I first met Jean Arp when he was, in fact, not Jean Arp but Hans Arp. The French authorities after the war had forced the name to be changed but there was more to it than that. Hans, so he told me, was born in Strasbourg at 52 Rue du Vieux-Marché-aux-Poissons not far from the cathedral. We would meet regularly and exchange ideas for we both wanted to follow our creative passions which, at that time, first veered towards poetry. We studied together at the École des Arts et Métiers, debating the possibilities of language that had been opened up by Baudelaire, whom I adored, and Rimbaud whom Arp adored. As teenagers, Hans and I would meet regularly with a group of fellow students at a terrace on the Place du Tripiers where we would debate regularly though Arp would regularly fall into dreams, staring up at the row of houses in front, attempting to lean further to see the house where he was born and lived, and the house where Goethe had stayed when in Strasbourg for several years. The house had a keen hold on him, so I remember.
I was sad at the time to hear of Arp’s plans to move to Paris but knew it would be best. We endeavoured to keep in touch by letter and it was not long before Arp had sent his first letter to my new apartment which lay on Quai Saint-Thomas overlooking the river. I could never open the mail he sent in the apartment, however, even with the balcony overlooking the water being one of the most beautiful spots in the town. I had, so I thought on every occasion, to open and read such mail at the terraced cafe on Place du Tripiers. Arp’s first letter to me emanated with a fresh energy which he had clearly gained since moving to Paris. I felt a need to share in this newly acquired inspiration, briefly even considering following him but, so I thought, bigger cities were not a healthy place for a writer such as myself. He had sent details of the publishing of some of his poems in a small pamphlet, the news of which could not help but fill me with a gentle envy whilst sat in Strasbourg on the terrace. Even if I was only mere seconds from the square where Gutenberg had fled to, the act of getting work printed and published seemed highly unlikely in the town at the time and was to prove elusive for the entirety of my life.
I thought of how perhaps Arp had picked up the spirit of Goethe who had stayed in Strasbourg for several years only a few houses down on the same road and I cursed my apartment overlooking the river. His house even overlooked the square named after Gutenberg; it was inevitable that he was to be a great writer. But then Hans had had an aura around him that seemed to suggest that he would strive further than the rest of us, to further places was the phrase he always used when discussing his desired destination of ambition. I assumed that Arp, who was still Hans at this point, would embed himself in Paris permanently and follow his success there. Yet a year later, after I had been forced to take municipal work in order to fund my own creative writing, Arp wrote from a new address in Weimar. He had, so he enthusiastically told me, enlisted at the Kunstschule which surprised me. He suggested he was becoming more interested in the plastic arts or the specialisation at the school, Malerei, though he also hinted already at his boredom with the form in his letter. Anything formal was beyond him or at least an aversion to him.
His time in Germany became more marked by a sense of oddness in his letters to me though they rarely spoke of little else but success. In between this success, when he was Hans Arp at least, there seemed to be an unknown presence. There was, so Arp wrote to me some months later, no logic to this presence and it beckoned him to follow it, to explore its shapes. He seemed to recreate it in the work which was starting to cause great stirs in the art world though these stirs were not always positive. His work, so he told me, began an attempt to try and realise this presence, if only to convince himself that it was actually there and was not some symptom of an illness of mind. He began to end his letters with strange shapes which seemed almost liquid and, most importantly, meaningless. When he first did this, I mistook the design – for it was a design and not simply random – to be an accident of the pen. There was little logic to them but that, so Arp wrote, was the point. Such formal logic was the danger and cause of all the calamity around us, forcing us to augment ourselves out of our natural state, so he wrote one summer. Arp was scared of any sort of formal living, formal order being the virus of our time. I dared not tell him that, by this point, I was working in a bureau, spending most of my time formalising the finance of others. At this time, I had accepted my poetry as being a pastime, perhaps soon to be discovered after my death, but, as a testament to Arp’s work, I now lived creatively through his letters which I awaited with great anticipation. I spoke only of my own progress, or lack of, in my writing back to him, considering some radical change to its styles as I had, so I thought, little to lose.
He spent some time in Munich before finally making the journey to Switzerland where I would eventually lose contact with him. Yet, before his career would properly take off, he would visit Strasbourg again to visit myself and my recently married wife; an ultimate formality. The war was looming and it would force a major change on Hans Arp who would forever then be Jean Arp. Switzerland provided neutrality during the war and it seemed the logical place for him to go, especially after his successful exhibition in Zurich with Kandinsky whom, so he told me, he had become friends with. I could not hide an envious glance towards him when he told of the many great artists he was now acquainted with. I remember his visit well, the final visit before his trip to Switzerland; how he seemed much larger than the town he was now visiting, how he seemed to be almost constantly plagued by visitations of something that neither I nor my wife could see. “It is there, the split in the logic of my perception,” he said as we once again sat in the terraced cafe. He had been sending grainy photographs of some of his sculptural work, the fluctuating shapes contorting the space around them. I thought that perhaps these were the shapes he was referring to though what allowed him to see them was never conveyed to me. Much later on I would finally see the portrait he had had done with the disc covering his left eye, reading into the picture a sense of acceptance to his occulted vision.
Arp, now Jean, left Strasbourg newly named and, in the remaining handful of letters he sent from Switzerland, he made it apparent that the war would ground him there and he would not visit again, at least to see me. Perhaps he did visit Strasbourg again but I did not know about it. Memories of the art world only raised the spectre of my own failure in writing. It was not until after the war that he wrote one final time, enclosing a small package which contained his newly published poetry. I was glad to see that he had not entirely dismissed the poetic or the written form, with his physical work doing little for me other than to sprout worry concerning his mental stability. It was called Die Wolkenpumpe and, so his letter said, was actually his second published collection in German. There were to be many others but I would stop following the releases as life drifted by. I considered what this particular volume meant; that Jean Arp was now writing in the language of Hans Arp. But, as I took the brown pamphlet out of the package, giving notice to the illogically joyous design on the cover which was undoubtedly produced by his inner vision as well, I noticed that he had published it simply under the name “Arp.” Jean and Hans were now one and, when walking down the Rue du Vieux-Marché-aux-Poissons once again many years later, I looked up at the house that was once his – the house where he was born – and wondered, if a plaque was erected in his honour many years hence, would it be dedicated to Jean Arp or Hans Arp? As the years go by, the question seems less and less important.