arp, birds in an aquarium, 1920



An interest of the Dada movement, and the work of Hans Arp, was the transcendence the physical world.  This style of art sought, through extreme abstraction, to break from the conventional and introduce a new lens through which to view the world.  Arp was particularly known for these attempts to create a new viewpoint and went through various stages in both his paintings and sculptures.  He began with a system of rigid grid-like paintings which were intended, despite their apparent order; destroy the sense of the old order.[1]  Arp then branched out and began a series originally entitled Terrestrial Forms, which was an attempt to merge the abstraction of Dada with the harmony of nature.[2]  This move also incorporated the beginning of what would later become common in the work of Arp, and that was the use of fluid ovals and lines.[3]  The work Birds in an Aquarium is a mixture of these last two styles.

The first thing to analyze when discussing Birds in an Aquarium is the paradox caused by the title itself.  An aquarium is not the normal habitat for a bird, and in fact a bird is normally found in a completely different environment.  Through giving the relief this name Arp brings up the Dada idea of the paradox and confusion of life.  It brings in the almost whimsical elements of Dada humor and disconnect discussed by Tzara in the Dada Manifesto.[4]  Without this title the work could be interpreted to be many different objects, however, Arp gives it this name deliberately to bring in this theme of playing with the order of life.

The work itself is a wood relief sculpture composed of three separate pieces of wood.  The back is composed of one solid piece of wood containing two pairs of horizontal grooves, which serve to create three levels.  At the bottom of the piece is fixed a second piece of wood.  It covers nearly the entire lowest level of the work, and is composed of two main colors with a third color forming a flowing line between them.  The third piece is two figures fixed on the middle layer of the work which serves to draw the initial attention and are the forms of the birds.

The view of the birds is given as a profile view of their heads.  Immediately visible is the one eye, denoted by a color spot in the center of the form.  The other distinguishable characteristics are the two extremely similar duckbill shaped protrusions from either side of the head.  It is ambiguous here which is the actual bill and which are the feathers on the back of the head; however, it appears the bills are facing left on both of the birds.  This can be ascertained from the fact that this is the slightly more open side.  The more open side would be the one that has the open beak.  These birds are not unlike the other depictions of birds given by Arp at this time; in fact in 1924 he will nearly mimic this work with Bird Heads.[5]  By abstracting the heads of the birds to this extent it is difficult to decipher what they are, and without the title and other examples they could appear to be fish.  This ambiguity is crucial to the message of Arp as he uses this blurring of lines between the concreteness of nature and the abstraction of art to create the image of a free flowing world that can be remolded into something new.  This work, dated 1920, is from the post war period and the attempts of Europe to cope with the destruction and loss.  Through this work Arp is showing the disconnect that Dada focused on in this period and the loss of direction and identity that Europe had suffered.

Beneath the birds lies the other piece of the work that protrudes from the surface of the work.  This piece composed of a layer of brown, over a layer of grey, with a flowing orange line dividing the two gives the appearance of a side view of the earth’s crust.  It contains the brown topsoil layer located above the grey bedrock, with a layer of fluidity in between, which allows for movement.  When the physical location of this section is taken into account the idea of earth is reinforced, and the image of the bottom of the aquarium arises.  By making this piece protrude Arp draws special attention to it, and for a reason.  Dada consisted to a large extent in the questioning of the old structures and concrete ideals and by emphasizing the base of the aquarium Arp again calls these into question following the recent collapse.  Following the war Europe was left grasping for a foothold, and by placing this piece in a prominent position Arp suggests this foothold is in the absurdity and nothingness of Dada.

The back piece, onto which the other two are mounted, consists of three fluid color regions and three physical levels.  In light of the title, these three levels can be taken as the earth, water and sky.  The birds are located in the center region, the largest, which would fall as the water.  Though there is the possibility that they could have been placed in the top region Arp places them here to reinforce the Dada absurdity.  By all natural laws they do not belong in this plane, however, there they are.  Arp uses this placement to question what absolute truth is and what is truth simply because that is the way it has historically occurred.  In the post war era Europe is left searching for an identity and a truth and questioning the old, in this work Arp proposes that the old was always wrong and only a radically different approach is logical.

From the title of the work, through its physical characteristics Arp makes a lengthy critique of the modern condition.  By using the extremely absurd he focuses attention on why it is that these things are considered absurd, and through a changing of the harmony of nature he questions the internal harmony of man .


Works Cited

Hancock, Jane and Poley, Stefanie. Arp.Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1987.


Robertson, Eric. Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor. New Haven: YaleUniversity Press, 2006.


Tzara, Tristan. “Dada Manifesto 1918.” In Art in Theory, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood,


252-257. Malden : Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

[1] Robertson, Eric, Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor. New Haven: YaleUniversity Press, 2006. p. 50

[2] Hancock, Jane and Poley, Stefanie, Arp.Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1987.p. 62

[3] Robertson, Eric, Arp: Painter, Poet, Sculptor. New Haven: YaleUniversity Press, 2006. p. 51-52

[4] Tzara, Tristan. “Dada Manifesto 1918.” In Art in Theory, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, 252-257. Malden : Blackwell Publishing, 2003. p. 253


[5] Hancock, Jane and Poley, Stefanie. Arp.Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1987.p. 94

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