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Orphism Collage

Started: 1911

Ended: 1914

"Direct observation of the luminous essence of nature is for me indispensable."

Robert Delaunay Signature

Summary of Orphism

Breaking free from Cubism to embrace brilliant color and representations of time and experience, Orphism introduced non-objective painting to French audiences. As one of the earliest styles to approach complete abstraction, Orphism brought together contemporary theories of philosophy and color to create works that immersed the viewer in dynamic expanses of rhythmic form and chromatic scales. Less than a long-term, cohesive movement, however, Orphism was a loosely bound group of artists with the common goals of moving beyond concrete reality to present a flowing vision of simultaneity and flux. It flowered briefly in the years leading to World War I, before fading with the rise of the war in 1914.

Key Ideas

From its inception, Orphism was interdisciplinary, integrating Henri Bergson's philosophical theories about time and experience with poetic experiments with symbolism and abstraction. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire coined the name, after the Greek god Orpheus who was renowned for his musical talents. Indeed, the artists of Orphism aspired to the levels of abstraction possible in music, where sounds were able to evoke emotions and experiences despite being disconnected from the real world. The Orphists arranged color harmonies after the model of musical scales and chords.
Orphism was based in Cubism, but with a new emphasis on color, influenced by the Neo-Impressionists and the Symbolists. Unlike the monochromatic canvases of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, the Orphists used prismatic hues to suggest movement and energy. In emphasizing the sensory and intuitive, they provided radical new possibilities for the abstractions of Cubist ideas and created another path to the progression of modernism.
Although no one is certain who created the first non-objective painting, the Orphists have a claim to this distinction. Between 1910 and 1912, several artists painted abstract canvases, including the Expressionist Wassily Kandinsky and the American Arthur Dove, although František Kupka, Sonia Delaunay, and Robert Delaunay all created works that are potential contenders. The competition is complicated: Sonia's abstract blanket design, which inspired her and her husband to paint abstract compositions, was not initially considered a work of fine art and both Robert Delaunay and Kupka painted designs based on subjects, making them not quite non-objective. Still, their inclusion among this elite group testifies to the importance of their avant-garde experiments.
Believing that the color harmonies and radiating forms of Orphism represented universal energies, the artists moved beyond oil painting to experiment with more popular outlets. From poetry to design, some of the movement's most visible products were Sonia Delaunay's forays into fashion and décor. In fact, the movement's earliest and most daring abstract work was a textile created by Sonia, which then inspired painterly abstractions by her husband, Robert. Their broad definition of artistic production helped cultivate the idea of art as a total environment and further popularized collaborations between artists and industry.
Orphism Image


Around 1911, the theory and practice of Robert and Sonia Delaunay began to converge with the experimental work of František Kupka, giving birth to Orphism. The notion of Orphism was popularized by Robert Delaunay's influential article of 1912, "La lumière" and Guillaume Apollinaire's description of "Orphic Cubism" in his 1913 writings on modern art. The collaborations between Robert and Sonia Delaunay broadened the range of Orphism beyond the art world. The Delaunays would become most closely associated with Orphism, even though Kupka received some of the earliest acclaim for his advocacy of pure painting, abstract and free from any need to be descriptive. This non-objective ideal broke with even the most radical painters of the time, who abstracted from nature, but still worked from identifiable sources.

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