strasbourg Academy of Art to study painting, but he was dissatisfied with the instruction he received there and instead studied privately with local artists. In 1903 Arp published some of his writings in periodicals assembled by the group. He traveled for the first time to Paris and Berlin in 1904. When he returned home he asked his father to allow him to enroll in the Académie Julien in Paris. Instead, his father sent him to Weimar to study at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1907 Arp publicly showed his art for the first time, in an exhibit in Paris along with works by Henri Matisse and others. The next year Arp entered the Académie Julien. However, he was again frustrated by formal instruction and dropped out to move to Lucerne, Switzerland. There he founded a group called Der Moderner Bund to promote modern art in Switzerland. Shortly afterwards he moved to Munich and joined another group of expressionist artists called the Blaue Reiter, which included the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. At the outbreak of World War I, Arp found that his mixed French-German background made him a suspicious character to both countries; therefore, he moved back to neutral Switzerland. When German authorities tried to draft him as a soldier in 1915, Arp convinced the German Consulate in Zurich that he was mentally defective to avoid service. While in Switzerland, Arp met other important artists in the abstract movement. He also met his future wife, the artist and dancer Sophie Taueber, and became involved in the famous Cabaret Voltaire, which brought together Dadaist artists for experimental theater and dance performances. In 1925 Arp was denied Swiss citizenship because officials believed his poetry proved he was mentally deranged. The following year he was granted French citizenship. In the 1930s Arp began to work in sculpture and collage, partly as a reaction to the death of his mother in 1929. During the late 1930s many artists were threatened by the rise of fascism in Europe. Consequently, a great number of them, including Arp and his wife, went into temporary or permanent exile outside of the major centers of tension. The couple stayed in Grasse, in the south of France, from 1940 to 1942, along with a number of other Dadaists. Afterwards they attempted to emigrate to the United States. In 1943 Sophie Taueber was killed in an accident; Arp began to compose poetry in honor of his late wife, and most of his work through the rest of the 1940s speaks to his immense loss. By 1955 Arp had achieved financial independence as a world-renowned artist, and he traveled extensively, frequently exhibiting his work in some of the most important museums in the world. In 1959 Arp married Marguerite Hagenbach. Arp was beset by health problems, suffering a series of heart attacks in the early 1960s. He died of heart failure in Locarno, Switzerland, in 1966.

Major Works

As a founder and adherent of Dadaism, Arp believed that artistic creation should mirror creation in the natural world. Because of this belief, Arp frequently used collage to symbolize the law of chance. Similarly, he used the collage form in his poetry, bringing together seemingly disparate images to form a whole. Arp's earliest poetry is strongly influenced by nineteenth-century German Romanticism as well as by German folk and fairy tales. In 1912 he had begun experimenting with poetic styles that echoed his interest in abstract visual art. In the poems in both Der vogel selbdritt (1920) and Die wolkenpumpe (1920) Arp was still using Romantic imagery, but his forms and style were becoming more spontaneous and whimsical but simultaneously apocalyptic, reflecting the mood of World War I-era Europe. While Arp was in Zurich, he and the other Dadaists involved in the Cabaret Voltaire participated in poetry experiments known as automatic poetry, in which poems were composed verbally onstage by a variety of people speaking different languages at the same time. These poetry performances further influenced Arp's poetry writing, as he explained in Unsern Täglichen Traum (1955), his account of his years with the Dadaists in Zurich. Arp's poetry in the 1920s reflected the end of the Dada period. Rather than focusing on subjects rooted in nature, Arp began to write about commonplace objects in unexpected and unusual juxtapositions. Arp called these surreal combinations “object language.” The poems in Weisst du schwarzt du (1930) revolve around the opposition of black and white. After the deaths of his mother and wife, Arp produced a number of meditative elegies on dreams, life, and death, turning again to the nature imagery of his earlier writing. For the poems in Poèmes sans prénoms (1941) Arp was influenced by medieval and Renaissance mysticism, particularly the elements of alchemy and geometry. In the 1940s and 1950s Arp published some of his best-known poetry anthologies, including Le siège de l'air (1946) and wortträume und schwarze sterne (1953). In the last decade of his life Arp's poetry became more meditative and probed religious issues, particularly his continuing despair over the loss of Taueber and his hope for an afterlife.

Critical Reception

Widely considered one of the most important and influential artists of the twentieth century, Arp also bore a strong hand in shaping the century's poetry. Critics have praised his emphasis on the sense and order of the alogical, and especially his focus on chance in the writing of his poetry. Additionally, many critics have found that Arp's poetry gives equal weight to both sound and sense, producing a sense of organic unity. Raoul Hausmann wrote of Arp's influence: “Arp was incontestably one of the most important innovators in French poetry.”

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Der vogel selbdritt (poetry and woodcuts) 1920

Die wolkenpumpe (poetry) 1920

Der Pyramidenrock (poetry) 1924

Konfiguration (poetry) 1930

Weisst du schwartz du (poetry) 1930

Des Taches dans le Vide (poetry) 1937

Sciure de Gamme (poetry) 1938

Muscheln und Schirme (poetry) 1939

Poèmes sans prénoms (poetry) 1941

Rire de Coquille (poetry) 1944

Le blanc aux pieds de nègre (prose poetry) 1945

Le siège de l'air: poèmes, 1915-1945 (poetry) 1946

Monuments à Lécher (nonfiction) 1946

On My Way: Poetry and Essays, 1912-1947 (poetry and essays) 1948

Auch das ist nur eine Wolke: Aus den Jahren, 1920-1950 (prose poetry) 1951

Wegweiser Jalons (poetry) 1951

Dreams and Projects (nonfiction) 1952

wortträume und schwarze sterne (poetry) 1953

Unsern Täglichen Traum (autobiography) 1955

Le voilier dans la forêt (poetry) 1957

Mondsand (poetry) 1960

Vers le blanc infini (poetry) 1960

Sinnende Flammen (poetry) 1961

Gesammelte Gedichte 3 vols. (collected works) 1963-1984

Das Logbuch des Traumkapitäns (poetry) 1965

L'ange et la rose (poetry) 1965

Jour effeuillés: Poèmes, essais, souvenirs 1920-1965 (poetry, essays, and diaries) 1966

Le Soleil recerclé (collected works) 1966

Collected French Writings: Poems, Essays, Memoirs (poetry, essays, and memoirs) 1972

R. W. Last (essay date July 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Schneethlehem’: Four ‘Nonsense’ Poems by Hans Arp,” in Etudes Germaniques, Vol. 24, July, 1969, pp. 360-67.

[In the following essay, Last analyzes Arp's “Schneethlehem” series as an example of his habit of rewriting and modifying his work.]

Hans Arp's critics, as Günther Rimbach points out1, fall into two main factions: those who regard his poems as the oracular utterances of an inscrutable mystic; and those—mainly academics—who damn him with faint praise as a Spieler juggling with words and phrases bereft of all meaning. Both sides, then, agree that Arp's poetry is beyond analysis. But to be what Marcel Jean calls one...

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R. W. Last (essay date July 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “In Defence of Meaning: A Study of Hans Arp's ‘kaspar ist tot’,” in German Life and Letters, Vol. 22, No. 4, July, 1969, pp. 333-40.

[In the following essay, Last analyzes whether or not Arp's poem “kaspar ist tot” is a self-contained work.]

weh unser guter kaspar ist tot.

wer verbirgt nun die brennende fahne im wolkenzopf und schlägt täglich ein schwarzes schnippchen.

wer dreht nun die kaffeemühle im urfaβ.

wer lockt nun das idyllische reh aus der versteinerten...

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Harriett Watts (essay date July 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Numbers for the Birds: On Hans Arp's Poem ‘er nimmt zwei vögel ab’,” in German Life and Letters, Vol. 22, No. 4, July, 1969, pp. 341-45.

[In the following essay, Watts examines word associations in Arp's poem “er nimmt zwei vögel ab.”]

er nimmt zwei vögel ab
er nimmt zwei vögel zu
er paust grimassen auf die luft
und unter das wasser
sieht er drei eier
so ruft er
ei ei
und zählt doch richtig
ein bei bei zwei
zwei bei bei drei
er hebt an der urgrossvaterstadt
das rechte bein hoch
er hebt an der urgrossmutterstadt
das linke bein hoch
er nimmt zwei vögel ab
er nimmt zwei vögel zu...

(The entire section is 1799 words.)

R. W. Last (essay date 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Monograph,” in Hans Arp: The Poet of Dadaism, Oswald Wolff, 1969, pp. 9-65.

[In the following essay, Last provides an overview of Arp's career as a poet.]

The obituary column of The Times for June 8th, 1966, states that M. Jean Arp had ‘long been considered one of the foremost modern sculptors, and one of the pioneers of abstract art’. This is rather like saying that Schiller had been ‘well known as an historian and friend of Goethe’, without adding that he also wrote a few poems and dramas. For Arp was more than a sculptor and painter; he was the author of a considerable body of poetry in both French and German. The first volume had been...

(The entire section is 14963 words.)

J. H. Matthews (essay date 1969)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jean Arp (1887-1966),” in Surrealist Poetry in France, Syracuse University Press, 1969, pp. 90-101.

[In the following essay, Matthews discusses surrealism in Arp's poetry and his relation to the surrealist movement.]

Jean Arp's reputation as an artist has tended to divert attention from his poetry, especially since he received the International Prize for Sculpture at the 1954 Venice Biennale. It comes as a surprise to many to hear that he admitted, “If, to suppose the impossible, I were obliged to choose between plastic work and written poetry, if I had to abandon either sculpture or poems, I would choose to write poems.”1


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R. W. Last (essay date Winter 1970)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Arp and Surrealism,” in Symposium, Vol. 24, No. 4, Winter, 1970, pp. 354-64.

[In the following essay, Last examines Arp's place in surrealist poetry.]

Only after Arp's death in 1966 was it established that he was not born in 1887, as everyone had believed, but in the previous year. The lack of accurate information on this simple matter of fact is symptomatic of the profounder confusion surrounding his whole life and work. Arp may be acknowledged as one of the greatest sculptors of the age, yet the full range of his achievement is hardly known outside a narrow circle of professional critics and connoisseurs; equally, his poetry, although highly praised by...

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George Melly (essay date 22 March 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Arpshape,” in New Statesman, Vol. 87, No. 2244, March 22, 1974, pp. 404, 406.

[In the following essay, Melly reviews Jean Arp: Collected French Writings, praising the book for providing a comprehensive view of Arp's major tenets as a writer and artist.]

the egg of fire, the egg of water, the egg
of wind in the silk bag, the egg of air

Without cheating I open this book [Jean Arp: Collected French Writings] at random and point my finger at the page. I don't say I wouldn't have cheated if the result had seemed unsatisfactory, but Arp's favourite law, the law of chance, operated well enough.

Throughout a long and...

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Armine Kotin (essay date 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Language Techniques in Jean Arp's French Poetry,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1974, pp. 159-74.

[In the following essay, Kotin examines the linguistics unique to Arp's French poetry.]

The Alsatian artist and poet Jean Arp (1887-1966) produced during his lifetime many volumes of poetry in both French and German. Much has been written about him as an artist—sculptor, graphic artist, dada and surrealist painter—and there is a major study devoted to his German poetry to 1930 by Reinhard Döhl.1 But Arp's French language poetry has never been given more than a brief introduction or a rapid “appreciation,” usually by...

(The entire section is 6080 words.)

Armine Kotin (essay date 1977)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Jean Arp, Poet and Artist,” in Dada Surrealism, Vol. 7, 1977, pp. 109-20.

[In the following essay, Kotin examines the relationship between Arp's poetry and his visual art.]

L'air monte
les couleurs le quittent.
La terre perd ses bourgeons blancs.
La pompe à mots ne marche plus.
Les bouquets ont cessé de rêver.

Jours effeuillés, p. 531

Although famous as an artist and sculptor, Jean Arp is not yet considered a major French poet, and this in spite of the excellent collection of his works published by Marcel Jean and titled Jours effeuillés.1 The French poetry has never been the object of complete...

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Roger M. Isaacs (essay date Fall 1986)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Arp and Novalis: The Loss of a Sophie,” in Symposium, Vol. 40, No. 3, Fall, 1986, pp. 209-22.

[In the following essay, Isaacs discusses the influence of the mystic Novalis on Arp, particularly as evidenced by their respective works responding to the deaths of their loved ones.]

“Rêvé-je, lorsque j'aperçois Sophie, lumineuse et calme sur le fond de pétales au blanc clair, d'une étoile au blanc clair? Rêvé-je, lorsque j'entends Sophie parler en moi et que nous nous entretenons ainsi? Rêvé-je, lorsque je vois Sophie, vivante, sereinement morte et, morte sereinement vivante, ciselée ainsi dans une gemme que je tiens entre mes mains réelles? Le...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Fauchereau, Serge. Arp. New York: Rizzoli, 1988, 128 p.

Biography focusing on Arp's career in painting and sculpture.


Read, Herbert. The Art of Jean Arp. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1968, 216 p.

Survey of Arp's work in both the literary and plastic arts; also contains biographical information.

Soby, James Thrall, ed. Arp. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1958, 126 p.

Illustrated collection of essays on Arp's painting and sculpture, including an essay by Arp.

Additional coverage of Arp's life and...

(The entire section is 113 words.)