Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966)
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Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966)

Configuration

Details
Jean (Hans) Arp (1886-1966)
Configuration
with the artist's labels 'JEAN ARP.' and 'ARP ZÜRICH 1926' (attached to the backboard)
oil on canvas
22 3/4 x 26 1/8 in. (57.8 x 66.3 cm.)
Painted in 1926
Provenance
Mr & Mrs G. David Thompson, Pittsburgh, by 1958.
Stephen Mazoh & Co., Inc., New York.
Anonymous sale, Christie's, London, 29 November 1989, lot 536.
Anonymous sale, Christie's, London, 4 February 2002, lot 67.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Exhibited
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Arp, 1958, no. 9, p. 47 (illustrated ).
Minneapolis, Institute of Arts, The Universe of Jean Arp, March - May 1987, this exhibition later travelled to Boston, Museum of Fine Arts; and San Francisco, Museum of Modern Art.
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Lot Essay

Painted in 1926, Configuration is an elegant and playful semi-abstract relief whose composition was made largely 'according to the laws of chance'. This element of Arp's aesthetic relates strongly to the automatism advocated by the Surrealists with whom Arp was closely associated during the early 1930s. However, whereas the Surrealists perceived 'chance' as the manifestation of man's unconscious will, for Arp, who had been one of the first artists to incorporate 'the law' of chance into his work during the Dada period in Zurich, it reflected the underlying law of nature. Having understood the ‘law’ of chance in this way, he began to revere it as an ultimate standard of spiritual truth. As a consequence, he then made a conscious move away from the harsh, rigid logic of his geometric abstraction and sought to impregnate the forms of his art with Nature’s rhythm, energy and spirit. Arp was always interested in organic form, and his close association with the Surrealists in the late 1920s and early 1930s encouraged him to develop a new informality with regard to a conscious disposition of the forms of his reliefs. Arp’s relationship with Sophie Täuber reinforced his belief that it was primarily abstract art that could incorporate what he described as ‘extravisual’ meanings of the greatest importance, for in her often austere art he also saw her inner serenity and humility emanating. Similarly, when he abandoned geometric abstraction he continued to embrace the flatness, clarity, impersonal finish and abstraction of his earlier works because he felt these elements corresponded to the moral values he required of his essentially non-materialistic art. It was these qualities he retained when he attempted to unify abstraction with naturalness in what came to be known as his ‘Earthly Forms’ - loosely geometric shapes such as the fluid or agitated ovals (bewegte Ovale) around which the composition of this work is based. Energising the oval with a natural irregularity lent these forms an organic appearance that in turn evokes the possibility of growth, metamorphosis and development. Arp’s intention was to create, what he described as 'Sinnbild der ewigen Verwandlung in der Natur' (emblems of the perpetual transformations occurring in Nature).

In Configuration, Arp has employed this informality to express the fluidity of the continuous transformations that one finds in nature and which he believed formed part of the immutable order of the cosmos. Here, a multidimensional energy between the abstract form and space of the relief sets up a biomorphic-like fusion of elements all colliding and vying with one another with an undeniable energy that evokes not just the rhythms of nature but also, themes of metamorphosis, growth and regeneration, conveying the innate potential for development. Natural, organic and perpetually changing, they are ideal images for Arp’s own evolving organic language of abstraction, as he attempts to express in visual form the law that unifies all natural processes, which he sees as simultaneously fundamental to the process of artistic creation. 'Art is a fruit that grows in man, like a fruit on a plant, or a child in its mother’s womb', he asserted. 'I believe that nature is not in opposition to art. Art is of natural origin and is sublimated and spritualised through the sublimation of man' (Arp, 'On My Way', 1948, cited in Arp, Collected French Writings, Poems, Essays, Memories, Zurich, 1963, p. 241).

While Arp insisted on remaining only loosely affiliated to the Surrealists and would later criticise its overt embracing of politics and their rejection of abstract art, the group’s use of poetry as a means of exploring the unconscious had a major influence on his art. Likening his own work to dreams, Arp, who followed Novalis in believing dreams to be the source of creative inspiration, was encouraged by the Surrealists to delve further in order to discover the hidden beauty and meaning of his dreams and his art, which the artist himself referred to as ‘dreamed plastic works.’ As he explained: ‘In 1925 I exhibited at the first Surrealist group show and contributed to their magazines. They encouraged me to ferret out the dream, the idea behind my plastic work, and to give it a name. For many years, roughly from the end of 1919 to 1931, I interpreted most of my works. Often the interpretation was more important to me than the work itself. Often it was hard to render the content in rational words... [the] titles were often abbreviated little stories such as this one for ‘Mountain - Table - Anchors - Navel’ in my book Unser täglicher Traum (Our daily Dream): A dreamer can make eggs as big as houses dance, bundle up flashes of lightning, and make an enormous mountain, dreaming of a navel and two anchors, hover over a poor enfeebled table that looks like the mummy of a goat. In the end my names for my plastic works gave rise to poems’ (Arp, ‘Looking’, quoted in J.T. Soby, ed., Arp, exh. cat., New York, 1958, p. 14).

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