Fireflies in the twilight, Gregory O’Brien

Painter and poet Gregory O’Brien reflects on Jean Arp’s Collected French Writings.

i was born in nature … i have four natures. i have two things. i have five senses. sense and non-sense. nature is senseless. make way for nature. nature is a white eagle. make dada-way for dada-nature …

Jean Arp


Aged 20 or thereabouts, I would always carry an inordinate amount of reading matter with me on tramping excursions, crosstown rambles or overseas – a habit I have never relinquished. Amidst a welter of slimmer, more portable volumes, the two weightiest tomes in my then-life were James K Baxter’s Collected Poems and a 550-page Collected French Writings by Jean Arp (ed. Marcel Jean, 1974). Baxter and/or Arp were the ballast in my backpack, as in my life – hefty, certainly, but also liberating and gravity-defying.

In a small tent pitched illegally on a sand dune at Karekare Beach in the early 1980s, I should probably have been reading Allen Curnow, but instead I found myself basking (mid-winter) in the dazzling, imaginatively charged company of poet Jean Arp (1886-1966), a figure probably better known as the sculptor Hans Arp. The German-born artist/writer was a key figure not only in Dada but also in its less interesting offshoot Surrealism. Unlike most experimental poetry or prose, Jean/Hans Arp’s writing is delightfully strange, dextrous and often charming. His most famous poem, “kaspar is dead”, is as close as you’ll get to a Dadaist anthem:

alas our good kaspar is dead.
who will conceal the burning banner in the cloud’s pigtail now and blackly thumb his daily nose.
who will run the coffee grinder in the primeval cask


who will entice the idyllic deer out of the petrified bag ….

As a nascent writer-artist myself, I twigged to Arp’s interwoven network of visual motifs, his giddy euphoria and a childlike vision of the hyper-connectivity of most things on the planet (and beyond). Along with that other great artist-poet Paul Klee, Arp is most of the reason I fell in love with the early 20th-century modernist project rather than with the post-modernism of much contemporary art/literary practice (which still seems, by comparison, laundered, contrived and passionless). Arp’s writing struck me as a kind of linguistic sculpture – a fact I have dwelt upon for years: how it is the works accumulate, how the components are weighted and measured and cling to one another or move apart. Like sculptures, words have allure, surface, finish; some reflect more than others. Place them in an environment and they will change their surroundings, and vice versa.

Arp’s creative productions – whether in verse or bronze or paper collage – were acts of faith, of belief in a burgeoning, sensual, brilliant universe in which form and thought were one – a mixture of High Romantic seriousness – “our actions are those of dreamers, of enigmatic swimmers” – and of spirited amusement: “long live the squirrels of the Deux-Magots!” Delight in absurdity was another Arp virtue. As he wrote, “humour / is the water of the afterlife / mixed with the wine of this life”.

Through Arp I came to believe that the life of the imagination and that of the intellect belong together – a thought which probably had a ruinous effect on my early art historical studies at Auckland University. One of my stage-three essays – an Arp-inspired, handwritten poetic rumination upon the work of Arp’s pal Henri Laurens – was initially graded zero (a mark which I managed to get raised to 40 per cent, so that I was granted terms and could sit the end-of-year exam. Parts of that essay – which is probably my first real piece of writing – have been published in different contexts over the past 30 years). To this day, Arp’s book remains a model to me, of how language can enter the realm of the visual – heartily, playfully, embracing the irrational, yet remaining utterly intelligent and serious.

As well as woodcuts, Dada-poems and short dreamlike chunks of prose, Collected French Writings also includes crystalline thoughts, memories, manifestos, lexicons, three novellas written in collaboration with the Chilean avant-gardist, Vicente Huidobro, and also – importantly – love poems. The book was also fresh and incontrovertible evidence that visual and verbal, fact and fiction, poetry and prose could be productively mixed up. Looking closer to home, I found Arp’s spirit echoed in the life and work of Len Lye and, later, in the experimental writing of Cilla McQueen, Alan Brunton and Richard von Sturmer. (Although written in an entirely different key, John Caselberg’s comparatively austere book Chart to my Country I also cherished for its blending of fiction, reverie, memoir and art history.)

As is the case with most of us, I don’t think I have ever experienced any place, ever, except in the light of the reading I have taken with me. In Menton, 2002, when I was scrawling notes for News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore, the view of spines along the bookshelf was as crucial as the horizon beyond the balcony. Not that the reading matter to hand need be, or indeed should be, perfectly married to its surroundings. I recall taking Arp, not Baxter, up to Jerusalem/Hiruharama when I first visited the settlement in the 1990s. At times, maybe we need to confront a landscape/place with something else rather than find something already in harmony with it. Moving to Dargaville in 1978, I should probably have packed Jane Mander’s Story of a New Zealand River – but instead I took the collected works of Flann O’Brien, a pile which – in hindsight – set the tone for my 14-month-long residence there. Maybe, subconsciously, I was thinking this geographical-bibliographical collision might create some new harmony or an interesting disharmony – a mash-up which, a few years later, yielded my proto-surrealistic Dargaville novella Diesel Mystic (a book which leans probably too heavily on Messrs O’Brien and Arp).

As well as being instrumental in my personal reimagining of New Zealand, there was something inherently mystical about Arp that captured me: “Let us dream then beyond laughter and tears, beyond summit and abyss, beyond the coterie of atheists, beyond frontiers, beyond flags, beyond those possessed with money or power. Let us dream then of transcendent light.” A notion of great art containing a scrap or glimmer of this transcendence – this is another thing I trace back to Jean Arp, circa 1980. And so, as I went on to read my way through my formative years, I came to find in Baxter, Curnow, Ursula Bethell or Eileen Duggan, different incarnations of that same transcendence.

I recall a photograph in a book about the Dada movement: Jean Arp is dancing in the open air with his artist, collaborator and wife Sophie Taeuber-Arp. (Their pas de deux came to a tragic end in Southern France in 1940, when she died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a busted stove.) Arp’s writing about his wife long before, as well as after, that tragedy I still find moving, vivid to the point of being hallucinogenic:

Sophie Taeuber was the most graceful and the most serene. She lived like a figure in a prayer book, studious in her work and studious in her dreaming. The reality of her dreams never foundered in the reality of days … .


During their life together, they practised their dance-steps; they designed costumes, funny hats; they painted; they even redesigned the human head! Their marriage was an exemplary state, as it was, in Arp’s mind, their great good fortune:

Roses and stars

have Sophie’s face

the softness of her heart

the purity of her life.


Maybe that was the last lesson of this grand, very human book: that art-making is boundless, irrational, overwhelming; it is synonymous with a state of being in love. In my mind I imagine the two Arps, in silhouette, twirling their way down the black sand of Karekare Beach, their artistic creations caught up in a wild, flamboyant costume dance, their moments of artistic genius spinning around them like fireflies in the twilight.


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