The World According to Arp

Dadaist discourses on the bottle, the mustache, and the navel
By Robin Cembalest . Dadaist discourses on the bottle, the mustache, and the navel.

A rp comes out smiling, affable. Heavy features, an air of gentleness and shrewdness. A slow gravity, which might be dreaminess, or perhaps simply an Alsatian ponderation, apparent, too, in his speech (and accent).”

Jean Arp, photographed by André Villers for the October 1958 issue. Arp told another photographer, “A really beautiful thing is when I eat newspapers.”
©André Villers

The place is the artist’s studio in Meudon, a Paris suburb, and the occasion is an interview with the great art historian Pierre Schneider. The time is the early fall of 1958, and Jean Arp is preparing to leave for New York, where the Museum of Modern Art will host a retrospective of his work. The event is so auspicious that ARTnews has sent two photographers to Meudon. André Villers took the portrait reproduced here, which ran in the October issue. Below it was a brief text describing Arp as, among other things, “the father of the kidney-shaped coffee table and swimming pool,” and promising a special interview to follow the next month. In November it did, accompanied by Robert Doisneau images. Still more photographers were in the studio during the interview. When a “young lady photographer” requested that Arp “strike a pose,” Schneider recounted, the artist replied quietly, “A really beautiful thing is when I eat newspapers.”

Meanwhile, in his wideranging conversation with Schneider, Arp recalled how he had moved from an obsession with abstraction to a desire to include “death and decay” in his art. “As for my playfulness,” he said, “I now think there’s too much of it in my work.”

He told Schneider he admired Miró and Ernst, but was not particularly impressed by the form of European abstraction known as art informel. “That kind of painting could have been done by birds,” he commented.

As for objects that influenced him, “there was the mustache,” he recalled. “It was the mustache of Kaiser Wilhelm, whom I had seen as a child in Strasburg, riding past my window, while a military band was playing.”

Any other objects?

“The bottle—the kind of pastry bottle you always see in Chagall’s work.”

What about the navel?

“That’s a different story. One would have to write essays and essays about the navel.”

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of


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