Jean Arp
Jean Arp; drawing by David Levine


Let’s call it the D-S expedition. Between 1915 and about 1947 an unruly group of writers and painters made a collective attempt to reach a new territory of mind. They said that they wanted a revolution and that they were ready to leave literature and art behind. They were far from indifferent to adventure and glory. History tells the story of other great fiascoes—the Crusades, the utopian settlements of the last century. The D-S expedition overturned no governments and never reached the people. Since it never really got under way, it could not leave anything far behind. Nevertheless the events are very real and they are ours.

Or call it Dada and Surrealism. In any case, the cultural police have now herded those rowdy crowds back onto the sidewalks of literature and art. It’s all firmly under control. Today, in the top class of French lycées, the works of André Breton are listed as recommended reading. American universities offer courses on the literature of Dada and Surrealism. It has taken me a year to write this review because a new book on some aspect of the D-S expedition seems to appear every few weeks. Was the expedition, after all, a success?

Purists insist on a careful discrimination between Dada and Surrealism as different or even opposed movements. I have been taking sightings and soundings on them for many years and cannot find a more satisfactory distinction between the two than straight chronology. The first six years or so, from 1915 to about 1921, belong to Dada. Duchamp and Picabia rocked New York during World War I. In Zurich Hugo Ball and his friend Richard Huelsenbeck stumbled on the unbeatable nonsense name that made a dozen reputations, especially Tristan Tzara’s. The biggest and socially most significant eruption of Dada took place in Berlin at the end of the war; it has been sadly neglected. The two big Paris seasons of 1920 and 1921 replayed—with a few adaptations—the two Zurich seasons of 1916 and 1917. Then, for twenty years, Surrealism held its own.

The textbook version of the D-S expedition says that the Cartesian cast of the French mind organized the anarchistic and nihilistic spirit of Dada into a constructive movement. Thus Surrealism is depicted as having a coherent doctrine, working poets and artists, and a firm place in history. Such a tidied-up account violates both the letter and the spirit of what happened. Dada was child’s play, literally and figuratively, and for a time it had wide appeal. Its spirit drew on a deep simplicity of purpose. “Drop everything. Drop Dada.” Breton’s good-bye to Dada expresses its logical essence. There is an incontrovertible order in being opposed to everything, including one’s own survival. In comparison, it is Surrealism that seems wayward and contradictory. Don’t let anyone tell you that Surrealism took all these high spirits and subdued them, fitted them into a rational synthesis. The situation was very different.

Until recently all physics textbooks contained an illustration of a historic experiment called the Magdeburg hemispheres. In some engravings the sphere is no bigger than a man’s skull, with a pair of horses pulling on each half. In others, performing for groups of burghers and nobles making astonished gestures in the carefully drawn landscape, eighteen to twenty horses strain at a globe as big as a hogshead. The ideas and individuals lumped together as Surrealism had no more cohesive force of their own than the two metal shells joined in Magdeburg. But after the interior chamber had been emptied by endless discussions and declarations, the surrounding pressure of Western art and bourgeois morality held the parts together with remarkable strength. In the case of Surrealism, however, we would have to revise the engraving to show a sphere divided into three parts and another team of horses tugging off in a third direction. For it was a triad of forces that wracked Surrealism: politics, science, and the spiritual.

Although the Surrealists, led by Breton, made some ridiculous mistakes, in the long run their political record is uncompromised. They did not allow themselves to be herded for long into the Communist Party corral. They defended Trotsky, refused to swallow communist fronts and the pap printed in l’Humanité, and were among the first to circulate statements condemning the Moscow trials. It makes a fascinating story in which Breton’s stiff-necked disposition lost him many friends and served him well.1

In one of his sturdiest political statements Breton tries to sort out the several stresses exerted on the Surrealist activities:

…all of us hope that power will pass from the hands of the bourgeoisie into the hands of the proletariat. Meanwhile, it is no less necessary, in our opinion, that experiments [expériences] with the inner life continue, and without any external control, even Marxist. [Légitime Défense, 1926]

The French word expérience means both scientific experiment and experience in the general sense. The emphasis here is scientific. Breton and Aragon were former medical students. Their review, La Révolution surréaliste, was designed to look like a medical journal, the better to set off the humor and scandal in its pages. The group established a Surrealist Research Bureau and conducted surveys on suicide, dreams, and sexuality. They published Freud on lay analysis and honored Charcot on “the Fiftieth Anniversary of Hysteria.” These scientific ambitions, though fumbling, were genuine and served as an antidote to what they were already calling “the literary alibi.”


The ground on which Surrealism established its foundations is described by the first Manifesto as “pure psychic automatism,” presumed to reveal “the real functioning of thought.” Like Gertrude Stein under William James and Hugo Münsterberg, they sought something other than literary results. A great cloud of uncertainty still hangs over the authenticity and the significance of automatic writing.2 Unfortunately none of the books under review explores the problem thoroughly and without bias. The confusion is increased by the fact that Surrealists turned to the unconscious not primarily for therapeutic purposes but for what they often called “revelation.” And here we have already slid a long way into the third domain of the spiritual.

The eighth number of La Révolution surréaliste contains an apparently unposed photograph of “Benjamin Péret insulting a priest.” It almost looks as if Péret, in an undershirt, is spitting at the startled figure in a cassock. However, attacks on church and clergy were obviously a matter of trustbusting. The most perceptive French critics (especially Monnerot, Carrouges, and Audoin) have insisted on the commitment of Surrealism to the spiritual and the sacred. Some of the early documents circulated within the group speak both of revolution and of “Surrealist illumination.” The language is clear: the Surrealist revolution “seeks above all to create a new kind of mysticism.” The members functioned very much like a sect of initiates, and the second manifesto brings all its weight to bear on discovering “a certain point of the mind” which would reconcile all contradictions—a modern version of the Holy Grail.

Occultism, objective chance, the revival of the chivalric and Arthurian traditions of erotic love, magic, and alchemy, the cult of the supernatural in woman—all these unstable items fed a faith that had unmistakable elements of transcendence. It comes out with intensity in much Surrealist poetry, in prose narratives full of quests and epiphanies, and in visionary paintings. Even Paul Eluard, the most “classic” of the poets, shows his hand in Donner à voir.

No mere play on words. Everything is comparable to everything else. Everything finds its echo everywhere, its justification, its resemblance, its opposition, its becoming. And this becoming is infinite.

The word with which the Surrealists tried to conjure so often, le merveilleux, belongs to a sustained attempt to find spiritual values in everyday life.

These, then, were the great attractive forces pulling Surrealism, and the whole D-S expedition, in three different directions: politics, science, and the spiritual. Though the Paris group held together for nearly two decades, it never achieved any complete synthesis or reconciliation of these forces. The dynamics shifted steadily both with the times and with the composition of the group. Such stresses help explain why it is difficult to discern the shape of the D-S expedition—its effort and its accomplishments. As I see it, substantial effort produced limited accomplishments in two respects. From Hugo Ball to Max Ernst to André Breton, the D-S expedition sought a redefinition and a reunification of mind in order to incorporate large segments of mental activity increasingly excluded by materialism (including Marxism). Secondly, they often tried to work collectively, in pairs or as a group, ready to believe that mind and imagination do not occur exclusively in the singular.

These are the most significant aspects of the entire undertaking, and also the most neglected. Both attempts must be counted as failures. Nevertheless, the D-S expedition remains one of the great modern case histories, because of and in spite of its failures. It has much to tell us about inducing and simulating mental processes and about the dynamics of artistic collaboration. It may even have dropped off a few works of art as it went past.

During these events, two men attained recognizable greatness, though they were by no means free from flaws and crotchets: Breton and Duchamp. For fifty years these contrasting figures, leader and loner, were resourceful and intractable in their opposition to an acquisitive society and to political and artistic compromise. Their methods were totally antithetic. Breton founded a counterinstitution—cell without party, brotherhood for research, nonresidential phalanstery. It was an attempt to fight fire with fire. Without the institutionalization of Breton’s moral conscience in manifestoes, public meetings, and private game sessions, it is hard to imagine the shape the avant-garde would have taken in France during the Twenties and Thirties.


Meanwhile Duchamp enacted a lengthy and elaborate pantomime of shaking out of his garments and off the soles of his feet every particle of the dust of Western art. Refusing all institutions except the ancient free masonry of chess, he performed a solitary rite of divestiture. It has had an effect as lasting as Breton’s negative institution. Though Breton sometimes acted like a toy Pope, and though Duchamp began to look like W.C. Fields trying to get rid of the fly paper, they were neither charlatans nor fools.3

In the United States we have been kept reasonably well informed about these goings-on. What could be reckoned as the third wave of publications is now engulfing us.4 It is having an unfortunate effect, for scholarship and surveys seem to be driving out the original texts. Meanwhile the D-S expedition is enjoying a combination of academic respectability and intellectual fashion. But where is the genuine article? Selected Writings by Eluard is still available in the serviceable New Directions volume.5 Books by Queneau and Leiris appeared, and more or less disappeared, several years ago.

The recent translation of Breton’s Manifestoes of Surrealism properly includes his best automatic text, Soluble Fish—offered as proof of the pudding. A good collection of his poems, Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares, translated by Edouard Roditi has been reissued. His non-novel or adventure journal, Nadja, has been available in English for many years.6 Uneconomically, two competing translations of Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris have been put into circulation.7 Now we have Arp. One or two more items are on the way. Altogether it makes a slender collection in English of the original texts, unless one is prepared to rummage through little magazines.

Books about the D-S expedition, however, are legion: huge comprehensive studies, special monographs, and commissioned introductions to fit into publishers’ series. Their quality differs, but not the tale they tell. The books under review in the two parts of this essay do not attempt any major rethinking of the past. Not one of them (except the French periodical Change) undertakes a revision of the general picture of the D-S expedition printed out over twenty years ago and programmed as long as forty years ago in Marcel Raymond’s From Baudelaire to Surrealism. The passage of time and the availability of masses of materials worked over by cooperating research groups have not rocked a single reputation, nor divulged a neglected genius in the foundations, nor powerfully deflected attention toward neglected aspects of the subject—those I have mentioned and others. For example, why isn’t Berlin Dada, with its close collaboration between politics, literary and plastic arts, and psychoanalysis, far more important than the domestic squabbles of the Paris crowd? Is it possible that the shape of time we should be contemplating begins somewhere back before the turn of the century with, say, Ubu Roi, the shocking fusion of symbolism and anarchism, and ends soon after 1930 when modernism ran out of steam and capitulated to socialist realism?

Furthermore, since William Gaunt’s The March of the Moderns (1949) we haven’t had a really rousing polemical book against the whole modernist bandwagon, and the D-S expedition in particular. We need one badly. Saul Bellow has drawn blood with some of his prods. Hans Magnus Ensensberger has been merciless toward cliques and the avant-garde. One man with the critical intelligence, personal experience, and force of style to do the job is Roger Caillois. There must be others. We would be gravely mistaken now to embed the D-S expedition, entire and still uncontested, in the amber of history.


In March, 1968, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a black-tie opening for a large exhibition entitled “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage.” Inside, Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dali made benevolent remarks about 300 “gentle hippies” who were demonstrating in the street outside. According to the Times, one of their placards read, “Surrealism means revolution, not spectator-sports.” The museum’s chief curator, William S. Rubin, had prepared both the show and the 250-page catalogue. Now, from that catalogue, has risen the full flesh of Dada and Surrealist Art.

The book reaches the physical limits for a single volume meant to be read and, presumably, held in the lap: 12″ * 10″ * 2 1/2″, 8 pounds, 350 pages of double-column text, 60 tipped-in color plates, 417 black-and-white plates, 302 documentary illustrations, a twenty-page Euro-American chronology, a bibliography of 484 items, an exhaustive index (which fails, however, to list the basic categories of Mr. Rubin’s analysis), and a price of $35. This mountain of a book provoked from some critics the kind of catcalls the exhibit had inspired in the “hippies.” Such saturation history is a betrayal of life, they said. Rubin treats Dada and Surrealism too much as preliminaries to the New York schools of the Fifties and Sixties. And much more.

Before we join the fray, let’s see just what we have here. Obviously Rubin had at his disposition a competent museum staff along with excellent collections and libraries. Yet he is clearly master of the enterprise. From the three reproductions on the jacket (Duchamp, Miró, Magritte) to the final paragraph, a single intelligence and recognizable taste govern the machinery. In a brief preface Rubin states that he will engage in two activities essentially alien to the iconographic interests of the Surrealist poet-critics: stylistic analysis and judgments of quality.

The lengthy opening chapter on Dada is in many ways the most satisfying in the book as art history and as analysis. Fortunately Rubin has mastered the German background as well as the French. He detects the dandyism behind the Dada gestures and is not ruffled by raucous noises. The second chapter on “background” runs into a few problems of selection and chronology and includes several fine pages on de Chirico. “The Heroic Period” treats five painters: Miró, Masson, Ernst, Tanguy, and Magritte. The chapter on the Thirties brings in Dali, comes back to Arp and sculpture, and includes a careful examination of Picasso’s relation to Surrealism. Rubin concludes that Picasso’s work is “ultimately antagonistic” to Surrealism because his inspiration remains figurative. His demonstration of this, an analysis of the crucifixion theme in Guernica, displays the power of a discriminating eye supported by scholarship.

The final chapter, “Surrealism in Exile,” deals with what happened after the fall of France, primarily in New York. Rubin ends by summarizing the art history disputes over the transitional role of Arshile Gorky, the major American painter who committed suicide in 1947. There is no coda.

The organization of this volume does not differ widely from that of an earlier book by Marcel Jean. The prose is readable even though it rarely falls back on anecdote. Rubin sets out to insert Dada and Surrealist art into history and does so by marshaling his facts, collecting superb illustrations, and taking account of differing opinions. He has the critical cool to give Dali his due, and no more, as a miniaturist with an immediate hallucinating power that declined after 1929. Rubin is not afraid to take a stand. “Miró is unquestionably the finest painter to have participated in Surrealism.” Many would agree. But the adverb doesn’t belong there. Personally, I would rather live with a good Arp or a good Magritte. Still, Rubin’s documentation is magnificent.8

The critical scaffolding on which Rubin erects his work remains more or less in the background. In a scattering of brief passages one begins to glimpse it as a sequence of binary distinctions. Rubin repeatedly emphasizes Surrealist peinture-poésie, with its renewed attention to content, as against pure painting, powerfully embodied for the Twenties in the “cubist grid.” Within Surrealism he sees two basic styles: biomorphism, primarily in Arp, and spatial illusionism, principally in Magritte and Dali. Others like Miró and Tanguy blend the two. At some points (e.g., p. 150) Rubin speaks of “abstract” versus “illusionism.” But he never gives us “a comprehensive intrinsic definition of Surrealist painting” as he promises on page 122. These organizing categories remain tentative and somewhat blurred. For that very reason they yield to a strange undertow and make one wonder about the author’s attitude toward his subject.

The plastic arts played only an ancillary role in Dada and Surrealism; they were held useful as means of communicating ideas, but not worthy of delectation in themselves. [P. 14]

…it is now evident that the programs of Dada and Surrealism constituted a major interlude (about 1913-47) of reaction against the main premise of modern art, which was in the direction of the increasing autonomy of art as such. [P. 15]

Surrealism itself was less a cause than a symptom of the concerns that animated the cultural scene during the entreguerre. [P. 281]

It was with the Dada and Surrealist generations of the interwar period (and not recently in America, as some believe) that the situation changed. For the first time, originality—which was to become indistinguishable from novelty—was itself a goal…. Precisely at that moment, the quality of avant-garde painting fell off. [P. 396]9

Out of this very elegant bag, some kind of a cat is creeping. As curator of MOMA, and in command of formidable knowledge of twentieth-century developments, Rubin is duty-bound to reckon with so major a force as Dada-Surrealism in modern art. But as an admirer of the critical ideas of Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg, frequently acknowledged in the text, and with a sensibility trained in post-Renaissance esthetic traditions, he finds himself in something of a quandary over the anti-art and automatic content of the D-S expedition.

I suspect that Rubin’s reservations about the whole shebang run very deep. He tries to curb them in the interest of objective history; furthermore, some of the individual works produced in close association with these heretical principles move him very much. But I am disturbed by the catches and cracks in his voice, not only because they mar the unity of the book but also because they imply the possibility of a book Rubin might have written, with greater honesty toward himself and his reservations. Somewhere inside Rubin lurks a half-suppressed classicist yearning to criticize the entire superstructure of D-S ideology and to salvage from it a limited number of works and individual talents assimilable within the “main premise of modern art.”

But Rubin is not happy with the “cubist grid” either. So we are left with a mammoth scholarly and critical work that glistens with a kind of intellectual irridescence. Its sympathies keep shifting. He is content with a downbeat ending about the trailing off of Surrealism after World War II. Yet the sheer mass of the book, cultural, commercial, and physical, suggests some kind of triumph for the Dada and Surrealist art it memorializes and faintly deplores. Rubin goes to great lengths to bury his ambivalence about his subject. I suppose he speaks for many of us. Yet one looks to such a work to cut through uneasiness, not to sustain it.


Of all the artists and writers who lived through Dada, only two went on without ever changing. For instead of rejecting art, they threw the whole house open. “Everything the artist spits is art,” growled Schwitters. Arp, all smiles, went further. “The whole world is art.” Of the two, Arp is incomparably the greater artist and a multiple threat: artist and poet; artist in both sculpture and painting; poet in both German and French. Over the years, first in his reliefs and then in his whimsical writings, he developed what he called “concrete art” (as opposed to abstract art)—material and verbal shapes allowed to grow not after nature but like nature. They arise from spontaneous processes of dream, chance, play, and humor.

In spite of financial worries and frequent travels, Arp had an astonishingly sustained fifty-year career of work. He participated in almost every art movement in Europe without belonging to any. He reached fame slowly without scheming or scandal and avoided personal and political squabbles. Sophie Taeuber, a remarkably talented artist in her own right, afforded him both a lasting and happy marriage and a valuable artistic collaboration. The pervasive wholeness of his work tends to obscure the slow evolution it went through. He moved from flat collages and paintings to sculpture in the round, and from tightly constructed poems in German toward more open works, including prose and prose poems in French.

I still remember vividly my first cliché reactions to Arp’s work: He’s just making playthings. I could do better myself if I tried. But of course we usually don’t try, not for a lifetime. When we do, we can’t. Arp’s plastic works and his writings remain childlike, often impish, but fraud does not enter here. Unlike the Surrealists who rarely abandoned a strong sense of decorum (partially in order to be able to violate it). Arp never differentiated between literary genres. Verses, prose poems, fairy tales, reminiscences, declarations of faith—they all fit side by side because of a pervasive whimsy that never detracts from deep communion with nature and life.

The stars write at an infinitely slow pace and never read what they have written. It was in dreams that I learned how to write and it was only much later that I laboriously learned how to read. As if such knowledge were innate to them, the night birds read what is written by perishable men, a wrinkly scrawl in the opaque night. The vagabond flowers offered me a charming surprise when they forged my signature in living groups on cliffs. [P. 287]

Texts like this, as well as wonderful fables like “The Great Unrestrained Sadist” (who threw everything out the window, including himself, and it all turned into marmelade) and “The White Man with Negro Feet” (who walked on water), draw deeply on the unconscious without being “automatic.” Arp is forever looking for, or rather finding, verbal patterns in which sound and sense have approximately equal weight. It often comes off as humor.

is the water of afterlife
mixed with the wine of this life

But in the French it’s even whackier, more wobbly, for he is not only rhyming but also playing with his os.

c’est l’eau de l’au-delà
mêlée au vin d’ici-bas

After reading a great deal of Arp in both German and French, I have the impression that it is not the unconscious, not any literary tradition, not an assertive talent, but the language itself that writes the poem.

Two little Arabs adult and ara- besque
who were playing on two small Nero’s fiddles
were strolling legibly
through the wrinkles of two runic curtains
when suddenly a pipe loomed up
before the two little adult and arabesque Arabs
a papa pipe on puppet feet

One does best to relax and enjoy it, and possibly to keep a finger on the French (violons d’Ingres). The nervous exegete, worried about having missed a buried meaning, might fail to hear the sound surfing and syllable sledding. Once or twice the Beatles and Bob Dylan strolled by this way.

There are two more things to say about Arp before looking at the new collections of his work in English. His poetry in German is, if not superior to, at least more interesting and varied than his French work. Born and raised in Strasbourg, Arp was genuinely bilingual (plus the local dialect). But he wrote differently in the two languages—more from the inside in German, I should say, less rhythmically and with a little less assurance in French. In both he uses the same techniques of permutating syllables and joining items not by their center (denotative meaning) but by their edges (sound and connotation). And it all contributes to the second point: Arp is a fascinating but almost impossible challenge for the translator. My earlier quotations supply a little evidence.

In every respect, Arp deserves publication in English. His reputation is growing in Germany and France, and his complete works are being published in both languages—a unique case. A French sociologist, Alfred Willener, goes so far as to attribute to Arp a significant role in the formation of the esthetic attitudes behind the May, 1968, riots in Paris. His literary work stands in a special relation to his art. They form a single reciprocating engine. On My Way (Wittenborn, 1948), the sole collection previously available in English, offers only seven poems and about thirty pages of prose. Finally, and most miraculous of all, a dedicated and experienced poet-translator has stepped forward to represent Arp. Joachim Neugroschel both understands and hears French—and apparently German as well. (He has translated Celan with great sensitivity.) Everything favors the triumphant entry of Arp into English.

But something has gone wrong. I can only attribute the error to the editors, Robert Motherwell, Bernard Karpel, and Arthur A. Cohen. These three men pool enough artistic, editorial, and bibliographic knowledge to give real stature to the series they are jointly editing, “The Documents of Twentieth Century Art.” But they failed to think the Arp project all the way through. First of all, Arp’s work is very uneven, particularly in French. Yet they decided to use the French edition of his works, Jours effeuillés, and the relatively few translations from the German it contains. Marcel Jean, the editor of the French collection (he also contributes a perceptive introduction), followed one editorial rule: completeness. For that edition, he was probably right.

However, Arp wrote on assorted pieces of paper which he sometimes used more than once, and he had no qualms about plagiarizing himself. As a result the French volume contains close to thirty pages of duplicated material; they come over wholesale into English. In the Viking edition, the poems on pages 87, 94, 194, 115, 129, and 153 are repeated elsewhere—one of them twice. Furthermore, almost all the texts from On My Way are reprinted, with the mystifying exception of a moving poem, “Sophie.” What we have is a 574-page book containing about fifty repetitious or superfluous pages, many poems a judicious editor would have omitted, and a number of texts so close to untranslatable that they drove poor Neugroschel into mysterious verbal contortions, shoulder shrugging, or surrender. The price, $17.50, is scarcely for popular consumption. (I am told there will be a paperback edition in the fall.)

Arp’s fragile texts come through best in small collections with reproductions of his own work not so much to illustrate the poems as to frame and punctuate them. Auch Das Ist Nur Eine Wolke (Basel, 1951) is one of the most satisfying poetic objects I have ever laid eyes on or held in my hand. Arp on Arp, though it reproduces the forty drawings, woodcuts, and collages from the French edition, is ultimately exasperating in spite of its good intentions and respectable translations. A 200-page selection made primarily by the translator from both the German and the French, with a careful choice and placement of reproductions, would have given Arp a far greater opportunity to find American readers, young and old. As it is, they will be discouraged by bulk, price, unsteady quality, and even confusion about the raison d’être of the book. Arp on Arp is not a single work but a grab bag put together by a devoted and literalminded French editor. When the time comes for the German works to be considered, I hope someone is there to exert imaginative editorial judgment.

Having said all this, let me add that this book is full of hidden pleasures, open meadows of laughter, and a child’s lyric wisdom. In spite of the odds, every creature in any way drawn to poetry should come out to see and hear Arp.

(This is the first of a two-part essay.)

This Issue

May 18, 1972