Catalogue entry

T05007 Danger of Death 1954 Danger de mort

Pencil on laid paper 322 × 257 (12 5/8 × 10 1/8)
Inscribed ‘Arp’ on back b.r.
Presented by Mr and Mrs Robert Lewin through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987
Prov: Bought from the artist by Galerie Denise René, Paris 1959; Brook Street Gallery (Robert Lewin) by July 1963
Exh: Modern Sculpture and Sculptors' Drawings, Brook Street Gallery, July–Oct. 1963 (67, as ‘Danger de mort’); Il Surrealismo, Agenzia d'Arte Moderna and Toninelli Arte Moderna, Rome, Dec. 1976, p.63, no number

‘Danger of Death’ is one of a number of drawings by Arp of the 1950s and 1960s with wavering lines, called by Arp ‘Erdbebenlinie’ (‘earthquake’ or ‘seismic lines’). Arp continued in this period to sculpt and draw using the curving, organic shapes for which he is best known. However, in certain drawings and prints he used the tremulous quality of such ‘earthquake lines’ to express the unplanned nature and uncertain development of his imagery, and also to explore the distinction between abstract and representational marks.

The apparently random, non-representational quality of many of the lines in T05007 appears to suggest that the artist let his pencil move across the paper in an ‘automatic’ fashion, in the manner of the ‘automatic drawings’ produced by the Paris-based Surrealist group from the mid-1920s. However, the fainter pencil marks and partial erasures, which are plainly visible in T05007, are proof of preliminary work, and suggest a degree of premeditation.

Arp first used ‘earthquake’ lines in a woodcut entitled ‘Flower’, 1951 (repr. Wilhelm Arntz, Hans (Jean) Arp: Das Graphische Werk 1912–1966, Haag 1980, no.140, as ‘Fleur’). This was intended to be an illustration for a book entitled, Une Chemise de nuit de flanelle, by the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington; but it was not used. Arp went on to use ‘earthquake’ lines in woodcut illustrations for two volumes of his poetic writings, Dreams and Projects (New York 1952, nos.xxiv-xxv, repr. Arntz 1980, nos.171–2), and Wortträume und schwarze Sterne (Wiesbaden 1953, repr. ibid., nos.176–7). These early ‘earthquake’ line works focused on the image of the human head. In 1955, however, Arp used the same type of line to depict animals, in woodcuts for Alexander Frey's Kleine Mènagerie (Wiesbaden 1955, repr. ibid., nos.187–99). The last occasion in which he used this type of line in woodcuts was in a series of illustrations for Multiple femme: Poèmes by Yvan Goll (Paris 1956, repr. ibid., nos.206–11, 213), in which some appeared abstract while others were based loosely on the human figure. It is not known how many drawings Arp executed in the style of T 05007, but a related example, with circle or ‘eye’ shapes in the midst of seemingly abstract ‘earth-quake’ lines, is reproduced in Estampes-Dessins, livers illustrés, sculptures, exh. cat., Galerie Gérald Cramer, Geneva, p.7, no.12, as ‘Nuages’, 1962. A less wavering line, but a similar preoccupation with the presence or absence of visual clues, is also found in some late gouaches (see, for example, ‘Shape Hovering in the Air’, 1958, repr. Arp: Hans Arp.Skulpturen. Reliefs. Gouachen, exh. cat., Galerie Neher, Frankfurt-am-Main 1987, p.43 in col.).

It is not known if Arp himself titled T05007, or if the title was given to the drawing at some later point because three similar, images were used to illustrate Arp's essay, ‘Danger de mort’, published in the same year (Vingtième Siècle, no.4, Paris, Jan. 1954, p.33, translated as ‘Mortal Danger’, in Marcel Jean ed., Arp: Collected French Writings, trans. Joachim Neugroschel, 1974, p.315). These three illustrations, which were woodcuts, present a sequence of development towards figuration: the first, reproduced at the top of the page on which the article appeared, is an unspecific or illegible image of wavering lines; the second, below it, features a head-like shape, with two circle forms in the lower left; in the third and final illustration, the position of the two circle-like forms in the upper part of the outline shape allows the image to be read as a ‘head’.

The progressive figuration in this sequence of images was related to the theme of Arp's article, which was the need for compromise in both artistic and political spheres. ‘Is it good for the intransigence and orthodoxy of concrete art’, he began, ‘to remain on the straight and narrow path imposed by the patristics of concrete painting?’ He continued:

Our generation takes immense pride in progress. But progress will not help us advance toward the absolute. We are capable of blowing up the world, because we don't like to compromise. We will come to an end in these fireworks without ever reaching the absolute. Wouldn't it be better to arrange a compromise that would save the earth and save art?

He concluded with the question, ‘wouldn't it be better to occasionally allow a nose to appear in a square?’

Invited by the magazine Vingtième Siècle to contribute his views to a discussion regarding contemporary non-figurative art, Arp attacked the notion of the ‘purity’ of abstraction. All images, he stressed in this article, had their ‘point of departure in the artist's unconscious’. He described the role of the spontaneous and unwilled in the creation of art as both ‘dangerous’ and unavoidable. ‘Even the work relying on a rational system will not escape the danger arising from the mysterious junctions from which the forces of traditional painting radiate’. The artist was able to predetermine neither the final effect of an image, nor its interpretation by the viewer. The human brain, he stressed, was programmed to use visual clues to decipher an image: ‘Two points located on the same plane and at a certain distance from one another, a perpendicular dropping between them on a horizontal line, suffice - horresco referens - to suggest a head’.

The ‘mortal danger’ referred to in the title of T05007 may be related to Arp's discussion here of the risk of spiritual atrophy within ‘pure’ abstraction, and of the dangers of global destruction at the time of the Cold War. However, the title may also have had a more personal meaning. Following the accidental death of his wife Sophie Taeuber-Arp in 1943, Arp had been drawn increasingly to religion and mysticism, and much of his subsequent work can be seen as meditations on life and death. He suffered severe bouts of depression, and in 1952 he had a heart attack, from which he was slow to recover. With his own health fragile, he was perhaps striving in this period to come to terms with the idea of his own death.

In a letter to the compiler dated 24 November 1993, the dealer Denise René stated that T05007 had been in her possession in the late 1950s. In conversation she confirmed that she had bought it, together with a number of other works directly from the artist immediately before staging an exhibition of his work (Arp, Galerie Denise René, Paris, April–May 1959). The exhibition catalogue reproduces the three drawings used to illustrate Arp's article ‘Danger de mort’, but neither these drawings nor T05007 appear to have been included in the exhibition itself. According to Mme René, the gallery records do not reveal to whom or when the work was sold, but she thought it ‘probable’ that Mr Lewin bought it directly from her gallery.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996