Reinhard Döhl: Hans Arp and Zurich Dada
[Translated from the German by Roy F. Allen (and the author)]
A majority of the words that Ball used to characterise or describe Dada associate it with the context of an absurd theatre of life without meaning or reason. There is a strong comic element in the role of the Dadas and his task is to ridicule the "pose of morality" of the bourgeoisie, of its "idealism". But this ridicule is at the same time laughter on the edge of the abyss.
There are significant parallels to such a conception of Dada in the work of Arp. Apart from the fact that he repeatedly contributed to the soirées of the Cabaret Voltaire, that he designed masks for these performances, that he participated, we encounter in his work time and again similar statements and conceptions, for example, when he explains in his way the function of Dada laughter: "Although dinner for most of us was a symbolic act, an incredible amount of malice and stupidity was reduced in an instant to dust by our tremendous laughter."
Like Ball’s diary notes, texts by Arp make clear how ambiguously the Dadas themselves saw their game, how important it was for them to expose in their game the discrepancy of appearance and reality, in fact, to reveal this discrepancy for the first time, and how significant they saw their role in this process, how seriously they took this role in spite of everything.
There are not only parallels to Ball’s conception of Dada in Arp’s work, however, Richter, who even seemed suspicious to Ball at times, devoted an entire chapter of his major work on Dada to "laughter" as an essential activity of the group in Zurich. He wrote there:
The unprofessionals and art historians recognised us more by our laughter than by anything we did. Because of our external and internal perceptive powers we were aloof from the world of the petty bourgeouis. [...] we laughed to our heart’s delight. In this way we destroyed, affronted, ridiculed and laughed. We laughed at everything. We laughed at ourselves, as we did at the kaiser, king, and fatherland, beerbellies, and pacifiers. We took our laughter seriously; it was our very laughter that guaranteed the seriousness of our anti-art activities in our efforts to find ourselves.(2)Part of this laughter, this laughing about others and everything and at the same time making fun of oneself were also various Dada jokes and fictive anecdotes. Arp reports in Unsern täglichen Traum that he had had a duel with Tzara on the Rehalp near Zurich, in which he had been "lightly wounded in the left upper thigh" after four exchanges of pistol fire. After the duel, he continues, "the two foes left the battle field unreconciled." (3) The popular Swiss writer Jakob Christoph Heer, who was named a witness to the duel in the bogus report, immediately denied, of course, this latest prank of the Dadas.‘
Arp remained friends with all Dadas thoughout his life in spite of the changing constellations, the differences and enmities that later developed between individual Dadas (between Huelsenbeck and Tzara, and between Huelsenbeck and Hausmann). The Swiss writer Fritz Glauser, who in retrospect was very critical of Dada and his own Dada activities, characterized Arp in his Dada-Erinnerungen as "amiable":
I met the painter Arp, an amiable Alsacian with a friendly face who spoke in the same breath on the German mystics of the Middle Ages and funny disturbances in the digestive organs. Except for a few Gothicists amongst the painters, he only respected Leibl and the Cubists. It always seemed very arduous to me to converse with him. People were all so surprisingly cheerful. And still the pressure of the war grew from day to day. Didn’t they sense it?(4)Similar reports by Richter, Emmy Hennings, Ball, et. al. could be added to this testimony to complete it without any difficulty, and without any essential changes in the picture provided by Arp’s friends.
Arp saw Dada above all as a new artistic attitude. His participation in the Dada demonstration and blagues in the Cabaret Voltaire suggests that this new attitude also had for him a social, or, more precisely, an antisocial, antipolitical aspect:
Disgusted by the slaughter of the World War in 1914, we dedicated ourselves to the fine arts in Zurich. While in the distance the thunder of the cannons rumbled, we sang, painted, glued, wrote with all our strength. We were looking for an elemental art which would heal people of the madness of the times and a new order which would restore the balance between heaven and hell. (5)Elsewhere he wrote:
Madness and murder were competing with each other as Dada was born of primeval sources in Zurich in 1916. The people who were not directly involved in the horrible insanity of the World War acted as though they didn’t understand what was taking place all around them. They stared into space with glassy eyes like lost lambs. Dada sought to wake them up from their pitiful impotence. Dada abhorred resignation. (6)Arp’s role in Zurich Dada is characterised rather precisely by the fact that he painted, glued, and wrote "with all the strength of his heart" in this political and social situation instead of becoming politically involved, as later did, in particular, the Berlin Dadas. He opposed the "insanity" of the times with the "senselessness" of art. (7) He searched for and found an "elemental" art and tried to establish a "new order", a concept that for him meant first and foremost a new aesthetic order.
What he calls "elemental" art here he later called "concrete" or at times also "abstract" art. (8) "Abstract art (which Hans Arp unswervingly advocates)," Ball noted on 13 April 1916, (9) in his diary, which provides insight into Arp’s artistic views and aims:
Arp speaks out against the bombast of the gods of painting (the expressionists). He says Marc’s bulls are too fat; Baumann’s and Meidner’s cosmogonies and mad fixed stars remind him of the stars of Bölsche and Carus. He would like to see things more ordered and less capricious, less brimming with colour and poetry. He recommends plane geometry rather than painted versions of the Creation and the Apocalypse. When he advocates the primitive, he means the first abstract sketch that is aware of complexities but avoids them. Sentiment must go, and so must analysis when it occurs only on the canvas itself. A love of the circle and the cube, of sharply intersected lines. He is in favour of the use of unequivocal (preferably printed) colours (bright paper and fabric); and he is especially in favour of the inclusion of mechanical exactness. I think he likes Kant and Prussia because (in the exercise yard and logic) they are in favour of the geometrical division of spaces. In any case, he likes the Middle Ages mostly for their heraldry, which is fantastic and yet precise and exists in its entirety, right to the last really prominent contour. If I understand him correctly, he is not concerned so much with richness as with simplification. Art must not scorn the things that it can take from Americanism and assimilate into its principles; otherwise it will be left behind in sentimental romanticism. Creation for him means separating himself from the vague and the nebulous. He wants to purify imagination and to concentrate on opening up not so much its store of images but what those images are made of. He assumes here that the images of the imagination are already composites. The artist who works from his freewheeling imagination is deluding himself about originality. He is using a material that is already formed and so is undertaking only to elaborate on it." (10)Taeuber’s work in particular had a decisive influence on Arp’s artistic development after 1915. "She is led in her first abstract compositions to the greatest degree of simplification" by her search "for new solutions to the problems in art", by "her spiritual purity and her love of craftsmanship." (11) Arp and Taeuber subsequently worked together a lot on horizontal and vertical images, glued works, on many other projects:
Working together or alone, we embroidered, wove, painted, glued geometric and static pictures. Impersonal, austere structures were created out of planes and colours. No blotches, tears, no fibres, no inexactitudes were to spoil the clarity of our work. We even threw away the scissors with which we had first cut out our paper images because they too clearly revealed the personal involvement of the hand. After that we used a paper cutting machine. We tried humbly to get as close as possible to ‚pure reality‘. What we practised was the art of tranquillity. We turned away from the outer world of rapid-paced lives to our inner being, to inner reality, to pure reality. [...] our work aimed at simplifying, transforming, beautifying. [...]
I continued the development of glued works by structuring them spontaneously, automatically. I called this working 'according to the law of chance.' The 'law of chance', which incorporates all laws and is as inscrutable to us as is the abyss from which all life comes, can only be experienced by surrendering completely to the unconscious. I claimed that, whoever follows this law, will create pure life. (12)A final quotation will conclude this excursus on Arp’s statements about his development as an artist during the Zurich period and will at the same time make clear how he evaluated this period himself.
"The years during which we worked exclusively on paper and cloth pictures, embroidery work, with new materials and in which we avoided oil painting had a cleansing effect on us; they were like intellectual exercises to help us finally understand painting in its original pure state." (13)For Arp thus, the "tortuous period" came to an end in his Dada years in Zurich; in this period he concluded his attempts to free himself from the "inculcated, traditional forms of art" and achieved a new understanding of the fine arts, encountered the problems that were to reappear again and again in his work for the rest of his life.
Arp’s attempts to " overcome the inculcated, traditional forms of art" should be understood not only as opposition to "academic painting" that depicts " illusion instead of life and nature" (14); it can also be seen as a fundamental attempt to free himself from an inculcated, conventional notion of art, from traditional conceptions of art all together. This is characteristic of Arp’s work in both the fine arts and in literature. Before I turn to his literary development then, I will summarise my findings thus far.
What Arp wanted was an elemental, or, as he later called it, a concrete art. To be able to produce it, he gave up traditional approaches to representation, gave up traditional oil painting. He created images out of materials that until then were scarcely considered customary, such as paper, cloth, wood, instead of paint. He employed unusual techniques or invented new ones: gluing, tearing, cutting up. He rejected the traditional contents of images by simplifying drawings of twigs, roots, grasses, or stones into "dynamic ovals" or by creating geometric constellations from the very start out of planes and colours. The artistic aim of this work, which he repeatedly stressed in retrospective commentary, was purity, impersonality, simplicity. The work of art was no longer to have any relationship with a depictable external reality and its objects. He discovered in these experiments the "law of chance".
The three chapters on "chance" in Richter’s study of Dada, in which he defines chance as the "actual central experience of Dada," underscore how important the role of chance was in the work of the Zurich Dadas. (15) Even though this view seems one-sidedly exaggerated to me and I am more inclined to place equal importance on laughter and play, I agree with Richter when he says that the principle of chance in Dada "did not derive from literature but from the pictorial-visual arts." Richter shares, in this context, the anecdote that Arp discovered the role of chance in art in the structure of the pieces of a drawing he had thrown away, in their accidental and, in his view, successfully achieved structure. He continues: "The consequences of this was that Dada recognised chance as a new stimulus in artistic creation." (16) But chance began to play a role not only in artistic creation but even in conversations and discussions
in the form of a more or less associative way of speaking in which sounds and formal associations helped us take leaps which suddenly revealed the connections of things that had previously seemed unconnected. Tzara, Arp, Serner, Huelsenbeck were master of this art and Arp’s poems are master pieces in this technique of investigation and experience. (17)And Richter finally says of Arp:
He became a consistent representative of work on chance and raised it in the end almost to the level of a cultic authority which his work, his pictures and his sculptures, has followed to the present time. (18)The extent to which chance did represent a "cultic authority" for Arp is evidenced by a statement he made on the "law of chance", which was turned into a longer essay on the subject, "Die Musen und der Zufall" in 1960. (19)
For the present, the fact will suffice that Arp and the Dadas "discovered" chance and placed critical importance on it. One should not understand "discovery" here in the sense of "finding" chance from one day to the next. Richter rightly says that this discovery was in the air and that when this event took place cannot be determined precisely.
The theory of simultaneous texts, the "parole in libertà," already anticipates the discovery of chance in the work of the futurists. Gertrude Stein engaged in experiments with automatic chance inscriptions as early as 1896 (20). And in a larger context, the discovery of chance must be seen as a result of the dissolution of all aesthetic rules valid until this point, a development directed against middle-class utilitarian thinking, against notions of causality. One can thus overstate the development a bit by saying that the discovery of chance by the Dadas was itself a chance occurrence, that it could have easily happened elsewhere and did happen, in fact, at least tentatively elsewhere. Its conscious use, however, and conceiving of chance as a "new stimulus" to artistic creation, even the exaggeration of its value, was an achievement of Dada that had far-reaching consequences.
The period after 1910 was also one of active literary work by Arp. It is likely that some of the poems in the volume der vogel selbdritt which was published in 1920, were already written around 1912. The prose texts published in Der Sturm in 1913 had been completed earlier. However, we know less about the literary development of Arp before 1917 than about his work as artist. He himself recalls having made his first attempt between 1908 and 1910 "to overcome inculcated, conventional forms of art." He reports precisely having written down "sentences" during his visit to the Wintergarten restaurant in Berlin. We know also of his restructuring of familiar verse, the parodying of them, the use of individual words in unusual relationships and verbalising substantives to achieve captivating effects.
In particular, using words to achieve captivating effects, "doing away with sentences for the sake of the individual word," and then doing away with the word as well were to become an essential language experience of the Dadas. All of this had, of course, been anticipated again by Italian futurism.
Ball records in his diary Die Flucht aus der Zeit:
We have now driven the plasticity of the word to the point where it can scarcely be equaled. [...] We tried to give the isolated vocables the fullness of an oath, the glow of a star. And curiously enough, the magically inspired vocables conceived and gave birth to a new sentence that was not limited and confined by any conventional meaning. Touching lightly on a hundred ideas at the same time without naming them, this sentence made it possible to hear the innately playful, but hidden, irrational character of the listener; it awakened and strengthened the lowest strata of memory. Our experiments touched on areas of philosophy and of life that our environment – so rational and precocious – scarcely let us dream of. (21)Arp did not go quite so far in his justification of his literary work during his actual Dada years in Zurich, that is, after 1916:
Words, slogans, sentences, which were selected from daily newspapers and especially from advertisements in them, formed the basis of my poems in 1917. I often selected words and sentences from newspapers with my eyes closed by marking them with a pencil. I called these poems "arpades". It was the beautiful "period of Dada" in which we hated and ridiculed with all our hearts the enchasing of our work, the confused looks of wrestlers of the intellect, the titans. I interwove the words and sentences selected from the newspapers with freely improvised words and sentences of my own. Life is a mysterious breath of air, and the result of it can be nothing more than a mysterious breath of air. I wrote a number of "arpades", which, however, as was fitting, quickly vanished, disappeared. We wanted to look through things and see the essence of life, and that is why we were moved at least as much by a sentence from a newspaper as by one written by a great poet. (22)These conversations and discussions at that time, in which, as Richter writes, chance began to play a role "in the form of a more or less associative way of speaking in which sounds and formal associations helped us to take leaps which suddenly revealed the connections of things that had previously seemed unconnected" – these conversations apparently produced in 1917 a number of "simultaneous poems" (23) or cooperatively composed "automatic" chance compositions. Arp added an instructive preface to a 1957 reprint of his simultaneous texts, Die Geburt des Dada, which included, as well, some poems never published before:
The Odeon Café in Zurich became Dada’s Mecca and Medina. The numbers of Dadaists became so large that whoever wanted to have a sensitive exchange of ideas had to find a quieter place. Since Tzara, Serner, and I wanted to compose automatic poetry cooperatively, we met in the Terrace Café. I wrote about this poetry in my book Unsern täglichen Traum the following: 'Tzara, Serner, and I wrote a cycle of poems in the Terrace Café, entitled Die Hyperbel vom Krokodilcoiffeur und dem Spazierstock. This kind of poetry was later christened ‚automatic poetry‘ by the Surrealists. Automatic poetry is created directly from the intestines or other organs of the poet which have stored suitable reserves. He was to be hindered neither by Lonjumeau’s postilion nor the hexameter, neither by grammar nor aesthetics, by Buddha nor the sixth commandment. The poet crows, curses, sighs, stutters, yodels, as he sees fit. His poems resemble nature. The things which people like to call trivial are as precious to him as noble rhetoric, for in nature a particle is as beautiful and important as a star, and it is only people who presume to decide what is beautiful or ugly.' (24)The same year Arp wrote texts by himself that are "related to automatic poems":
Many poems in die wolkenpumpe are related to automatic poems. They were written down, like the Surrealistic automatic poems, uninhibitedly without thinking or revision. Dialect constructions, ancient sounds, vulgar Latin, confusing onomatopoetic words and verbal spasms are particularly noticeable in these poems. The "cloud pumps" are, however, not only automatic poems, but already anticipate my "papiers déchirés", my "torn pictures", in which "reality" and "chance" can be developed uninhibitedly. The essence of life and decay is incorporated into the picture by tearing the paper or drawing. The same intent produced the "cloud pumps" in 1917. I wrote these poems in a script that is difficult to decipher so that the printer would be forced to use his imagination, and in deciphering my text, participate poetically. This collective work was very successful. Horny verbal forms and distortions resulted which moved and affected my at that time. How many medieval copiers of manuscripts, I said to myself, will have contributed some deep thought to their work out of misinterpretation or inattentiveness! How much immortal beauty is the result of the further development of a falsely interpreted art form! My attitude is slightly different today. (25)And, in addition, a third type of poetry was probably already developed in this period: the rhymed, four-lined, stanzaic poems in Pyramidenrock. Arp did not comment on them in his "Guide"; on the other hand, he does mention them in the text "Vom Hundertsten ins Tausendste" (26), which is more poem than essay and gives an impression of those conversations in which, as Richter said,
sounds and formal associations helped us to take leaps which suddenly revealed the connections of things that had previously seemed unconnected: We were often on the verge of tearing our hair out. Our creative aspirations carried us from one subject to another. Suggestions were made in quick succession. Sketches quickly succeeded one another. One thing occured to us, and then was dropped. Ideas were rejected, accepted, rejected.
This period had a favourable influence on my poetry. Many poems in Pyramidenrock are continuations of these conferences. Here are only a few of the poems from Pyramidenrock. (27)Arp’s complete literary works until 1918 consist in the poems in der vogel selbdritt, probably composed for the most part before 1916; in the "arpades" which are not completely "lost" (28); the "cloud pumps"; the poems in Pyramidenrock; and the collaboratively written simultaneous poems. However, while other artists very quickly published their literary works – Huelsenbeck published his Phantastische Gebete (Fantastic prayers) and Schalaben Schalabei Schalamezomai already in 1916, and Tzara his Vingt-Cinq Poèmes in 1918 – Arp initially contributed only graphics to the independent publications of other Dadas and to Dada journals.
The larger public first became familiar with Arp’s poetry in a recital in March 1917:
On March 18, 1917, in Mary Wigman’s and R. von Laban’s dance school my friend Neitzel, wearing a turban, read some of my poems from die wolkenpumpe for the first time. (29)This date disagrees with the one given by Ball in his diary on 18 March 1917:
Last Sunday there was a costume party at Mary Wigman’s. For the first time we heard poems by Hans Arp, read by his friend Neitzel, sitting on a rug like a dervish. The poems are full of metaphor and old fairy tales; reminiscent of the woman’s dress in the Mainz cathedral with goblins dancing and turning somersaults on it. (30)A second reading of his poems took place a few days later in the program celebrating the opening of the Dada Gallery that Ball and Tzara installed and directed together. Ball includes Neitzel’s reading of Arp’s poems in the program list he gives for the event in his diary and dates it 29 March 1917 (31), while Tzara gives the date for the opening as 23 March in his "Chronique Zurichoise" (32).
Another public recital of Arp poems took place on 9 April 1919, at the eight Dada soirée (33), the highpoint and simultaneously the conclusion of Dada demonstrations in Zurich. This time, Katja Wulff was the reciter:
At the great Dada evening in the Kaufleuten (Merchant’s Hall) Katja Wulff demonstrated great courage. Under a fire-red bag, which was propped above her upside-down like a tent, she read loudly, calmly, clearly the poems from the Wolkenpumpe, that are as irrational as nature is. The threatening behaviour of the art connoisseurs, who were getting ready to attack the fire-red bag, did not startle ‚Dada’s heroine‘ at all. Katja Wulff finished reading my poems. (34)One should not take too literally the reference to the "threatening behaviour of the art connoisseurs, who were getting ready to attack the fire-red bag." The stage was not stormed until later during Serner’s reading from his Letzte Lockerung. Richter’s remarks seem more accurate; he describes this soirée pars pro toto thoroughly:
There was more [opposition, R.D.] to Arp’s Die Wolkenpumpe which only occasionally was interrupted by calls of 'nonsense‘ or mockery. (35)Arp’s first texts from this period were not published until May 1919, in the double number 4-5 of the journal Dada, the so-called Dada Anthology, which was edited by Tzara. It includes twelve texts by Arp in linear script (with one exception) under the title aus . die wolkenpumpe and a short simultaneous text of the sort already described, signed by "H.A., W.S., T.T." (Hans Arp, Walter Serner, Tristan Tzara), which is a "book review" of Huelsenbeck’s Verwandlungen. With the eight Dada soireé and the publication of the Dada Anthology, the Dada movement in Zurich had passed ist climax. In October 1919 appeared the sole number of Der Zeltweg, which Richter called a kind of "afterbirth" of Zurich Dada and which he considered, however, "rather tame [...] in comparison to the classical Dada issues." (36) With texts from die wolkenpumpe and the Hyperbel vom Krokodilcoiffeur und der Spazierstock, it represents the second literary publication by Arp in the period of Zurich Dada. The Zurich Dada movement had finally reached its end with this "afterbirth"; the Chronique Zurichoise (Zurich chronicle) also concludes with a list of its contributors. Ball had already distanced himself from Dada with his Dada manifesto read at the first Dada soirée on 14 July 1916, and was no longer living in Zurich by this time. Huelsenbeck had already returned to Berlin in 1917. The Dadas who remained in Zurich now went their own separate ways: Tzara to Paris, Arp at first to Cologne.
All reports on recitals of poems by Arp, with one exception (37), agree that they involved the reading of texts from die wolkenpumpe. These reports, whenever recitals were taken into consideration, were repeated time and again without hesitation in studies of Arp. Even the publications in Dada 4-5 and Der Zeltweg were in practice treated as preprints of texts from the same volume. An attentive reader had to be puzzled, since only six (or two) of the texts printed appeared a year later in die wolkenpumpe and six (or five) were included in der vogel selbdritt. One could assume that what was being read at these recitals were not only poems from die wolkenpumpe, but also from der vogel selbdritt and even Der Pyramidenrock. This seems likely since the first poem in Dada 4-5 and the last three poems in Der Zeltweg are not only printed first in der vogel selbdritt but are also included in Der Pyramidenrock in 1924.
This assumption is supported by a quotation from Nein und ja (No and yes), Otto Flake’s roman à clef on Zurich Dada. Flake quotes in full here four poems by Arp – read, on the other hand, he says, to an exclusively private circle – that belong in the context of der vogel selbdritt. He says by way of introducing these poems: "If you are not malevolent, you will feel how pure, unburdened by problems of the spirit, what a fantastic game the world is here, causality eliminated, the connecting links left out, everything given simultaneously, silver balls on fountain water spouts." (38)
And he subsequently said about the recital and the nature of poems:
He recited, as one should according to Lauda’s view, in a monotone, without any emphases to help comprehension or assimilation, delivering only the material without appreciative interpretation, which was left up to the reader. Nothing was as far as this from the prepackaging by the actor who delivers the ensemble all finished, as they say in the tailor’s business. This monotony corresponded to the prevailing tone regarding the phenomena of the world: they were phenomena and nothing more, rolling out of the sleave of the magician with the magic hat, tumbling into the waterfall of time, hard at each other’s heels, a procession of fetuses, each begrudging the other his span of time. Nüssli was the only one who didn’t notice the distinctive way of trying to yodle when reading the manifesto. The others were left with some kind of intertwined image of the Milky Way and a tree; but they were disconcerted and asked what value such art had for thought or satisfying inner needs. "They are fairy tales," d’Arigo said, "but a weak foundation on which to lauch a revolution in art, and even the fantasising gets lots continuously in mere verbal inspirations without connections." "Quite right," Lisbao answered, "unconnectedness is one of the things we require. (39)Since Flake had already met Arp in the Strassburg period, in the circle of the Stürmer (Advanced Guards), we can assume that what he says in Nein und Ja about Arp’s poetry agrees more or less with Arp’s view or at least corresponds to his ideas.
The claim "They are fairy tales" in Flake’s novel agrees with Ball’s commentary: "His verses are full of figures and forgotten fairy tales." Flake talks of "poems", Ball of "verses" in reference to the two recitals in 1917. On the other hand, the texts from die wolkenpumpe published in Dada 4/5 and in Der Zeltweg, in part even as they appeared in the book version, were printed linearly like prose. We would therefore be completely justified in theorising that the Arp poems recited in 1917 are to be included, at least for the most part, in the texts published in 1920 under the title der vogel selbdritt. This thesis is supported by the fact that the two recitals already took place in March, at the beginning of the year. Arp generally gives the date of composition of poems in die wolkenpumpe as 1917, a date supported also by numerous remarks in his autobiographical essays. Since he did not like to present his artistic work to the public right after its completion, a recital of poems from the latter work in March 1917, scarecly seems conceivable. It does, however, seem probable that such a recital took place at the eighth Dada soireé on April 9, 1919. We can also assume that a compilation was read at that event similar to those in Dada 4/5 and Der Zeltweg under the heading aus . die wolkenpumpe – texts from the later volumes die wolkenpumpe, der vogel selbdritt, and Der Pyramidenrock – since the journal publications took place shortly after the recital. It is quite conceivable that Arp in 1919 still considered all of his literary works to be "cloud pumps" and identified them as such, and that it was not until 1920 that he divided his completed poems into two volumes: der vogel selbdritt containing mainly pre-Dada works (those written therefore up to 1916) and die wolkenpumpe mainly "Dada works" (those written since 1916-1917).