Arp: Influence and Exchange

‘Everyone knows him’ declares Hans Jean Arp in the whimsical Dadaist poem die wolkenpumpe (the cloud pump), from 1920. It remains ironic that these words, however playfully intended, today actually reinforce Arp’s relative neglect and obscurity within British art history and exhibition cultures – Arp’s last UK exhibition took place in 1962. It is this marked absence that provides the impetus for Turner Contemporary’s much needed retrospective, Arp: The Poetry of Forms, which has toured from the Kröller-Müller Museum, Holland. Co-curated by independent curator Frances Guy, and Eric Robertson, Professor of Modern French Literary Culture at Royal Holloway, University of London, the exhibition marks seven years of academic and curatorial collaboration, whilst providing a rare opportunity to view works that have never previously been displayed in the UK.

Ahead of the accompanying symposium, ‘Arp: Influence and Exchange’, I caught up with the curators to find out more about this remarkable project. Combining Guy’s extensive institutional knowledge and curatorial experience, alongside Robertson’s Arp specialism – his monograph Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor (2006) remains one of the few recent English language studies dedicated to Arp – the exhibition demonstrates collaboration at its best. Its curatorial rationale owes much to Robertson’s study, which was key in bringing together the different strands of what he terms Arp’s ‘intermedia’ practice, to suggest that such ‘spheres of activity should be viewed as closely interwoven strands of a single aesthetic strategy’ (Robertson, 2006). Similarly, the exhibition bestows equal status on all the different facets of Arp’s practice – sculpture, painting, relief, poetry, drawing, collage – and dialogues are established between these works, whilst the gallery walls are given over to vinyl reproductions of poems, in addition to the expected two-dimensional works. The scope offered by the exhibition likewise encompasses the full chronology of Arp’s oeuvre, from his pre-Dada works of 1915/1916 to late sculptural pieces of the 1960s. The viewer is invited to follow the journey of Arp’s remarkable engagement with a myriad of different twentieth-century artistic and literary movements, including Zürich Dada and Cabaret Voltaire, Paris Surrealism, De Stijl and Constructivism, and Abstraction-Création, in addition to individual artistic collaborations with the likes of Kurt Schwitters, Sonia Delauney, and most famously Arp’s wife and collaborator, Sophie Taeuber-Arp. 

Such breadth and versatility was also reflected in the two-day symposium, which brought together ‘influence and exchange’ through a dual examination of both Arp’s reception and interactions with other artists and critics, and of his posthumous significance to contemporary artists and other creative disciplines today. In keeping with this, day one of the conference was devoted not to academic papers, but to a performance of composer Helen Caddick’s new composition Amphora, built from musical fragments which take their inspiration from the Duo-Collages created together by Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. Following this, the morning of day two began with a panel of papers focused on Arp’s connections to key protagonists of British modernist art, as well as to his specific reception within sculptural practice. The opening paper by Julia Kelly (Leeds Beckett), ‘Arp, Surrealism and Sculpture’, took Arp’s sculptural oeuvre as a case study to probe the question of the potentially problematic relationship of Surrealism and sculpture. How, Kelly enquired, can sculpture adhere to the Surrealist principles of chance and automatism, given its inherent requirement for control and process? In answer to this, she looked to Arp’s writings on chance, his engagement with found objects and interactive sculpture, such as his multi-part compositions with moveable components. With reference to other sculptors working in similar ways, including Giacometti, Ernst, Picasso and Paule Vézelay, Kelly traced a web of Surrealist impulse in sculpture. 

Also focusing on Arp’s association with Surrealism and Dada, the next paper from Rachel Smith (Tate), entitled ‘Parts, Movements, Patterns: Constellations and Interwar Britain’, took Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson’s visit to Arp’s studio in 1933 as a vehicle to open up questions on the Constructivist/Surrealist divide of the period. Smith argued that despite Hepworth’s Constructivist-bias, her noted appreciation of Arp’s work during her visit to his studio suggests an affinity that might offer new insights into Hepworth’s own work itself. Parallels with Arp’s Dadaist approach might be noted in Hepworth’s own work, Smith suggested, for example her interest in prehistoric forms and instinctive drawing. The final paper of the morning from Edward Juler (Newcastle), ‘A Clutch of eggs with a few Arp scraps’: the biocentric reception of Hans Arp in Britain, c.1935-45’ explored British art critics’ engagement with Arp’s sculptural output through specifically biological interpretations. As with Kelly’s earlier paper, Juler also focused on the specific theorising of Arp’s multi-part sculptures by these critics, as well as the works’ subsequent impact on British sculptors such as Moore and Hepworth. Juler concluded that such insistently biocentric approaches were to the neglect of Arp’s other more geometric work, leading to the production of limited readings of his work.

The afternoon panel of papers provided a platform for wider considerations of the relationship between Arp’s art and poetry, his collaborations with Sophie Taueber-Arp, as well as the place of ‘biocentric’ art more generally. Eric Robertson’s opening paper ‘Arp’s Poetic’s Forms’ argued that the artist’s poetry – a different side of his being – rather than being seen as separate from his visual art, should rather be seen as complementing it. Citing Arp’s resistance to conventional poetic form and his experimental use of layout, Robertson suggested that such an approach could be compared with the formal experimentation in his visual art. Robertson also explored Arp’s linguistic innovation including his multilingualism, micro-poems and use of sound games, with specific emphasis placed on those works that were published in the experimental modernist writing journal Transition. Jill Fell (Birkbeck) followed this with the paper ‘News from Meudon and Grasse: Sophie Taueber-Arp’s letters to her sister during the “Hitler years”’, using the words of Taueber-Arp’s correspondence to reflect upon her relationship with Arp, as well as her particular artistic achievements in their own right. These letters have only recently been released and thus the symposium provided a privileged opportunity to hear Fell speak about them. The day concluded with Brandon Taylor’s somewhat provocatively titled paper ‘Biomorphism?’, which interrogated the significance of the term itself. As Taylor noted, whilst ‘biomorphism’ has a wide currency today, it was rarely used by artists themselves, nor appeared in the titles of exhibitions from the time. For Taylor, this category marks an attempt to find a midway point in the Abstraction/Surrealism debate; yet, as he suggested, it is problematic, and other associated terms such as ‘biocentrism’ or ‘concretions’ might provide more illuminating responses.

The symposium, alongside the exhibition itself and its accompanying catalogue, provide a valuable addition to the current paucity of scholarship on Arp in British art history. The exhibition is timely, following the 2016 centenary of the founding of Dada, and coinciding with the 2017 celebrations of the centenary of De Stijl. Yet, above this, Arp’s multilingualism, plurality and remarkable ability to traverse boundaries is itself timely, a welcome breath of air in a period of turbulent politics. It is also to be hoped that the exhibition will provide the impetus for a reappraisal of the work of Sophie Taueber-Arp, which she so greatly deserves.

Main image: ‘Arp The Poetry of Forms’, installation view, Turner Contemporary (photo: Stephen White)

‘Arp: Influence and Exchange’, The Finnis Scott Symposium at Turner Contemporary, Margate, Kent, 23-24 November 2017.

The exhibition ‘Arp: The Poetry of Forms’ continues at Turner Contemporary, Rendezvous, Margate, Kent until 14 January 2018

Aurora Corio