An early member of the international, pacifist Zurich Dada group, Arp embraced the anti-traditionalist and universalizing language of abstraction before, in 1925, taking part in the first collective exhibition of Surrealist painting (Galerie Pierre, 1925). His allegiance to Surrealism, however, was always mediated by a personal interpretation of the movement's passionate relationship with reality through the rationalist development of contemporary abstraction, which Arp most successfully synthesised in his reliefs.
Constellation de quatre formes blanches et d'une noire is work that demonstrates that, just like black and white for example, the neo-Platonic abstractions of De Stijl and the Surrealist Marvellous can peacefully coexist. By firmly fixing the nebulous white forms evocative of clouds to the solidity of the wooden support and by letting them free to metamorphosise into mushrooms, the artist has here magically seemed to imbue his abstraction with an organic life.
'If you try to shoot a cloud down with a bow and an arrow', Arp once wrote, 'you'll be wasting your arrows here's what you should do: you should charm the cloud with a violin air played on a drum or a drum air played on a violin. Then very quickly you'll see the cloud descend and roll about on the ground with pleasure until, out of pure gratitude, it has turned to stone' (Arp, quoted in Michel Seuphor, 'Twenty Pre-Texts and a Whispered Envoi for Jean Arp's Reliefs', in Bernard Rau, Hans Arp: Die Reliefs Oeuvre-Katalog, Stuttgart, 1981, p. xxii).
Arp's writings highlight the principle of capturing the magic of nature's fleeting forms by letting their mystery unravel spontaneously. In Constellation, Arp brings together the modern, anti-traditionalist principles of Dada's chance and play with the Romantics' sense of the sublime and of bewilderment in front of the world. In the context of the early 1930s, this position is also evocative of 'the Marvellous' - the 'great talismanic concept at the heart of Surrealism itself' (Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge, Mass., 1986, p. 97).
Constellation de quatre formes blanches et d'une noire derives from the tradition of wooden relief making that Arp had first begun to produce during the First World War and to which he increasingly devoted himself in the 1930s, when he developed the principle of the 'constellation'. Both medium and concept were to prove highly influential on other artists associated with Surrealism: Joan Mir and Henry Moore for example created similar reliefs in the 1930s and Mir later painted a series of Constellations at in the 1940s.