Jean Arp is a main figure of European Dada, and a pioneer of abstraction and modern art, which started with his incorporation of chance into the principles of artistic creation.
A pluri-disciplinary artist, his oeuvre spans over drawing, painting, wood reliefs and sculpture, as well as poetry. Today’s focus is however solely on Arp’s very first experiments with chance, his Collages ‘Arranged according to the Laws of Chance’. These were created during his involvement in Zurich Dada, between 1916 and 1919, and which, we will see, present early symptoms of the Dada spirit.
We will later glance over his later uses of chance in art, in order for us to understand how much of a continued interest he had in it, and how he developed around the principle of chance.
Before analysing the role of chance in his Collages, let me give a brief outline of Arp.
Jean Arp was born in 1887 in Strasbourg, Alsace, a region of France which, in history, has been battled and exchanged back and forth with Germany since the Franco-
Prussian wars of 1870. This gives Arp a triple identity: French, German and Alsatian, which already reminds us of the international conceptions of Dada, and makes it easy to understand Arp’s pacifist philosophy. Until the start of World War I, Arp lived in Strasbourg, capital of Alsace, and on occasion, in Paris, as well as Weimar and Berlin for art studies.
When World War I broke out, Arp settled in Zurich, where he contributed to the Cabaret Voltaire.
Little of Arp’s early work is known – he destroyed most of it – and what followed, the period we are discussing today, is part of Arp’s formative years. We know of his illustrations for Tzara’s poems, and we also know his first experiments outside of ‘traditional art’ with Sophie Taeuber date of 1915, when they created impersonal art “intended to simplify, transform, beautify the world.”
Arp’s Chance Collages
There are two anecdotes, told in hindsight by fellow Dada artists, which would account for Arp’s discovered interest in applying chance to artistic creation.
Fellow artist Hans Richter explains how Arp, struggling with the composition of a drawing, exasperatedly tore his drawing in pieces, which fell on the floor. Upon landing, the torn pieces would have provided the arrangement Arp had been looking to achieve. From there, Arp stuck them “as chance had determined” after having given up all control on the piece.
Another episode is told by Georges Hugnet, a French Dadaist, who explained that Arp would cut out pieces of paper and colour them, then lay the scraps onto a large piece of cardboard. He then would give the cardboard a shake, thus dispersing the scraps of paper, which he would stick down to the cardboard “just as they had fallen.” This anecdote however occurs in other statements, relating to Arp’s later career.
There is no record of Arp confirming or denying any of these methods. But, “if Arp did make collages that way, they are not the same ones that we know today.”
Indeed, when one looks at Untitled (Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance), Figure 1, and Untitled (Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance), Figure 2, one can see much balance and harmony, too much care and, crucially, no overlapping of the scraps of paper.
We can still assume that it is from such incidents beyond his control that Arp began questioning how to let go of control in artistic creation, an idea he would later call the “the Law of Chance.”
What is the Law of Chance?
Theoretically: Arp describes it as “[embracing] all laws and unfathomable like the first cause from which all life arises.”
Practically, as a process, the ‘law of chance’, he writes, “can only be experienced through complete devotion to the unconscious.”
Arp explains that, to him, using this process ‘according to the law of chance’, isn’t per se, using chance. Instead, he writes that he “further developed the collage by arranging the pieces automatically, without will.”
So, when using the phrase ‘According to the Laws of Chance’ Arp does not try to suggest that his works were composed solely with chance’s random arrangements. Instead, it suggests that “he did not work according to any premeditated or fixed plan.” Chance here therefore stands alongside “automatism”, “lack of control” and “undetermined creation”.
Importantly, the works “express visually the idea that some of their features are not deliberately determined.” They give an air of complete disregard for weight and gravity, as well as spontaneity and feelings of accidental creation.
Therefore, Arp’s collages follow the Law of Chance principally in idea, and a bit in practice due to them being created without premeditation; these two facts are important within the Dada movement, as we’re about to see.
The role of chance in Arp’s collages stands in two categories: Firstly, one that sides with the Dada philosophy; Secondly, another more philosophical and borderline spiritual, personal to Arp’s understandings of chance.
Arp was impressed by his partner, Sophie Taeuber’s complete detachment within artistic creation.
In 1916 and 1917, he and Sophie began rejecting art as expressive of an artist’s inner torment. Instead, they believed in an art which would surpass the individual. This would be an art which lets the artist aside, which suppresses vanity, and which does not believe in the consciousness of creation. This way, an artist is not a prophet, and artists should avoid leaving any trace of their presence in the work.
Following this belief of the artist’s withdrawal, Arp elaborated his collages from paper cut with guillotines rather than scissors, in order for his imprint to be null. He later realised that tearing the papers with no intended direction or shape would let chance decide, and would null his trace upon the raw material even more.
In these thoughts, Arp was also influenced by Duchamp, who claimed it was important to free the hand when doing art, very much letting automatism rule artistic creation.
From these, Arp understood that creation was about letting go of determination, letting go of logic. This thought was crucial within the Dada movement, for, to them, human logic, or man’s overestimation of reason, was the root of the chaos the world and society found themselves in, including especially, the raging war. Arp wrote: “Man owes it to his incongruously developed reason that he is grotesque and ugly.”
Chance, as a natural law, Arp and other artists like Duchamp thought, was stronger than human logic, and would combat the modern man’s megalomania. By subjecting his artworks to chance and automatism, the artist withdraws himself from the creation, re-installs nature’s law as the highest force, and creates an art devoid of egotistic artistic intentions, devoid of man’s modern obsession with logic.
These humility ideas show the desire for “a unitary, collective art [which] corresponded with the necessity for a reversal of the existing social order, as demanded by Dada.”
The Dada movement indeed believed that “a return to an essential order, to a harmony, [was] necessary to save the world from boundless confusion.” They wanted to turn the modern society order upside down, render it obsolete. Here, Arp’s Chance Collages contribute to the movement’s rebellion against the modern-day overuse of logic by questioning the mechanical aspects of life, questioning routine, order and regulations.
Further, Dada wanted to break down the barriers between art and real life, negating ‘high art’ and the bourgeoisie’s claim to it. As Arp wrote, “we must destroy in order that the lousy materialists may in the ruins recognize what is essential.” Dada was against society’s hierarchy, and the bourgeois class, who lived “in their overcrowded madhouses, where they continued to wallow in their original oil paintings.”
As well as favouring the Dada rebellion against the bourgeoisie and man’s logic craze, by producing Chance Collages, Arp makes an anti-aesthetic statement. By producing art made of pasted scraps of paper, he gets to reject his own classical artistic training, favouring to negate traditional art. As well as that, Arp’s collages suggest that random arrangements of shapes, not created with any artistic intent or classical painterly skills, stand on the same level as the high art that the bourgeois society favoured.
This rejection of classical art has other roots than disgust for the artist’s egotistic vanity and the bourgeois society. In On My Way, Arp writes “I love nature, but not its substitutes. Naturalist, illusionist art is a substitute for nature.” This critique of classical art, which only limits itself to the imitation nature, was joined by a desire to reveal real beauty in a sublimated art. He wished to surrender to nature, to follow its guiding rules and laws, to create, as he explains, “structures of lines, surfaces, forms, colors [that] attempt to approach reality, [that] hate artifice, vanity, imitation.” Therefore, by using chance within his artistic creation, Arp not only rejects logic and egotistic imitation, he attempts emulate the way nature creates in his own artistic process, to produce what he considered the truest of creations.
As explained earlier, Arp saw the ‘Law of Chance’ as “the first cause from which all life arises”, which requires “complete devotion.” His wish to surrender to the laws of nature has a spiritual feel to it, for Arp trusted that, by “suspend[ing] his conscious mind and open[ing] his unconscious faculties to the secret workings of creative chance,” the natural laws would guide his art, after his giving in to a faith in some greater force, or order.
Arp also refers to chance as a ruling law within the universe, as “merely a limited part of an order […] inaccessible in its totality.”
Importantly, he wrote: “Chance opened up perceptions to me, immediate spiritual insights. Intuition led me to revere the law of chance as the highest and deepest of laws, the law that rises from the fundament.” Added to this, we can say that, to Arp, “chance is seen to manifest a mode of relationship operative within the universe other than that of causality.” It is a lone law, other than that of earthly logic.
I would like to put forward the possibility that, by using chance in his practice, Arp trusts that the universe has a law which will be fulfilled through the collage. In this way, mastering chance by slightly altering the positions of the landed scraps of paper creates a connection between the artist and said inaccessible order. As such, the use of chance grants a possibility of a way to access this unknown universal order, if even in part.
Before elaborating on Arp’s later career and use of chance therein, I wish to sum the ideas I have ennumerated with Arp’s own words about Dada, in On My Way.
Arp wrote: “Dada aimed to destroy the reasonable deceptions of man and recover the natural and unreasonable order. Dada wanted to replace the logical nonsense of the mean of today by the illogically senseless. […] Dada gave the Vénus de Milo an enema[…] Dada is senseless like nature; Dada is for nature against art. Dada is for indefinite sense and definite means.”
This passage concludes on how Arp’s chance collages fit into the Dada spirit, by denouncing the modern man’s dismissal of the universal order of nature, as well as the overuse of logic; by parodying and denying classical art, and, finally by siding with nature against art.
I believe these three underlying philosophies of Dada were served by chance in Arp’s collages, which functions as a visual manifesto for Dada; as well as that, Arp benefited from chance on a personal basis, for it gave him liberties and freed him as artist.
Overall, I would therefore suggest that the role of chance in Arp’s collage is that of deliverance: deliverance of art, of sociological order, of the artist’s soul and intent.
Arp carried on a brilliant career beyond the Dada period, and both chance and natural order were recurring themes.
He created collages again at a later date, with a different spirit this time. Recalling, in 1958, a previous “search for an obtainable perfection, [a] delusion that a work could be completely finished” he explains how his early collages were stored in his attic, and were once requested for an exhibition. As he went to retrieve them, Arp realised in horror how his pieces had rotten away, the ink ran and the glue dissolved by the continued attack of humidity. What he describes as a shock at first soon became a revelation, and taught him “the true meaning of perfection: not only the fullness of life, but also its end.” In other words, he saw nature as having completed his works.
From the attic incident onwards, Arp explains: “I tore up my drawings and carelessly smeared paste over and under them. If the ink dissolved and ran,” he says, “I was delighted.” “And if cracks developed,” he adds, “so much the better; as far as I was concerned, it made my work more authentic.” He concludes with a very important realisation: “I had accepted the transience, the dribbling away, the brevity, the impermanence, the fading, the withering, the spookiness of our existence.” We once again have here a very philosophical and spiritual attribute to his collages, produced later on in his career, shortly after his mother’s death, which undoubtedly also made him question existence altogether. He wrote how “These torn pictures, these papiers déchirés, brought [him] closer to a faith in things other than earthly.”
In terms of Arp’s emulation of Nature, I would say this is much better found within his sculpture, for the shapes he renders are most organic and devoid of any logic or pre-determined idea and concept.
- Arp, J., On My Way: Poetry and Essays, 1912-1947, New York: 1948.
- Arp, J., Transition, 1932
- Foster, S., ed., Dada/Dimension, Ann Arbor: 1985.
- Foster, S., Kuenzli, R., eds., Dada Spectrum: the Dialectics of a Revolt, Madison, WI: 1979.
- Motherwell, R., Flam, J., eds., The Dada Painters and Poets, Cambridge, Mass.: 1989.
- Watts, H., Chance: a Perspective on Dada, Ann Arbor: 1975.