Orphism | Meaning | Definition | History

Orphism | Meaning | Definition | History

Orphism | Meaning | Definition | History

Orphism can briefly be described as a tendency towards abstract or — as it was called at the time — pure’ painting which manifested itself in Paris between late 191 1 and early 1914. As a movement, it was the creation of the poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, who christened it at the exhibition of the Section d’Or in October 1912. He was attempting to categorize the various tendencies in Cubism (defined very loosely) and used the phrase Orphic Cubism ‘ to define a group of painters who were moving away from recognizable subject-matter. 

Orphism has never received serious attention largely because Apollinaire’s definition was so ambiguous and because of the differences between the painters he named — Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia and, probably, Frank Kupka — are at least as obvious as their similarities. Only Picabia and Delaunay accepted the designation and Delaunay tried to restrict it to his kind of painting. The painters’ negative response led Apollinaire eventually to admit that his classification ‘laid no claim to be definitive as to the artists themselves ‘. Nevertheless, Apollinaire did discern the beginnings of something that was real: an art which would dispense with recognizable subject-matter and rely on form and color to communicate meaning and emotion (just as Orpheus has done through the pure forms of music).

Perhaps a more important reason for the neglect of Orphism has been an over-rigid determinism applied to the history of abstract art in general. It has been based on the assumption of a more or less unbroken, inevitable progression towards abstraction considered almost like the climax of Western art: the Orphists who did not – like pursue a consistent path Mondrian, the hero of abstraction towards abstraction, or who were less abstract’ than they ap. Parently claimed, have been implicitly condemned by this standard. 

However, none of the early abstractionists set out to become abstract they sought to express certain states of consciousness which drew them towards abstraction, but this did not preclude interest in expressing other things for which recognizable imagery would be more appropriate. In fact, the term ‘ pure, painting ‘ (which Apollinaire used as a synonym for Orphism) did not necessarily mean completely non-representational painting: it signified painting which had its own internal structure independent of naturalistic structural devices.

This description is broad enough to allow the variety of expressions found in Orphism which ranged from the powerful physicality of Léger’s works ( Woman in Blue) to the ambiguous immateriality of Picabia’s (Dances at the Spring II). As will be shown, this range of expression corresponded to a wide range of meanings. 

Despite stylistic differences, by autumn 1912 the paintings of Delaunay, Picabia, and Léger had reached equivalent degrees of purity — they still represented recognizable images but broke them down into dynamic non-naturalistic structures. Kupka had reached this stage earlier. By late 1911 he was the first to achieve a fully non-naturalistic structure in the Disc of Newton series and by the late summer of 1912, after months of studies, he completed the huge Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colours, exhibiting it in the Salon d’ Automne and probably influencing Apollinaire’s perception of the new tendency. 

Delaunay, Picabia and Léger reached this stage in the spring and summer of 1913 with paintings composed of evenly weighted forms floating freely in indeterminate space and with no ‘heavier ‘ tones to settle at the base of the painting and suggest gravity or the presence of a spatial area in which figures or objects can exist. They thus justify Apollinaire’s description of them as ‘a new world with its own specific laws, However, Léger and Delaunay also painted more figurative works and, by late 1913—early 1914, Picabia was turning to more explicit identification of sexual and machine processes in a way that foreshadows Surrealism (as in I see again in, memory my dear Udnie, Museum of Modern Art, New York), Thus even before the outbreak of war, there, was a slackening in the French tendency towards abstraction which virtually ceased during the war. 

If one follows these shifts and changes in terms of a response to specific pressures in a specific society at a specific moment in time, one can better appreciate that it was the artists’ struggle to express certain forms of consciousness rather than any theoretical dedication to abstraction which caused them to develop non-representational forms. 

Each Orphist responded to sense. that ‘modern consciousness’ was radically different from that which preceded it — as Delaunay put it: Historically. there really was a change of understanding, hence of technique, of modes of seeing ‘. Each sought alternatives to figurative art because he found that the figurative kept the mind in the conceptual sphere which he wished to transcend. Changes in contemporary life caused the Orphists to conceive the world as composed of dynamic forces rather than of stable objects in static, finite space. 

They believed that this change was accompanied by a change in consciousness, which they also conceived as dynamic — either as expansive and all-embracing or as intensive and self- concentrating. This change of consciousness was central to their development, for they found that if they depicted the external world — even if they did so dynamically — they lost their sense of the continuity of their own consciousness. 

They sought more profound contact with this consciousness through the act of creation, develop- ing modes of painting in which they could detach their minds from the external and absorb themselves in the very process of creating form — a process which gave them a sense of their own inner being and of its relationship to the external world. 

The Orphists’ concern with the workings of consciousness led them away from the painting of the external manifestations of human life: they dispensed with the human figure or broke it down into a dynamism of line and color; they replaced the specific human emotion with something more tenuous and elusive. This rejection of humanism occurred in other contemporary arts and can be paralleled in contemporary philosophy, for example in Bergson’s intensive, almost poetic, attempt to penetrate to the core of non-conceptual consciousness. 

These changes had much to do with contemporary scientific developments — for example, the atomic theory of matter and new concepts of time. space and energy finally achieved the long work of displacing the idea of the human being as unique, the center and climax of creation. The dominant artistic response to these discoveries was to give up human separateness and to seek fusion in the forces which pervaded all being — a tendency strengthened by contemporary technological change, for example by the dizzy speed of modern transport. 

More fundamental changed in contemporary society — the strengthening of mass movements in the rapidly growing industrial cities encouraged the development of literary and artistic attempts to express the consciousness of being submerged in collective experience. It is noteworthy — in the context of the acceleration of industrialization and of the conflicts which were so — that all these cultural movements shortly to lead to mass war tended to the undermining of individual will, the fusion of the self with some larger, more powerful, indeterminate, quasi-mystical force. 

This is true of all the Orphists — even though they differed in the nature of the force to which they sought to surrender their separate consciousness: Kupka to a mystic life-force; Delaunay and Léger to the dynamism of modern life; Picabia to his internal psychic dynamism.

Kupka provided an essential link between nineteenth-century Symbolism and anti-symbolist abstraction. As was typical of the Symbolists, he had an extraordinarily diverse knowledge — ranging from modern science to Eastern mysticism — which he fused into a synthesis owing much to the synthetic procedures of Theosophy. Like Kandinsky and Mondrian (whose works could also be seen in Paris) Kupka found confirmation of mystic belief in modern science — above all in the discovery, that matter is not inert but is pervaded by energies which animates all being. 

The relation between these three artists is not fortuitous — they were older than Delaunay and Léger and received their training in the 1890s and early 1900s in parts of Europe (Kupka studied in Prague and Vienna) where the discipline of seeing and the discipline of structuring were less deeply rooted than in Paris; where Symbolism was stronger and more genuinely visionary and where the impulse to abstraction was more radical than in Paris. In early works, the three artists tried to express mystic intuition through naturalistic images, then through specific symbols of abstract shape, line or color as codified in Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art and as justified by the Theosophist beliefs which deeply affected them all. 

However, in each Orphism 89 case, the actual process of painting made each artist realizes that he could rely on his forms to communicate meaning without having to translate them into the alternative language of verbal symbols (as Kandinsky suggested in his book). Kupka discovered his personal form ‘ through his serial exploitation of a limited number of themes. 

As with all the painters interested in modern life, he was obsessed with the imaging of movement. He explored the movements of objects circling in space and sequential, ground-based movement. In both cases, he found certain forms — the circle and the vertical plane — recurring with such insistence that he came to ascribe profound meaning to them.6 For example, he believed that the personal meaning he found in circular forms (which appeared spontaneously even in casual scribbles and more or less clearly in his naturalist— Symbolist works) was confirmed by its recurrence not only in other forms of visual art — probably including contemplative images from the East — but also in mystic beliefs and in contemporary science, literature, and philosophy. 

Poets like Apollinaire, Cendrars and Barzun made an analogy between the molecular structure of matter and the solar system — they used the image of the circular dispersion of light as a metaphor for the power of the mind to expand to embrace all being. Similar images were used by Bergson in his attempt to illuminate the processes by which consciousness evolved (specifically in L’Evolution créatrice of 1907). Thus the evolution of form became to Kupka a means of revealing the content of his inner consciousness in forms that aroused associations of universal significance such as the evolution of life — in terms of human sexuality considered as a life-force and in terms of the genesis of matter itself. 

He believed that all life consisted of a single essence — which split into the specific forms we know — and he sought a means of returning to that original unity. Such associations were fairly explicit in some of the studies for the Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colors, but during the long genesis of the work, Kupka purged all specific references from the huge image so that one may contemplate it as one might contemplate an Eastern meditative device which empties the mind Of the specific and makes one aware of the movement of consciousness. In terms of the mysticism which Kupka found meaningful, this movement could concentrate in the infinitely small or expand to absorb all being (for example, in the texts the Vedanta which he had read, he could haw found the following: ‘Concealed in the heart of all being is the Atman, the spirit. the self, smaller than the smallest atom, greater than the vast spaces’). 

As was characteristic of the younger generation of painters, Léger and Delaunay, influenced by the, Impressionists’ and Cézanne’s anti-Symbolist emphasis on sensation, put the Symbolists’ literary influences and mystic systems behind them. The same is true of Picabia, but he remained influenced by the Symbolists’ emphasis on inner experience. Both Léger and Delaunay had a more straight- forward sense of the modern. 

They shared with the Salon Cubists such as Gleizes and Metzinger, with whom they were close in 1911—12, a sense that the modern world was of such complexity that it could not be embodied in structures which show only finite objects in one moment in time and they tried — in works like Delaunay’s City of Paris [illustration 301 and Léger’s Jl’edding (Musée National d ‘Art Moderne, Paris) painted in late 1911 to early 1912 — to express the mind’s simultaneous grasp of an infinite number of objects, thoughts, sensations, and states of mind. 

They used the Cubists’ modes of suggesting ‘the life of forms in the mind ‘ to use Metzinger’s phrase. S As a result of painting these works, they recognized that they could not embody the new consciousness ‘ simply by jumbling objects and parts of objects together and they immediately began painting simpler subjects like Léger’s Woman in Blue and Delaunay’s Simultaneous Windows. These works were still close to Cubism (justifying Apollinaire’s description ‘Orphic Cubism ‘), but Delaunay’s color-structure began to eliminate the gravitational, centralized structure and to melt the object-sensations into its ceaseless mobility. 

In two essays written that summer, Delaunay developed a rationale for ‘ pure painting ‘ recognition of the subject keeps the mind in the world of finite objects, measurable distance and time, and verbal understanding; only a pure pictorial construction which could fully involve the eye and mind in its continuous mobility could give the mind intuition of its simultaneous concentration in itself and expansion to ’embrace the whole world ‘. 

Delaunay interrupted his exploration of this art with his next major Salon painting, The Cardiff Team (Musée de I’ Art Moderne de Ia Ville de Paris), shown in the Indépendants of 1913 — a compendium of modern images (sport, posters, Eiffel Tower, aeroplane). This was a regular pattern in his work — in the paintings shown to a wider the public in the Salons he used recognizable images (see also the Homage to Blériot (Kunstmuseum, Basle) shown in the Indépendants in 1914) while reserving the abstract images, in which he explored wordless states of being, for his friends. a small circle of admirers and for small exhibitions in Berlin for a public which he felt to be more sympathetic than the Parisian. 

That the demands of the Salon were important is suggested by the fact that Léger began on his small experimental ‘pure paintings’, the Contrasts of Forms, after being offered a contract by Kahnweiler, who had been impressed by the JVoman in Blue in the Salon d’ Automne of 1912. Only Kupka and the heroic and stubborn Picabia (who had private means and was less thin-skinned than the equally lucky Delaunay) showed major non-representational works in pre-war Salons. 

Delaunay’s Sun, Moon. Simultaneous series [illustration 321 probably begun in spring 1913.10 They were his first non-representational paintings, in which he finally broke with Cubism’s object-based structures. As in the case of Kupka, the circular movements which he now made the basic structure of his paintings can be found in his earliest paintings, gradually assuming a dominant role; the internal meaning of this formal configuration attracted other mean- ings, other associations which were themselves internalized in the like Léger in his Contrasts of act of painting. 

In these paintings — Forms — Delaunay improvised directly onto the canvas, becoming so involved in the ‘ demands’ made by the material that the structure seemed to be generating itself. In this process, Delaunay attained that state of being which he generalized as characteristic of modern consciousness’. Delaunay believed that the circular generation of light was the fundamental principle of all being (in this he was like Kupka, but he found confirmation of his belief in specifically modern terms; for example, he was influenced by the poets’ use of the radio at the top of the Eiffel Tower Alich emitted invisible wave.s around the world as a metaphor for the infinite expansion of human consciousness). Absorption in the uniquely concentrated world of the painting a means of attaining consciousne.ss of this first principle. 

Characteristically more straightforward believed that the essence of the modern was found in universal dynamism. This dynamism was manifested in terms of a conflict of forces quite unlike Delaunay’s harmonies: Delaunay created densely interwoven, complexly modulated color structures, u hile liger overwhelmed the specificity of objects in clashing contrasts of color, line, and tone. The purely sensational experience “which he expressed can also be found in the poetry of his friend, Blaise Cendrars:

Le paysage ne m’intéresse plus
Mais la danse du paysage
La danse du paysage
Je tout-tourne 

The circling mobility, the oscillating ambiguities of the structure of Picabia’s Udnie, American Girl (Dance) are stylistically related to the structures of Amorpha, Fugue in two Colours. Sun, Moon. Simultaneous and Contrasts of Forms. Picabia’s methods of improvising on a linear skeleton are related to those employed by Léger and Delaunay; however, he was interested in using methods to register invisible emotional or mental states. In the crucial summer-autumn of 1912, he was influenced by Duchamp’s evocations of the states of being that were invoked by sexual memories and fantasies (as in the King and Queen surrounded by Swift Nudes and the Passage of the Virgin to the Bride — both in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Apollinaire suggestively evoked Duchamp’s processes when he wrote in Les Peintres cubists:

All the men, all the beings who have passed by us have left traces in our memory and these traces of life have a reality which one can scrutinize. These traces acquire together a personality whose individual character one can indicate by a purely mental operation.

Picabia visited New York in early 1913 and there he was in contact with artists and intellectuals interested in Freud’s ideas. It was there that he painted a series of watercolors on the theme of Sew York and of a sexual encounter a dancer which, he said, he improvised like a musician, allowing the form to generate itself and thus to register his elusive states of mind. He. spoke of a state of mind. approaching abstraction indicating the mental processes operating during the processes of creation. 

When he returned to Paris, he made use of these procedures in his major non-representational works, Udnie, American Girl Dance) and Edtaonisl, Ecclesiastic (Art Institute of Chicago). The spectator’s experience of these works is related to one’s experience of the non-representational works of the other Orphists: absorption in the mobile structures would induce a state of mind approaching abstraction ‘ in which one could intuit the subconscious — and necessarily non-verbal — experiences which had moved Picabia. However, the skeptical Picabia did not claim such experiences as mystical. 

One’s experience of these works is quite different from that involved in the recognition of specific forms, however, abstracted. For example, if one compares Delaunay’s Simultaneous Windows with his Sun, Moon. Simultaneous, one can see that even the vestigial Eiffel Tower demands a kind of attention different from one’s constantly shifting awareness of the wholeness of the 1913 painting. The presence of the Tower crystallizes a number of ‘ clues ‘ which we interpret in terms of gravity and of our location in relation to the object. In the 1913 painting, there is no structural relationship to the external world, so that as a spectator one cannot ‘ measure ‘ one’s distance from what is represented, cannot ‘know’ its scale. 

One’s involvement in the structure does not make one lose a sense of the ‘ otherness ‘ of the painting. One is thus forced back to an awareness of one’s own consciousness (compare again the Simultaneous Windows, where one loses this sense in speculating on the reality of the object-clues). All the Orphists were aware of the nature of this self- awareness as unspecific and unconnected with specific emotion or concept, and all believed that it was in it that the meaning of their art could be found. 

By the time Picabia exhibited his Udnie in the Salon d’Automne Of 1913, Apollinaire had lost interest in Orphism, though the word had been taken up by other critics and the Delaunays were extending its meaning in their own way. Robert’s wife, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, had given up her strong Fauvist painting for the crucial years, 1909— 13, and had been making objects like a bed-cover, book-bindings, and cushions. 

It was probably under her influence that Robert began to assert that he had discovered the essential principles of color construction which could be applied to all forms of the visual arts from painting to clothes and interior design. Although this idea was probably influential (it was the first of the twentieth-century attempts to deduce a total environmental ideal from a pictorial discovery), it was not central to Orphism, the creation of abstract form for contemplation. 

Robert Delaunay also surrounded himself with disciples, including his wife — whose earlier pictorial personality had suffered from three years’ inactivity — and the Americans Patrick Henry Bruce and Arthur B. Frost. In October 1913, two other Americans, Stanton MacDonald-Wright and Morgan Russell launched their abstract color movement which they called ‘Synchronism ‘. In their catalogue they claimed that it was different from Orphism, but it was clearly dependent on Kupka’s Discs of Seu’ton series and Robert Delaunay’s Sun, Moon. Simultaneous series. 

However, it was significant in introducing the idea of large-scale abstract color-painting into the United States. These tendencies were obviously closer to Robert Delaunay’s work than to that of the other Orphists and from this (and the Delaunays’ determined propagandizing) has resulted in the erroneous and persistent belief that Orphism was essentially Robert Delaunay’s creation. It is, however, true that Delaunay was more influential than the other Orphists — his ideas on color influenced Chagall and, in Germany, Klee, Marc, and Macke. 

Reading the contemporary newspapers which contain reviews of the Orphists’ work and the little journals with which they were closely associated, one becomes uneasily aware of the great chasm between their preoccupations and contemporary life. The press was full of the crises which again and again brought Europe to the brink of war, yet the Orphists continued to express their delight in the modern world, without a hint of the irresolvable conflicts which would result in the débäcle (only Picabia expressed pessimism and that was of a purely personal kind). 

In Paris, the complex society of art was seemingly self-sufficient, and the artists whom I have discussed had inherited the Symbolists’ sense that they had insights inaccessible to the society in which they existed. They believed that naturalistic art — that favored by the public — was inadequate to deal with the vastness and complexity, the new states of consciousness of the modern world. Like the Symbolists they turned inwards, becoming obsessed with the nature of their own consciousness. 

The painting came for them to be an act of self-identification (to the moment when, in Delaunay’s words, ‘ l’homme s’identifie sur terre ‘). They were not interested in examining the specific nature of existence in modern society, but in becoming absorbed in the larger than human forces which animated life, or in responding to those subconscious urges which, though experienced through the self, seemed to come from beyond the self. 

Despite their inconsistencies, the Orphists grasped the raison d’étreof abstract art: for the artist, confirmation of his or her being through the act of painting; for the spectator, consciousness through the self-forgetting, yet self-aware absorption in the ‘ otherness ‘ of the painting. Orphism rested on the assumption that the act of seeing, insofar as it creates consciousness, is in itself meaningful and that the painting which demands this ‘ pure ‘ seeing is not simply decorative. 

Apollinaire drew attention to one of the essential aspects of the new art when he wrote in 1913 that it was ‘not simply the prideful ‘ it was an anti-intellectual and anti expression of the human species, humanist in that it did not concern itself with thought or human conduct. It was concerned with a consciousness which transcended rational constraints to seek oneness ‘with the universe ‘.

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