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Orphism

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term coined by Guillaume Apollinaire c. 1912 to refer to the work of several painters in Paris. He applied it to a new kind of joyously sensuous art, whose roots were in Cubism and which had a tendency towards abstraction. The word orphique had been used by the Symbolists and originated in the Greek myth of Orpheus, who was significant as the ideal artist for the Symbolists. In 1907 Apollinaire had written a collection of quatrains under the title Bestiaire ou cortège d’Orphée (Paris, 1911), with woodcuts by Raoul Dufy, into which he incorporated the figure of Orpheus as a symbol of the poet and the artist in general. For Apollinaire, however, as for the generation of Symbolists who preceded him, the myth of Orpheus meant the study of mystic, occult and astrological sources, which gave rise to artistic inspiration. ‘The voice of light’, which he described in his Orphic poems, was a metaphor, common in mystic texts, for ‘inner experiences’. In a footnote to his volume of poetry he identified the ‘voice of light’ by means of a line drawing, although it was still not fully articulated; once it had totally expressed itself, it would take on colour and become painting. The metaphor of light, therefore, represented the artist’s power to create entirely new forms and colours, and in the process referred to the creation myth of hermetic, Orphic texts. Accordingly, Orphism could signify a direct sensuous address by means of colour and light, as well as an innovative creative process.

However, Orphism also referred to the analogy, popular c. 1912, between colour and music: Orpheus was a singer, and with his music even tamed wild beasts. Apollinaire frequently spoke about correlations between the arts; for example in Les Peintres cubistes: Méditations esthétiques (Paris, 1913) he stated: ‘In this way, we move towards a completely new form of art, which will be to painting, as known up to now, what music is to literature.’ Many Orphic painters, especially those who had taken steps towards abstract art, cited analogies like these in their theoretical statements or even in the titles of their pictures, as, for instance, František Kupka’s Fugal Pictures such as Amorpha: Fugue in Two Colours (1912; Prague, N.G., Trade Fair Pal.) or Picabia’s abstract pictures, for example Dance at the Source (1912; New York, MOMA). Conversations with Francis Picabia and his wife, Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia, a musician, probably did much to inspire these ideas in Apollinaire. Similarly Kandinsky’s Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Munich, 1912), a theory of art that describes in great detail the correlations between colours and sounds, doubtless first stimulated this train of thought. Robert Delaunay also concerned himself with analogies between colour and music to emphasize the purity and independence of colour, and was able to achieve his first successes in exhibitions of the Blaue Reiter at the invitation of Kandinsky.

In Les Peintres cubistes Apollinaire defined ‘Orphic Cubism’ as:the art of painting new totalities with elements that the artist does not take from visual reality, but creates entirely by himself; he gives them a powerful reality. An Orphic painter’s works should convey an untroubled aesthetic pleasure, but at the same time a meaningful structure and sublime significance. In other words, they must reflect the subject. This is pure art. The light in Picasso’s work embodies this art, which Robert Delaunay invents, and toward which Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp are also striving.

In his apparently arbitrary grouping of different artists under the same heading, Apollinaire was showing not so much his insensitivity as his determination, in terms of cultural policy, to rally under a common flag all the artists who were important to him, as well as new avant-garde artists. In October 1912 Apollinaire gave the inaugural address at the Section d’Or exhibition, which consisted of works by such Cubist painters as Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger, Roger de La Fresnaye and Picabia, who had moved away from the Cubist style of Picasso and Braque, forming the Puteaux group, which met at the Duchamps’ home to discuss new theories about the fourth dimension and simultaneous art. In his address Apollinaire announced the ‘fragmentation of Cubism’ in a new art invented by Robert Delaunay, who did not, however, take part in the exhibition.

In November and December 1912, some time after his imprisonment on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa from the Musée du Louvre and his subsequent release, Apollinaire stayed at the Delaunays’ flat. During this period Robert Delaunay produced his first Fenêtres, for example Window on the City (1912; New York, Guggenheim), which Apollinaire included under the stylistic heading of Orphism. Apollinaire’s friendship with Robert Delaunay led to close collaboration. Apollinaire wrote and published a series of texts about Delaunay’s art, in which he further promoted the concept of Orphism. In March 1913 Orphism was displayed to the public for the first time at the Salon des Indépendants; describing the Salon in L’Intransigeant (25 March 1913), Apollinaire wrote that ‘it combines painters of totally different characters, all of whom have nonetheless achieved a more internalized, more popular and more poetic vision of the universe and of life’. In his review of this exhibition in the Orphic magazine Montjoie! (29 March 1913) Apollinaire even argued for the abolition of Cubism in favour of Orphism: ‘If Cubism is dead, long live Cubism. The kingdom of Orpheus is at hand!’ Apollinaire celebrated the Herbst salon of 1913, organized by Der Sturm, as ‘Orphism’s first Salon’; most of the exhibits were works by Robert Delaunay and Sonia Delaunay, supplemented by abstract works by Picabia, Metzinger’s Blue Bird (c. 1913; Paris, Mus. A. Mod. Ville Paris), as well as pictures by Gleizes and Léger and a considerable number of Futurist paintings. This exhibition also marked the turning-point in Apollinaire’s artistic strategy for Orphism. After he became involved through some incautious remarks in an argument between Delaunay and Umberto Boccioni about the ambiguous term ‘simultaneity’, his relationship with Delaunay cooled markedly. Apollinaire became increasingly interested in other artists, such as Picabia and Alexander Archipenko, but above all in the Futurists.

After 1913 Apollinaire did not use the term Orphism again in his art criticism. The artists whose works carried this label also shook off the description as quickly as possible and created totally individual stylistic trends of their own. Just as the content of the term Orphism was and remains vague in meaning, so its history is very short. It would have remained a footnote in the history of ideas were it not for art history’s urge to classify, and for the very different types of pictures produced by the artists who at various times came under this heading. The works that most closely matched Robert Delaunay’s pictures and theories were by Kupka, one of the first artists to paint wholly abstract pictures on musical themes. All the other artists intermittently referred to by Apollinaire, including Léger, Picabia, Duchamp and especially Picasso, created independent new categories of art that could scarcely qualify as Orphic. If restricted to the implications of colour and light, the expression of abstract-rhythmic colour-compositions, the term Orphism would most obviously embrace pictures by Robert Delaunay and Sonia Delaunay. Robert Delaunay himself, however, thought this description too imprecise and too poetic to express his real wishes. His aim was to produce ‘pure painting’ based on the interplay of colours. His temporary classification as Orphic was for him a necessary marketing strategy, which was proved successful by his exhibitions in Germany. The only artists that can be considered as Delaunay’s direct pupils were the American painters Patrick Henry Bruce and Arthur Burdett Frost jr, who c. 1912 strove to create a similar form of art under Robert Delaunay’s aegis. Even the Synchromists Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, sometimes classified as Orphists, were at great pains to distance themselves, particularly from Robert Delaunay, by writing their own manifestos, even if at the time their art could not fail to seem Orphic. Orphism was thus a stylistic heading created by Apollinaire, and one with an elusive nature from which painters included within it always tried to escape.

Hajo Düchting
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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