Orphism - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Orphism
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.
Robert Delaunay called the new movement, Simultanisme (Simultanism), or "Simultaneous Contrast." The term, Simultanism, was borrowed from Henri Bergson, a French philosopher who valued intuition over intellect as a way of understanding the universe. In particular, Bergson's notion of la durée, the constant flux of time and reality, was highly influential to artists. If modern consciousness was indeed a flow of simultaneous states of being, it was false to present that reality as one frozen image; more truthful was the suggestion of reality through an experiential display of line and color. Delaunay argued that art could best achieve the sensations of modernity by using contrasting primary and secondary planes of color, using color itself to structure the painterly space.
In this interest in the formal elements of painting, color, and shape, Delaunay was influenced by Neo-Impressionism. He had painted in the Divisionist manner (a style within Neo-Impressinism) from 1905-1907, following after the example of Georges Seurat or Paul Signac. Like them, Delaunay was deeply impressed by Michel Eugène Chevreul's De la loi du contraste simultanée des couleurs (On the law of the simultaneous contrast of colors) of 1839. This text had been central to the Neo-Impressionists for its discovery that colors appeared differently when placed adjacent to other colors; this was the bedrock for Divisionist brushwork, which juxtaposed small flecks of pure color to create forms. Delaunay also drew from another important Neo-Impressionist source, Charles Henry, who had argued that color, line, and form had abstract emotional associations, independent of the subject being depicted. After abandoning the Neo-Impressionist style, Delaunay remained committed to color theory, carrying its principles forward into Orphism.
Robert and Sonia Delaunay jointly progressed towards Orphism at the same time; he considered his Simultaneous Windows series to be a breakthrough, completing these paintings while Sonia created her Contrastes Simultanés. Robert explained "I had the idea for a kind of painting that would depend only on color and its contrast but would develop over time, simultaneously perceived at a single moment." his work remained connected to a concrete source of inspiration (for example, the fragmented image of the Eiffel Tower appears in all but the final paintings of the series); at the same time, Sonia's work was completely abstract. The impact of Henri Bergson's theories on la durée and simultaneity are evident from the titles of these works, as well as their effort to suggest an expanse of time instead of one frozen moment.
In 1912 Frantisek Kupka exhibited two abstract works, Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colors and Amorpha: Warm Chromatic (both from 1910-1911), calling them "his painter's credo." His work was inspired by Notre Dame's stained glass windows, which he described as the, "vertiginous musicality of color." He was also interested in the mystical correspondences between painting and spirituality. Many of his titles use musical terms, as he intended for the viewer to look for correspondences between painting and music. This would become a common theme in Orphism, which sought to evoke temporal and spiritual sensations through abstract means, just as music was able to accomplish. In this vein, Kupka argued that chromatics were structural, akin to chord structures in musical composition.
The Section d'Or: The Puteaux Group
Orphism developed within the heady artistic and intellectual milieu of Cubism as practiced by the Section d'Or, an association of avant-garde Cubists who distinguished themselves from Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. The artists of Section d'Or were also known as the Salon Cubists, as they showed in public exhibitions (as opposed to Braque and Picasso who had an exclusive dealer). Many had been Neo-Impressionists and rejected the muted color palette of Braque and Picasso. Robert Delaunay was particularly active in the group and a close friend and collaborator with Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes.
Jacques Villon, older brother of the artists Marcel Duchamp and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, coined the group's name, translated as "the golden section," or "golden mean." This allusion to classicism emphasized Cubism as a continuation of a long-standing Western intellectual tradition, dating back to the ancient Greeks. The group also meant to pay homage to the geometric and mathematical structures of Seurat.
By 1911, the circle was commonly known as the Puteaux Group, as Jacques Villon regularly held meetings at his home in Puteaux. The gatherings brought together the Delaunays, Gleizes, Metzinger, the Duchamp brothers, and Fernand Léger. Frantisek Kupka, who lived in the village, regularly participated as well, the only period of time when the three founding artists of Orphism interacted closely.
The development of Orphism was influenced by the intense discussions of color theory, geometric form, and mathematical harmony and structure that occurred at these salons. As Orphism developed, a number of the group members adopted some of its elements into their artistic practices. The group's major exhibition, the 1912 Salon de la Section d'Or, not only displayed the Cubist works of its members but provided the public forum where Orphism was named as a distinct movement.
Origins of the Term “Orphism”
Guillaume Apollinaire, the influential French art critic and poet, first used the word Orphism at the 1912 Salon de la Section d'Or. There is some debate over the inspiration for Apollinaire's writing on the movement. Some accounts, including Kupka's, said he first used the word to refer to Kupka's Amorpha works as "pure paintings" comparable to music. However, Apollinaire had been living with the Delaunays when Robert Delaunay was writing "La Lumière," and also the text for Apollinaire's "Réalité: peinture pure"; undoubtedly these texts shaped the poet's thinking. In either case, the term referred to the legendary poet, Orpheus, of ancient Greece who had the power to calm wild beasts and all the elements of nature with his song. It brought together the musicality, abstraction, and mysticism of the movement, along with an allusion to classical harmony and natural order.
Apollinaire wrote extensively on Orphism, though he sometimes varied his terminology, as in his 1913 essay, "Quartering Cubism" where he referred to "Orphic Cubism." Still, he made clear that this movement was distinct and more advanced, arguing, "from cubism there emerges a new cubism. The reign of Orpheus is beginning." Indeed, in this essay, he divided Cubism into four categories, although his categorization of painters within the different categories was somewhat arbitrary. Kupka resisted his inclusion in Apollinaire's definition of Orphism, finding it simplistic. He insisted that "in 1911, I created my own uniquely 'abstract' way of painting, Orphism, disregarding all other cultural systems except that of Greece."
Salon des Indépendants, 1913
The Delaunays debuted their Orphist paintings at the Salon des Indépendants in 1913, where they received a great deal of attention, even from America. The New York Times published an article, "Orphism: The Latest Painting Cult," that profiled Kupka and Robert Delaunay, but did suggest the group was a "cult." With its philosophical roots and beliefs in the cosmic symbolism and energies of color, Orphism represented an alternative to the dry cerebral approach of Cubism. This exhibition extended its influence, drawing other painters to adopt the style and identify themselves with the group.
Members of the Orphist circle included the Swiss painter, Alice Bailly, whose 1912 Dans la chapelle (In the Chapel) was influenced by Delaunay's Saint-Séverins series, and the American abstract painter, Patrick Henry Bruce. Alexandr Archipenko and Marc Chagall were both briefly associated with the movement. Indeed, Chagall's closest friends in Paris were Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, through whom he met the Delaunays. Feeling a particular kinship with Sonia (they were both born to Russian Jewish families and had studied art in St. Petersburg) Chagall remained close with the couple during the three years he lived in Paris. With its overlapping and contrasting color planes, his 1913 Paris Through the Window shows the influence of Orphist color theory; Chagall also adopted Robert Delaunay's use of the Eiffel Tower as a metaphor for the city.
Apollinaire continued to praise Orphism, singling out the style in his 1913 Les Peintres Cubistes, Méditations Esthétiques as "the art of painting new totalities with elements that the artist does not take from visual reality, but creates entirely by himself." At this triumphant moment, however an argument arose between Apollinaire and Robert Delaunay over the concept of simultaneity, which was also being claimed by the Italian Futurists. Their friendship cooled and they diverged in separate artistic directions before Apollinaire's entry into WWI and his 1918 death. Delaunay would later argue that, by calling it Orphism, Apollinaire "assimilated it into the workings of poetry..." but, because he was a poet, could not "comprehend (its) important structural meaning" in art.
Orphism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Orphism did not develop subtypes or regional interpretations, possibly because it was short-lived due to the outbreak of war. Despite a highly distinctive, radiant style, it also lacked a clear definition of theory and practice, dealing instead with broad and vaguely mystical notions that were not easy to work into a manifesto or any similar system. Even as artists adopted its color theory and use of contrasting colors into their own work in different styles and movements, by 1914, the movement was confined to the practice of the Delaunays and Kupka. Orphism had a second life outside the usual definitions of art, influencing culture at large through the designs of Sonia Delaunay.
Orphism and Literature
The best-known poets to practice Orphism were Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, both close friends and artistic collaborators with the Delaunays. Sonia Delaunay had a lifelong enthusiasm for poetry, saying that "painting is a form of poetry, colors are words, their relations rhythms, the completed painting a completed poem." Finding a kindred soul in Cendrars, she collaborated with him on his experimental La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Transsiberian and of little Jehanne of France) in 1913.
Called a "color poem" by Cendrars, he used varying typography, font size, and colored fonts and juxtaposed time and place to depict his apocryphal journey on the Transsiberian Railway. Sonia Delaunay provided the images, not as illustrations, but as a translation of words into color, or what she called, a "synchromatic presentation." Cendrars wrote that she, "has made such a beautiful book of colors that my poem is more soaked in light than my life."
In 1912, Apollinaire stayed with the Delaunays for several months and was much influenced by Robert Delaunay's color theory and practice. The poet's poem Windows was inspired by and meant to be analogous to the artist's Simultaneous Windows series. Like the different color planes in a painting, the lines in the poem were meant to be read both separately and integrated within the whole in order to create an experience of sensations occurring simultaneously.
Orphism and Design
Sonia Delaunay's interest in design played a key role in the development of Orphism. Her 1911 Couverture de Berceau, a patchwork blanket made for her newborn son directly influenced her husband's 1912 Simultaneous Windows series. As she said, "For me there is no gap between my painting and my so-called 'decorative' work. I never considered the 'minor arts' to be artistically frustrating; on the contrary, it was an extension of my art." Accordingly, her explorations of Orphism extended to designing textiles, fashion, home décor items, and costume for the theater.
Frequenting Le Bal Bullier, a dance hall and gathering place for the artistic and literary avant-garde, she began creating "simultaneous dresses" for herself and her friends. In 1913 she debuted her first such design, which sewed together fabric pieces of varying shapes and sizes in primary and secondary colors. This was meant as an extension of fine art into the real world; as her husband explained, "Dresses were no longer just a piece of material draped in a fashionable way, but seen as an object, a living painting."
Orphism and Popular Culture
Saying, "Our studies in color allowed us to find the life of color in color itself... This is a new science which bears both on poetry and on all modern life," Sonia Delaunay opened her Atelier Simultané in the 1920s in Paris. Here, she designed clothing and accessories in the Orphist style for fashionable society. Her design work supported Robert Delaunay and their family financially, but was also a way in which she advocated for the relevancy of Orphism to the larger cultural realm.
She curated the Boutique Simultané for the Paris Exposition of 1925. This brought celebrity notice, including purchases by the film star Gloria Swanson, the architect Ernö Goldfinger, and the literary figure Nancy Cunard. Her 1926 illustration for the cover of Vogue, where the figure becomes part of the title in a contrasting color design, is just one example of how her work made Orphism part of mainstream culture and design idiom.
Drawing no distinction between high or low art, Sonia Delaunay designed for film and theater, created home furniture and even devised the color schemes for cars: a Citroen B12, painted to coordinate with her fabric designs, in 1925 and, later in 1969, a French Matra M530A commissioned by the company's CEO, Jean-Luc Lagardère. In 1964, she produced a deck of Simultané playing cards in two versions, one with red and blue backs, and the other with green and blue. She had originally designed the cards in 1939, but their production was interrupted by the war. The 1964 edition revisited her original design, updated to include three jokers based on her 1952 Jazz compositions. The deck was so successful that they were produced again in 1980.
Later Developments - After Orphism
As a movement Orphism was relatively short lived; after 1914 only Kupka and the Delaunays continued to paint in the style. Nevertheless, the movement influenced a number of artists and the development of subsequent directions in art. Orphism deeply influenced the development of abstraction, both in its lyrical and geometric styles. Deeply interested in Robert Delaunay's color theory, Wassily Kandinsky invited him to exhibit in the first Der Blaue Reiter show in 1911, where his work was to influence other members of the group, including Franz Marc and August Macke.
Captivated by Orphism's color theory and practice, the Swiss artist, Paul Klee, visited Robert Delaunay's studio in 1912 and translated Delaunay's "Sur la lumière" into German for the magazine Der Sturm. The movement's legacy can be seen in Klee's later use of abstract color shapes.
Among the Section d'Or painters, Orphism resonated with those wishing to expand upon Analytical Cubism. Francis Picabia, Albert Gleizes, Marcel Duchamp, and Fernand Léger all experimented with the style. While living in Paris, American painters Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright developed a movement of abstract art based upon color theory that they called Synchromism, though both later refuted any connection to Orphism.
Sonia Delaunay's holistic approach to design, reflected in her clothing, furniture, and objects, became widely adopted by artists interested in creating environments. More recently, in 2015 the fashion designer, Junya Watanabe debuted his "patchwork madness" collection, which paid homage to Sonia Delaunay, using her contrasting designs. In a sense, the principles of Orphism became part of the design vocabulary of modern culture where it continues to represent the hip and the innovative.