Shaken by the irrationalities of war yet guided by an overcoming faith in the artist's powers of intuition, Arp found what would become "the decisive forms" in the final years of the First World War. He later recalled, "At Ascona I drew in pencil and Chinese ink broken branches, roots, grasses and stones which the lake had thrown up on the shore. Finally I simplified these forms and reduced their essence to moving ovals, symbols of the growth and metamorphosis of bodies" (quoted in The Art of Jean Arp, New York, pp. 80-2). This cult of spontaneity was part and parcel of the Dada movement, to which he belonged from its beginning, and was culturally reinforced by Bergsonian philosophy that privileged the experience of intuition, the multiplicity of consciousness, and the equation of life with constant creation. "Not only is Arp's work associated with nature through eternal laws contributing to its creation," however, as Linda Shearer notes, "but also through his particular type of abstraction, whose organic configurations recall and suggest foliage or animal life" (in Futurism: A Modern Focus, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1973, p. 10). His organic approach to abstract form was radical, coming at a time when the volumetric concerns and architectural discipline of Cubism were the prevailing ideas in modern sculpture, and foreshadowed his later association with Surrealism.
Arp's earliest reliefs date to the winter of 1914-15, beginning with Cerf and becoming progressively simpler and more precisely defined over the following years. Made after 1918 by the superimposition of, typically, two layers of material cut in sinuous curves and placed in evocative juxtaposition, the reliefs channel forms ranging from the recurrent bird to the playful eggboard and famous polychrome clocks. Bird forms is emblematic of the more streamlined reliefs Arp created in the 1920s but distinctive for its unpainted surface, comparatively shallow relief, and overlapping contours that call attention to the morphology of each shape. Though not as austere as the earlier Bird mask, Bird forms shares with it what Michel Seuphor has called an "element of 'Angst', of deep unease, in the architecture of the composition" (in Hans Arp: Die Reliefs, Oeuvre-Katalog, Stuttgart, 1981, p. xxiii). The flattened volumes of Bird forms cultivate different energies of metamorphosis depending on their angle of orientation, offering multiple identities to the image and casting overtones of both playful genesis and uncomfortable transformation, as new gestalts continually cohere and dissolve. The elementary shapes and experiments with spatial relationships honed in these early reliefs would eventually evolve in the round, detaching from the wall and plying the three dimensions of free space (see lot 42).
Arp's "unique biomorphic shapes recur," as noted by Shearer, in "both Miró and Calder, who also create a world based on imagination unrelated to objectively perceived reality." But where, in the work of other artists, abstraction orients more strongly towards politics and technical innovation, "because of Arp's emphasis on fantasy and the spontaneous workings of the mind, his art functions on multiple levels of association; certain shapes quite literally metamorphose into others, simultaneously altering and expanding their original connotations. These image transformations parallel the states and processes of the mind which preoccupied Arp" (op. cit., p. 11). Appropriately, the history of his forms defies a linear chronology, productively folding back on itself through a temporal process of citation and re-inscription, energized by the vitality of each new creation.