Summary of Synchromism
At the time when French, German, and Eastern European artists were deftly pushing painting toward complete abstraction in the second decade of the 20th century, two audacious Americans, Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, then living in Paris, made their own forays into abstraction, calling their new movement Synchromism. Russell coined the term when he thought of the word "symphony," and "chrome" flashed across his mind, so he put the two words together. The resulting paintings, called Synchromies, used the color scale in the way notes might be arranged in a musical piece, as the two artists wrote, "Synchromism simply means 'with color' as symphony means 'with sound'...."
Dismissing their artistic confrères, the Synchromists insisted that they had finally used color abstractly and not descriptively. While their bombast offended their European colleagues, the Synchromists had a small, if short-lived, following back in the United States and are known for being America's first avant-garde group.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Above all, the Synchromists insisted not on the optical effects of color but the materiality and tactility of color; that is, they wanted to use color, and not the more traditional line, to create form and space. By layering and juxtaposing different colored planes, Synchromist paintings create space through a back and forth movement, or a push-pull, of chromatic forms.
- Synchromists often thought of painting in musical terms. Arranging colors in a composition was likened to arranging sounds in a musical score. Like many contemporary abstract artists, the Synchromists envisioned pictorial abstraction operating in the same non-representational manner as music. Like musical notes and compositions, color and form could engender emotions and sensations without direct representation.
- Despite their insistence on complete abstraction, the sculptural figure, especially as seen in the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, was foundational for the Synchromists' conception of form and space. Michelangelo's twisting figures conveyed a generative force that the Synchromists wanted to achieve in two dimensions.
Overview of Synchromism
A number of influences came together in the development of Synchromism, including the influence of the Fauves, and particularly Henri Matisse, as well as the work of Paul Cézanne and the Cubism of Pablo Picasso. Additionally, the color theories of the Canadian artist Ernest Percyval-Tudor as well as atonal music and sculpture, particularly on the part of Russell, contributed to the formulation of the movement.
Important Art and Artists of Synchromism
This large canvas, about eleven feet square, with a frame painted by the artist that both contains the painting and lets the painting spill into the space around it, has been described as Russell's greatest work. The planes of saturated colors that curve and fold have a remarkable density and three-dimensional effect. The green and red triangles on the upper left seem to buckle with intensity, weighing on the yellow, green, and white irregular geometric shapes in the center. A dynamic stacking of various planes creates a sense of unfurling while being simultaneously energetically contained.
Russell used his sculptural study of Michelangelo's the Dying Slave as the foundation for this work, as he evolved his abstract composition. As he said, "I always felt the need to impose on color the same violent twists and spirals that Rubens and Michelangelo imposed on the human body." When shown at the Salon des Indépendants, the work was titled Synchromie en orange: la création de l'homme conçue comme le résultat d'une force génératrice naturelle (Synchromy in Orange: the creation of man conceived as a result of a natural generative force). The artist meant the work to be a tour de force of the Syncrhomist style as well as a response to the large abstract Orphist paintings of the Delaunays and Franz Kupka.
This painting, depicting two dancing, nude women, shows Davies bringing a Synchromist treatment to his characteristic figurative work. The woman on the left, rendered primarily in tones of white, her arms over her head, bends forward gracefully, while on the right, another woman, a kaleidoscope of color, lifts her left leg and arches her arms above her head. Depicted in variously colored geometric shapes, the women become closer to abstracted figures of movement, flowing into the shapes that extend and swirl around them like the music that attends them. The black background, suggesting the backdrop of a stage, creates a sense of space through which the music swirls, embodied in the movements of the dancers and extending out of the pictorial frame.
Davies, already well-known for his somewhat lyrical and Symbolist figurative work that had a fundamentally decorative effect, was equally interested in more avant-garde art. He helped to organize the 1913 Armory Show that introduced European avant-garde work to the American art world, and his subsequent explorations of other styles, including Cubism, show the impact the show had on his own work. Both Russell and Macdonald-Wright attempted Synchromist figurative work, as seen in Macdonald-Wright's self-portrait, though not as successively as Davies does here.
The title of this work, assigned by its first owner the writer H. L. Mencken, suggests that the painting is illustrative, but in fact it was meant to be entirely abstract. Using a vibrant color scheme, the painting depicts a number of variously colored circular shapes radiating from its center, as larger varied geometric forms, predominantly blue, green, purple and yellow curve around it. Crescents of more intense color on the circles draw the viewer's eye up along the center right as if following a kind of implicit J shape.
Benton's painting, influenced by MacDonald-Wright's circular forms in Conception Synchromy (1914), exudes a sense of vibrant rhythm. A visual syncopated din and bustle is created by the juxtaposition of curvilinear shapes and angular geometric forms. The viewer's eye moves through the canvas, following the complex movement of color as one might hear the interplay of different instruments in a musical piece. Benton had a lifelong interest in music, and part of the effect of this work is based upon his understanding of how sound works. Created in waves, different notes bounce off one another, and the aural quality is changed.
Close friends with Macdonald-Wright, Benton tried Synchromism for a time and exhibited this painting at the Forum Exhibition in 1916, but, more importantly, he shared with Russell a profound interest in sculpture, saying, "Following the Synchromist practice at the time, I based the composition of these pictures on Michelangelo's sculpture." The implicit J shape, creating a sense of both physical movement and pictorial unity, and the emphasis upon the color triad of red, yellow, and blue, were derived from studying the Renaissance master's work. While Benton abandoned Synchromism, feeling dissatisfied with the results, the rhythm and vibrant color used in this work became noted elements in the American regionalist work for which he became famous.
Useful Resources on Synchromism
- Color, Myth, and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and SynchronismBy Will South
- Synchromism and American Color Abstraction, 1910-1925Our PickBy Gail Levin
- Color & Form, 1909-1914: The Origin and Evolution of Abstract Painting in Futurism, Orphism, Rayonnism, Synchromism and the BlueBy Henry G. Gardiner
- Morgan RussellOur PickBy Marilyn S. Kushner
- ART; The Man Who Invented SynchronismOur PickBy Vivien Raynor / New York Times / May 13, 1990
- Review/Art; An American Modernist In Pursuit of an IdentityBy Michael Brenson / New York Times / June 15, 1990
- Stuart Davis: A Little Matisse, a Lot of Jazz, All AmericanBy Holland Cotter / New York Times / June 9, 2016
- Art: Daugherty's ProgressBy Piri Halasz / New York Times / February 18, 1973
- A Painter's Many LayersBy Suzanne Muchnic / Los Angeles Times / August 5, 2001
- Synchromy in OrangeBy MoMA