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Art Movement: Orphism – Between Modernity and Spirituality

The Cathedral by Kupka, a member of Orphism
František Kupka, Katedrála (The Cathedral), 1912-13

Anthony Dexter Giannelli

A short-lived, early 20th-century western art movement largely isolated to a handful of practitioners within Paris, Orphism has had a surprisingly long-lived legacy out of its Cubist origins to impact other modernist experiences, from Kandinsky’s and Klee’s to Léger’s, Duchamp’s, and beyond. Within the short three years of its height, a core group guided by Robert and Sonia Delaunay fleshed out a fully realized movement with tenants and motifs distinctly separate from other approaches to Cubism. Contrasting the monochromatic tendency of Cubism at the time, Orphism relied heavily on symbolism and the science of vision, and used geometric reduction combined with an almost religious approach to color to convey the fast-paced dynamism of modern life. Using the urbanscape of Paris and architectural references such as the Eiffel Tower to symbolize modernity together with biblical scenes and Judeo-Christian religious motifs, Orphism upended the existing representations of time, space, and light, resulting in a pioneering painting style between abstraction and representation that uses color just as sound and rhythm are used in music.

Key dates: 1911-1914
Key regions: Paris
Key words: Bright color, light, modernity, symbolism, Cubism
Key artists: Sonia Delaunay, Robert Delaunay, Frantisek Kupa, Hilla Rebay, Franz Marc

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Painting by Robert Delaunay, one of the founders of Orphism
Robert Delaunay: The City of Paris (La Ville de Paris) (1910-12)

Meaning and Definition of Orphism

Not to be confused with the mystic Greek religion whose philosophy sought purification of the soul and believed in reincarnation, the art movement known as ‘Orphism’ received its name from Guillaume Apollinaire. It was in fact the poet and art critic who, in 1913, described it as “Orphic Cubism.” Since he was living with the Delaunay’s at the time and observed them at work, the name ‘Orphism’ was his endeavor to describe their distinctive lyrical abstraction and attempts to harmonize colors just as notes within a musical work to create an almost spiritual experience. The name references the legendary poet who, according to ancient Greece mythology, had the ability to calm wild beasts and all the other elements of the natural realm with his song.

Robert Delaunay, on the other hand, chose to focus on the concept of simultaneity and called the movement ‘Simultanism’, borrowing the term from the French philosopher Henri Bergson who considered modern consciousness as a flow of simultaneous states of being. Delaunay saw in art and the formal elements of paintings such as color and shape the means to best present this modern sensation of simultaneity. The “simultaneous” image not only combines different vantage points but also merges memory and perception.

Origins and Evolution of Orphism

Following the avant-garde principles of its mother movement, Orphism sought to take many of Cubism’s fundamental principles to an even further stage. Through the use of irrealistic, bright colors, Orphists used their art as a means to evoke spiritual sensations and signs of modernity. Robert and Sonia Delaunay, along with a handful of associated artists, combined the geometric fragmentation of Cubism with the bold colors of Fauvism and blended it with the Futurist expression of movement and enthusiasm for progress and innovation.

The movement came to include Frantisek Kupa, Hilla Rebay, Alice Bailly, but also Alexandr Archipenko, Marc Chagall, Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, and Fernand Léger embraced the style for a time. In its short few years, the movement remained a loose association of these artists held together by the search for artistic and spiritual perfection, although interpreted in vastly different ways and across disciplines. For example, Sonia Delaunay’s expressed how, making a patchwork blanket for her newborn son, she felt inspired by the freedom she experienced while working out the high art sphere. With no rules and pressure placed on her, she was able to reach the principles of Orphism in a more true way than before and would continue cross-disciplinary work through literature and design.

First exhibited in 1913, Orphist artworks came under the spotlight at the 1914 Salon des Indépendants. Not only modernist artists such as August Macke, Franz Marc, and Paul Klee were deeply influenced by Orphism, developing similarities with the movement – in their approach to color theory, the liberation of the line, and connection to spirituality – but also postwar artists like Op art icon Bridget Riley used Orphist-reminiscent techniques to create the illusion of depth and movement.

Orphism: Famous Artworks

We take a look at three among the most famous artworks created by the founders of Orphism: Sonia and Robert Delaunay.

Robert Delaunay, Simultaneous Windows series (1912)

Simultaneous Windows on the City, a masterpiece of Orphism
Robert Delaunay, Simultaneous Windows on the City, 1912

Simultaneous Windows by Robert Delaunay is a series of paintings featuring views of the city of Paris that marks a clear line from the artist’s earlier work away from representation and further into abstraction. The Eiffel Tower, a symbol of modernity and aspiration, is the central recognizable image repeated throughout the series. Cubist in the overall composition, Simultaneous Windows on the City (1912) is perfectly in line with the guiding color principles of Orphism, with the use of chromatic contrast to represent the complexity of vision: the window frame, the curtains, the houses, and the tower in the distance now appear fragmented on a shimmering flat window pane that acts as a visual metaphor for the passage from internal to external states.

Sonia Delaunay, Electric Prisms, 1914

Prismes electriques, a 1914 painting by Sonia Delaunay
Sonia Delaunay, Prismes electriques (‘Electric Prisms’), 1914

At the height of the Oprhist movement, Sonia Delaunay’s 1914 work stands as an embodiment of Orphisms’ aspirations, taking on a wholly non-object language while featuring a common theme of Parisian cityscape.  The story goes that the artist and her husband were walking down the boulevard Saint-Michel when they came across newly installed electric lamplights. In exploring a view of streetlights, Sonia Delaunay uses colors and concentric circles to turn a mundane scene of human life and modernity into something celestial.

Sonia Delaunay, Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France, 1913

Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France, an avant-garde book produced following the principles of Orphism.
Sonia Delaunay La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Joan of France), 1913

Together with the modernist poet Blaise Cendrars, Sonia Delaunay created what they defined as “the first simultaneous book.”  The stanzas by Cenrars describe a mostly fictional journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway with a young French prostitute and are juxtaposed to the mostly abstract watercolor illustrations by Delaunay in this avant-garde ‘accordion’ book where the visual story is equal to the literary journey taken by readers of the poem. Again, the symbolism of Paris and the Eiffel Tower are embedded into the work: if all planned copies were laid end to end, they would reach the exact same height of the French symbol. However, only sixty of the 150 intended editions were printed.

Relevant sources to learn more

Learn about Precisionism, another art movement that took its cues from Cubism and Futurism.

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