- Poet or artist? No one more than Jean Arp, so acutely defies categorization. With him, no one can resolve the issue. The poem, though less immediately perceptible as it may be, isn't in the background – certainly not from Arp's point of view. He attained, with an intensity equal to that of collage, relief or sculpture, a decisive region of interior depth. If Arp was an artist and a poet from the beginning, he was a unique poet, able to express himself in both German and French. His own position places him there. Arp was Alsatian, and therefore neither totally French nor totally German, but in fact, potentially both. He used both languages as mother tongues, treating neither like an acquired form of expression. However, with French as the language of family life and German the language of academia, the former would always seem fresher to him, and more favorable to surprise. His contribution is as stunning as it is simple. Arp appeared as the most accomplished of the double-creators, who were largely claimed by the fine arts sphere, even if in Arp's case, very quickly things seemed less simple. It is rather significant that even while studying the decorative arts, Arp published his first poems in a review. Attracted by artistic expression, he anticipated original forms and joined up with movements that incarnated rupture, including Der Blaue Reiter and Der Sturm. He paid careful attention to the dual voice of Kandinsky, whose compositions and poems both comforted Arp. During his stay in Paris in 1914-1915, Arp frequented artistic and literary avant-garde circles, the other pole of his pre-Dada steps. In Zurich, when Dada was establishing and finding a name for itself, Arp was one of its pillars.
- He created his abstract reliefs and wrote poems in German, which he read to various friends or in front of a dumbfounded public, before publishing them in expressive underground leaflets beginning in 1920 (Die Wolkenpumpe, Der Vogel selbdritt, Der Pyramidenrock). Very little of this surprising production, which oscillated between concrete poetry, tempted by the freedom of sound, and the random juxtaposition of words, where the dominant theme is humorous or dreamlike, was written in French. The only ones, – before the very partial translation of a few German poems in 1930 that he did himself for the periodical, Bifur, as well as in 1946 for his first collected works, Le Siège de l'aire, or in 1950 for various publications – are due to the vigilance of the Dadaist magazines Littérature and 391 (the former published an extract of La Pompe des nuages and Perroquet supérieur, the latter a fragment of La Couille d’hirondelle). His poetic presence at the heart of Dada was thus in German. He would not write in French until his definitive move to Meudon in 1926, and in distant proximity to Surrealism.
- What is at play in his German and then French poetry, and what made his specificity among Dadaists and his indomitability during the Surrealists' time, was certainly the force of his intervention and the sense of liberty that inhabited his work. Above all, the calm that presided over his initiatives, the fluidity of his tone, the [p. 76] tenderness of the collisions he attempted, and the quiet of sleep that governs a difference that is more strange than striking, were there in his poetry, including the least conciliatory of his poems. Arp deconstructed only to find an unsuspected harmony. He symbolized the spirit of openness in search of an unexpected newness.
His poetry doesn't rant; it restricts itself to coupling words singularly, tending to an image based upon the incompatibility of its elements, magically turned so as to conjoin them. His poetry expresses an elsewhere, and a nearby. It is subtly different; the troubling break that it proposed never reduced to lyricism. It is enveloped by a sweet melancholy where the ordinary principles of thought are no longer valid, where the intentional black humor determines an unknown zone that is strangely familiar – another space is created. It is the poetry of a revolutionary dreamer rather than that of an agitator. It is the poetry of a refined observer and a researcher of chance. His work is carried by an interior laughter but without ever resorting to buffoonery; an anxiety always persists, the awful touches the words and reveals. Arp is perhaps the one that hoped, perhaps above all, to caress mystery, without harshness, without limpness. His poetic contribution – which Dada, more than Surrealism, guided –always took the right measure to provoke a smile, a certain self-mockery, faithfulness to those who shared those moments of total reversal.
- Arp was at the same time one of the best German and French poets of his time; he passed with ease from one anthology to another. He brought wonder from one sphere to another, keeping the same level of attention, the capacity for diversion that characterized him. He knew how to renew himself despite the criticism, airing out words and forms while pushing them to their plenitude, telescoping them to their need. Artist and poet, yes – but poet as much as artist.
- TEXT CREDITS
Yves Peyré, 'Jean Arp / Poetry', translated from the French text, published in the catalogue Dada (Editions du Centre Pompidou : Paris 2005) 100-101. The translation was part of the Press Kit, published by MNAM Centre Pompidou 2005, p. 75-76 [Press Kit. Courtesy MNAM Centre Pompidou].
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- IMAGE CREDITS
banner: Hans (Jean) Arp, 1925 [Photo from De Stijl 7 (January 1926) nr. 73/74; photographer anonymus]