This is one of two virtually identical reliefs. The 'first' version, formerly in the collection of George Heard Hamilton, is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It was not uncommon for Arp to make two or more identical, reliefs and paint them differently. In this case the two reliefs are painted slightly differently; in the Washington relief the protruding shapes are painted a lighter grey than in the Canberra version and the lower area between the fork and shirtfront is dark grey rather than black as in the Canberra relief. Comparison, however, is complicated by the repainting to which both reliefs would seem to have been subjected-possibly by Arp himself; in later years he frequently retrieved his reliefs from private collections in order to repair cracks and repaint them.1
The Washington relief has always been dated 1922, while the relief in Canberra has traditionally been dated to 1924. It is not impossible that the two reliefs were made two years apart, the 'first' providing a pattern for the second, but it does seem unlikely, and in the catalogue raisonné of Arp's reliefs compiled by Bernd Rau, the Canberra version has also been assigned the date 1922.2
Shirtfront and fork has often been cited to illustrate a shift in the style of Arp's reliefs that occurred after his return to Paris in 1920. The abstract, organic forms of the Dada reliefs that he had produced in Zurich during the war were replaced by a bizarre array of figurative elements-lips, noses, navels, shoes, shirtfronts, forks-imagery probably encouraged by his association with the cafe society into which he was welcomed in Paris both as a poet and artist. The elements of this 'object language', as Arp referred to his new style, are often set in strange juxtaposition, and encourage a comic ambiguity. In Shirtfront and fork the shirtfront (actually a 'dickie') with its two studs, can just as easily be seen as a human face, and the fork as an arm. As such, it harbours the kind of mischievous comment on social behaviour that Arp relished-the abstract personage seen merely as his proper shirtfront and correctly held fork.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.144.
- In the case of the Australian National Gallery's relief, examination reveals that repainting of the protruding dark grey shapes has occurred. The application of the second layer of paint-slightly darker than the original layer, which had a characteristic green tinge-probably occurred with the re-fixing of the relief. Originally, visible screws from the front held the protruding shapes onto the back. At some stage these screws were removed and connected from the back and the holes on the face were filled. The black area of the relief does not so to have been repainted.
- See Bernd Rau, Hans Arp: Die Reliefs, Oeuvre-Katalog, Stuttgart: Hatje, 1981, p. 26, cat. no. 40. Rau's dating of the Canberra relief 1922 was also followed in the most recent exhibition of the relief at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in 1983, in 'Arp: The Dada Reliefs' (see exhibitions). Before publication of Rau's catalogue the 1924 dating was based on the typed label which appears on the back of the relief, stating the date as 1924. However, this label was compiled, placed on the relief and signed by Arp retrospectively and therefore cannot be taken as a guarantee of the correct date.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010