Arp, Arp and me

Last week I went to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to see Cut and Paste, an exhibition of collages. One of the works included from the early twentieth century is ‘According to the Laws of Chance’, created by the German/French artist Hans/Jean Arp in 1933 when he ripped a sheet of black paper into small pieces and attempted to arrange these pieces on a sheet of white paper. The short explanation displayed next to this work in the gallery explains that Arp abandoned this method before dropping the black pieces from a height and letting them rest where they fell. He decided that the resulting random pattern had ‘more expression, more momentum’ than his previous engineered attempts.

When I looked at it, I thought the image was indeed aesthetically pleasing. But is it really a random pattern? Or was Arp denying his own role in its creation in order to make it seem less a product of craft and more an expression of the modern world’s unpredictability? I was slightly suspicious because while some of the pieces are close enough to touch each other, none seemed to be actually overlapping (as you might expect). We could actually test this mathematically, if this pattern really is random then the distances between each black shape should also be random and should follow a normal distribution. (When I have the time I might do this.)

I suppose I was intrigued by this artwork because it brings up other connections for me. Hans/Jean Arp had a distant relative who also went by two first names, Halton or ‘Chip’ Arp, an American astronomer probably best known for his Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies (published in the 1960s). This atlas presents images of galaxies with apparently disturbed morphologies. Arp made these images because he thought (accurately as it turned out) that such galaxies would have a lot to teach us about the link between their local environments and their appearances.

Some of the galaxies in the Atlas have much higher redshift objects (for example, quasars) apparently nearby to them. In the standard Big Bang theory the distance of a galaxy or quasar is directly proportional to its recessional velocity (as caused by the expansion of the Universe and as measured by the object’s redshift), this is Hubble’s Law. Chip Arp claimed that these high redshift quasars found near low redshift galaxies were detected more frequently than should happen by chance, this indicated a physical link between the high and low redshift objects that couldn’t happen in a Universe consistent with the Big Bang model. (It’s fair to say that this idea was not widely accepted.)

It was Chip Arp’s work that I had in mind when I wrote my novel The Falling Sky, in which the main character Jeanette makes an observation of two galaxies that appears to contradict the Big Bang model. Seeing Hans/Jean Arp’s collage was a nice reminder of the importance of randomness, and also of the apparent aesthetics of a not-quite random image.

According to the Laws of Chance 1933 Jean Arp (Hans Arp) 1886-1966 Presented by Mr and Mr Robert Lewin through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987
Arp 124 from Halton Arp, Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies retrieved online from
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