Author: Saskia van Kampen-Prein
Sometimes the research that precedes the compilation of a catalogue raisonné throws up surprising new insights, and it is certainly true of this work, about which the museum knew virtually nothing. A literature survey brought it a new title and provided information about the provenance and edition. The work proved to be a multiple – a series of identical, often relatively small objects, made for commercial reasons. This multiple was made in an edition of four hundred and in 1958 was given to the lenders to the exhibition 50 Jaar Moderne Kunst which was staged that same year in the Palace for Fine Arts in Brussels as part of the World Exhibition. The then director of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, J.C. Ebbinge Wubben, had loaned Charley Toorop’s painting De maaltijd der vrienden (The Dinner of Friends, 1932-33) and the bronze statue Venus victrix (1916) by Auguste Renoir for the occasion. When the exhibition closed he received a cast of Jean (Hans) Arp’s multiple with the puzzling title Homme vu par une fleur. The work has no right way up and can be exhibited in a variety of positions. We do not know why Arp, out of all the exhibitors, was asked to make a multiple. It may be linked to the fact that in that period he already had sufficient status as an artiSt Four years earlier, he had been awarded a prestigious art prize at the Venice Biennale and a couple of days before the close of 50 Jaar Moderne Kunst a retrospective of the artist opened in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Whatever the reason, the Belgian government commissioned Arp to make four hundred casts of the plaster model Homme vu par une fleur (1958).
Arp had first started working with plaster almost thirty years earlier. After his Dada period in which he had mostly made wooden reliefs, in the 1920s he concentrated on making freestanding sculptures. The first examples were still made of wood, but in 1929 Arp began to work with plaster. The images were created without a preconceived plan: Arp scraped and sandblasted the plaster until he was satisfied and then cast it in bronze. He also used the plaster statues as models for carving. The flowing organic shapes he created in this way look both abstract and figurative. From the 1930s onwards art critics likewise called these kinds of shapes ‘biomorphic’. Surrealist artists like Yves Tanguy (see Paysage avec nuages roses) and Alberto Giacometti used biomorphic shapes in their work. Although Homme vu par une fleur came about relatively late in Arp’s artistic career, its soft contours echo the Surrealist form idiom of the 1930s. Like many other Surrealists, Arp was only active in the Paris Surrealist group for a short time. Even though he took part in the first group exhibition of Surrealists in Galerie Loeb in 1925 and later frequently exhibited with the Surrealists and had his work illustrated in Surrealist magazines, he did not subscribe to their political programme.