Homme-moustaches belongs to the remarkable series of painted reliefs that signaled Arp's unique return to figuration in the 1920s with a new "Object Language." During this period, Arp turned to a simplified figurative style and a new iconography of figures, faces, and simple objects to create critical, humorous images of humanity, often focusing obsessively on one body part such as a navel, a nose-- or in this case, a moustache--to the extent of overwhelming the perception of the entire figure. The present work, for example, displays a pair of white circular eyes, the profile of a nose, and the large looming arches of a moustache as a man's dominant descriptive features. Although linked to the visible world, the composition rejects traditional painterly illusionism and instead relies on "primitive" biomorphic forms and caricature-like distortion to preserve a degree of formal abstraction. Commenting on the stylistic character of Arp's works of this period, Jane Hancock has stated:
"Rather than presenting alternative examples of pure and natural life, Arp now attacked human folly directly, through parody, objectifying humans and placing them in absurd situations. He maintained his established principles; naturalness in the organic contours of the forms, spontaneity in their arrangements, and abstraction in their simplicity, flatness, and resistance to illusionism" (Arp, exh. cat, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1986, p. 71).
Though Arp's style changed dramatically from his Dadaist production in Zurich to the reliefs of the mid to late 1920s, this was nonetheless a period in which he consistently refined his core philosophical and artistic goals. The figuration of the present relief thus has its source in Zurich Dada's idealistic idea of redemption through primitive, abstract forms, and its biomorphic shapes are characteristic of the new formal language Arp developed by abstracting elements from the natural landscape. Arp later reflected on the inception of his biomorphic forms around 1918 and their importance for the remainder of his oeuvre:
"In Ascona I did India ink drawings of broken branches, roots, grass, and stones that the lake had thrown up on the shore. Finally, I simplified these forms and united their essences in fluid ovals, symbols of metamorphosis and development of bodies. The Earthly Forms... initiated a long series on which I still haven't stopped working" (quoted in ibid., p. 62).
In 1925, the same year the present work was executed, Arp was finally able to leave Zurich and move to Paris, where he visited the landmark exhibition of Surrealist painting at the Galerie Pierre that took place that November. Though only loosely associated with the movement, the Surrealists supported Arp's Object Language, both in visual and poetic form. The literary pendant to the curiously moustached man in the present relief can be found in Arp's anthology Der Pyramidenrock (The Pyramidal Petticoat), which he published in 1924 and whose vivid, dream-like imagery earned much acclaim among the Surrealist artists:
"Symmetrical we see the day.
Many-limbed we work out in it
Head crowned with moustaches.
We are he is you are I am."
(quoted in M. Andreotti, The Early Sculpture of Jean Arp, Ann Arbor, 1989, p. 81).
Artist photo: Hans Arp, photograph of Arp in his Atelier Aubette, 1926-27. Stiftung Hans Arp und Sophie Taeuber Arp, Rolandseck, Germany.