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Looking through the navel

Berlin finally pays homage to the work of Jean Arp, one of the most important figures of 20th-century art. Dive headfirst into dadaism at the Georg Kolbe museum through Oct 11.

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A navel might be an odd body part to use as a description for someone, but in the case of German-French artist Jean (aka Hans) Arp (1886−1966), no title is perhaps more fitting. Arp was a man who took centre stage in the early 20th-century art world at a time when aesthetics were dramatically changing. He was truly the “navel” of these colossal shifts as a co-founder of Dadaism and a pioneer of Surrealism and Concrete art. It’s a wonder, then, that this is the first exhibition dedicated entirely to Arp’s oeuvre in Berlin.

The immense honour goes to the beautiful Georg Kolbe museum, a hidden gem just off Heerstraße in the very western part of the city. As you walk into the first room with Arp’s bronze sculptures, the large glass windows expose the vine-coated oak trees cradling the building. It is an apt setting to house Arp’s work, as he himself announced the coming of Dadaism with the words, “Make way for nature. Nature is a white eagle. Make dada-way for dada-nature.” His bronzes, curvaceous and sumptuous shapes with gaping holes in the centre, reveal the image so idiosyncratic to the Arp form – the navel – and thus the double word play in the exhibition’s title is realised. You want to peer through them, and see what Arp saw through his so-called “navel monocle”. The asymmetric ovals look like developing bodies, rising out of moulds or collapsing into their centres. With the navel, Arp gives these abstract shapes humanity.

Although Arp is largely perceived as a sculptor, his paintings, cutouts and prints fill up the walls and also achieve the same feeling of organic form. The cutouts however are more humorous, looking almost like misshapen characters. They capture the nonsensical hilarity of Dadaism which privileged the illogical over the rational. But the exhibition takes care to highlight Arp’s seriousness as a critical thinker by referring to his theoretical texts. Through headphones, you can listen to a recording of Arp reciting the Dada manifesto – and be sure to pay attention to the poems dotted around the rooms, as whimsical as his art.

The exhibition compels a visit from modern-art lovers. In paying homage to an artist synonymous with avant-garde, it will leave you enriched with the politics of Dadaism and Surrealism as well a greater understanding of the great shifts in 20th-century art. Or perhaps you will just leave the museum dreaming of magic little trous (holes) morphing into bodies, suns and billowing clouds. 

Jean Arp. The Navel of Avant-Garde, Georg Kolbe museum, Sensburger Allee 25, S-Bhf Heerstr., Tue-Sun 10-18:00. Through Oct 11.