The Last of Cubism: French Artists at the World’s Fair, 1937, Part Three

French Artists at the World’s Fair

The Last of Cubism, Part Three

For Robert and Sonia Delaunay, the opportunity to decorate two buildings, one dedicated to airplanes and the other featuring trains, was too good to refuse. Both artists had long been painting modern life and both lived immersed in technology—Robert in his Talbot—and in cutting edge fashions–Sonia’s “simultaneous” dresses–so that doing murals on modern transportation–trains and airplanes–the pavilions for the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life in 1937 would be extensions of the lives they were already leading. By the late 1930s, the painting of Robert Delaunay had stiffened and thickened, lacking the translucence of color they had possessed before the War. The designs for the two buildings were the final expression of Orphism, distilled into a formula, hardened into a composition of colored discs as a signature motif. The circular forms that had once referred to the halos of light surrounding the new electric lamps for the streets of Paris could be translated into the rushing wheels of a locomotive or the swirling propellers of an airplane. The earlier works of both artists, Robert’s 1914 painting Homage to Bleriot and Sonia’s 1913, La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, an account of a journey on a train by poet Blaise Cendrars, designed by Terk-Delaunay.

The particular buildings for the Fair, Palais des Chemin de Fer and the Palais de l’Air, designed by architect Félix Aublet, which were decorated by the Delaunays became the swan song for the couple’s collaboration and, not incidentally, for Orphism and for Cubism itself. For years, Robert Delaunay had been isolated by choice, allowing Sonia to take the lead, but the chance to do murals on such a grand scale tempted him to make his presence known to the public once more. As his friend and art historian Jean Cassou explained, “In this spirit of intuitive and amorous synthesis of Orphic cubism, Delaunay always aspired to accomplish vast works which would express some great idea collective. His isolation in our age stems from the fact that he escaped the temptation of the easel painting in order to learn of possible techniques that would reconcile painting and architecture.”

The maquette for the entrance to le Palais des chemins, representing clouds of smoke and the layout of tracks, by Robert Delaunay

Sonia Delaunay. Voyages lointains (1937) also for the Palais des chemins

Delaunay had a long friendship with Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy and had seen the Parisian debut of the latter’s famous Licht-Raum Modulator, an amazing apparatus that was a beautiful machine casting light and forming shadows. The artist was interested in collaborating with architects because he had been impatient for years with easel painting. In fact, The City of Paris of 1910-1912, shown in the Salon des Indépendants in 1912, was four meters long. Then, when he was invited by the well-known architect, Robert Mallet-Stevens, to produce a mural for the building Society of Decorative Artists for the famed Art Deco exhibition of 1925, Delaunay painted The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower. This mural was an answer and a sequel to the earlier The City of Paris, and once more he had been called upon to do murals for an international fair. Murals in a building would give him the opportunity to increase the size of his paintings to the monumental, enveloping the viewer with discs of color.

Robert Delaunay. The City of Paris, the Woman and the Tower (1925)

This triptych was one of the last major figurative works by Robert Delaunay. By the 1930s, he had made the definitive move to total abstraction and he produced a series of paintings called Rhythms, consisting of colored discs. He translated these paintings to “wall coverings,” geometric designs featuring circular shapes applied directly onto the wall itself. The pigment substitutes, such as plaster and casein or plaster laced with sawdust or textured cement, produced raised surfaces of designs that could withstand exterior climate changes. The Reliefs were shown in a Parisian gallery in 1935 and it was at this exhibition that Delaunay met Félix Aublet, who was looking to employ unemployed artists for the upcoming world’s fair. Two years later, Delaunay had, not a wall, but the interior of an entire building to plan and decorate.

Palais de l’air with the murals visible on the back wall in 1937

Exterior of the Palais de l’air in 1937

According to the Centre Pompidou, which organized a retrospective for Delaunay in 2015 (with occasional translation assists from the author) “The Air Palace, located on the Esplanade des Invalides, with an area of approximately 6300 m2, is contrary to the Palais railway, a building designed for exhibition. All metal, it consists of two curiously heterogeneous parts: a transparent tapered lobby and a long opaque gallery, covered with cement slabs..The upper segment was 25 m by 36 m wide, the dome, which overlooks the lobby, is entirely covered with Rhodoïd, transparent material and multicolored, which are associated light projections. In the middle of colored ellipses that recall the rings of Saturn and airplane flight paths, a bridge hanging in the attic allows the public to discover, an airplane suspended in the from the ceiling, in the air, as it were. At night, the transparent walls of the hall allowed a view, from the outside, of this extraordinary cosmic composition, while the fires of three rotating lights come intensify chromatic vibration of color. Under this facility, designed by Delaunay and Aublet, two other aircraft and the latest engine models are exposed on the ground.”

Sonia Delaunay. Murals for the Palais de l’air (1937)

Robert Delaunay. Hélice et Rythme (1937)

For the married couple, the murals were a dazzling achievement. The success of the International Exposition of Arts and Technics in Modern Life is perhaps more in its place in history as one last bit of international cooperation than in any coherent manifestations of the themes. For many of the artists whose work appeared in the pavilions and palaces, it would be their last mature work before the Second World War, after which they would disappear from history. Artists like Fernand Léger would live another twenty years, long enough to see French art eclipsed by American art. Historians tend to prefer to discuss easel painting and often ignore the entire oeuvre of an artist. And yet the 1930s was a Golden Age for mural painting. It is rare to find an account of Paris between the Wars that goes beyond Surrealism, but many artists were drawn to the alternative of Social Realism which was diametrically opposed to the flight from reality and the journey into the unconscious taken by the Surrealists. Again, art history has shied away from political art and Surrealism, with its apparent lack of politics was more comfortable, because the politics of Surrealism–and Surrealism was political–were easier to ignore than with Social Realism. Diego Rivera left Cubism in pursuit of an art that expressed its own age and its needs in an era of social struggles and class divides. The Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union, expressed in the Pavilion, had stirred sympathies for the working classes and a desire for a more egalitarian justice.


Fernand Léger. Le Transport des Forces. Palais de la Découverte (1937)

Joies essentielles, plaisirs nouveaux. Pavillon de l’Agriculture, Paris, Exposition Internationale (1937)

Fernand Léger, trapped between the avant-garde Surrealists, who were on the wane, and the concrete abstraction of Le Corbusier, sought a New Realism that would express its own time, the modern age of the thirties, in a readable–realism–fashion without being didactic and while retaining recognizable avant-garde features. Léger said, “It’s easier to look backward, to imitate what is already done, than to create something new.” Like the Delaunays, he sought connection with modernity. The murals he did for the pavilions at the 1937 Fair showed the impact of the current debate over the role of the artist in a society increasingly dedicated to listening to the needs and demands of the working class. In France, a new government had been elected in 1936 and the forty hour work week and paid holidays became part of a worker’s right. Léger, politically inclined towards supporting the proletariat, insisted that photomontages were an avant-garde solution to Socialist Realism and its didacticism. In Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art Between the Wars, Paul Wood pointed to Léger’s use of photomontage in his murals in his work for the fair as indicative of the ongoing debate of what art should be in an age of social urgency, trapped between Communism and Fascism. To anyone used to Dada photomontage, the use of mass media in a mural scale is a contradiction in terms and there is no doubt that Léger’s sincere idea was a clumsy mural, a bad solution. Like the position of the French government–in between–the struggle of French art to find the secure footing it had once enjoyed. Something had happened since the great fair of 1925 and the murals, commissioned by a government embarrassed that, in the supposed capital of the art world, their artists needed employment. And yet the argument–realism or abstraction? and if realism, what kind?–was suspended when the Second World War ended the debate, leaving important questions dangling in the margins.

The late or post-Cubists works of Robert Delaunay are rarely discussed within art history and only recently has the career of Sonia Delaunay been reconsidered. Of Robert, one must read between the lines and consider the possibility that being thought of as a “deserter” because he refused to serve in the military during the Great War might have hampered his post-war career in Paris. But the lively social life of the Delaunays suggests that the career of Robert might have stalled on its own, while Sonia continued to thrive and grow as an artist. The work he did for the Fair of 1937 was among his finest and would, sadly, constitute the end of his career. In a year, Robert became ill with what was diagnosed with cancer and he struggled for three more years to survive. However, the Nazis marched into Paris and immediately the life of Sonia who was Jewish was in danger. The couple fled south to Vichy territory where they found safety. In 1941, Robert Delaunay died of cancer, leaving a wife who would outlive him some thirty years and a son, Charles, who would become a world recognized jazz expert.

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Post-War Cubism in Paris, Part Three

Cubism After Cubism

Part One: Theories of Pre-War Orphism

Before the Great War, there were camps occupying various terrains within the art movement called “Cubism.” The name, as is well-known, was a bon mot coming either from Henri Matisse or Louis Vauxcelles, both startled by a suite of 1908 paintings by Georges Barque, containing a tumbling of ochre “cubes.” The term “Cubism” was more descriptive and dismissive than a formal designation, but, as words have a habit of doing, the catchy term stuck. When art history began its serious writing of the age of Cubism, several decisions were made in terms of delineation of the topic. Constructing from the standpoint of hindsight and from the site of New York City, where Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) wound up, hanging in the Museum of Modern Art, art historians marked the “beginning” of “Cubism” from that one large painting and situated “Cubism” within the art of Pablo Picasso and his partner Georges Braque. Everything and everyone else was labeled as “minor,” leaving a substantial amount of works thought of as “Cubist” in their own time stranded outside of their own history. Only slowly has an accurate picture of Cubism begun to emerge in the past twenty years, mostly in the form of monographs and the occasional retrospective of long-forgotten artists. Juan Gris and Fernand Léger managed to capture some historical attention but solid works about the other Cubist artists are few and sparse. In addition, there has been but fleeting attention paid to the very real differences between Picasso and Braque and their colleagues who exhibited in the public salons. Critical interpretations made of the movement during the pre-war period used the term “Cubism” broadly and inclusively, referring obliquely to the fact that two of the important artists were unavailable for public viewing on the scale of a salon. An exception to that rule was Orphism, partitioned off from the Salon Cubists by a strong inclination towards abstraction and from Picasso and Braque by the deep study of color. One of the major defenders of Cubism, Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), singled out Orphism for separate discussion–one of the few times a critic attempted to make distinctions among the large numbers of practicing “Cubists.”

Robert Delaunay. Champs de Mars. La Tour rouge (1911)

As a historian of the poetic and critical works of Apollinaire, Timothy Matthews pointed out in Reading Apollinaire: Theories of Poetic Language (1987), the poet was deeply concerned with modernism or with modernity and its conditions of dynamism and speed and change. His deep awareness of the unprecedented nature of twentieth-century society in the urban city of Paris fueled his early engagement with Italian Futurism. In other words, far more than Picasso and Braque, the Futurists were engaged with the cultural conditions, political and economic, of their time. These artists, in common with the modern poets, such as Apollinaire, were searching for and developing an appropriate visual language for an era of fast cars, soaring airplanes and tall buildings. In 1913, Apollinaire published Meditations esthétiques which was subtitled Les Peintres cubistes. As Laurence Campa explained in Le Monde diplomatique , Apollinaire wrote, “‘I like the art of to-day because I love light above all things, and all men above all love light, they have invented fire.’ This light Apollinaire finds in the canvases of Delaunay, especially in the series of Windows, a stunning spectacle which gives rise to the poem of the same name, Les Fenêtres, as a kaleidoscope of words: From red to green all yellow is dying.'”

Robert Delaunay. Simultaneous Windows on the City (1912)

This small eloquent book was more of a work of poetry or poetic prose than a work of art criticism or an attempt to explain Cubism. Apollinaire, as was mentioned earlier, used painting as a surrogate for poetry, thinking of advanced poets and artists as partners in the quest to bend conventional language for the needs of modernism. In an uncharacteristically clear paragraph, he wrote,

The picture will inevitably exist. The vision will be complete, complete and its infinite, instead of marking an imperfection, will only bring out the relationship of a new creature to a new creator and nothing else.Otherwise, there will be no unity, and the relations which the various points of the canvas will have with different geniuses, with different objects, with different lights, will show only a multiplicity of disparities without harmony.

Apollinaire continued, in Meditations esthétiques,

Verisimilitude is no longer important, for everything is sacrificed by the artist to the truths, to the necessities of a higher nature which he supposes without discovering. The subject no longer counts or counts. We thus proceed towards an entirely new art, which will be to painting, as we have hitherto envisioned, what music is to literature. It will be pure painting, just as music is pure literature. The music-lover experiences, on hearing a concert, a joy of a different order from the joy he experiences in listening to natural sounds like the murmur of a stream, the crash of a torrent, the whistling of the wind In a forest, or the harmonies of human language founded on reason and not on aesthetics. Modern art generally rejects most of the means of pleasing put into practice by the great artists of the past.

This passage is a succinct description of Orphism. But in the following passage, the issue of Cubism as Orphism become muddied, for the poet inexplicably inserted Picasso in a random sentence that was interesting but had nothing to do with the comparison he was making between color and music:

Young painters in extreme schools have the secret goal of painting pure. This is an entirely new plastic art. It is only at its beginning and is not yet as abstract as it wishes to be. Most new painters do well mathematics without knowing it, but they have not yet abandoned nature that they patiently question for this purpose that it teaches them the road of life. A Picasso studies an object as a surgeon dissects a corpse. This art of pure painting, if it succeeds in emerging entirely from the old painting, will not necessarily cause the disappearance of the latter, any more than the development of music has caused the disappearance of the different literary genres, Nor has the pungency of tobacco replaced the taste of food.

Later on in the book, Apollinaire arrived at the concept of the fourth dimension, which, by the time he was writing, was no longer a concern for Braque and Picasso who had back away from abstraction in favor of the materiality of mixed media. Painters have been led naturally and, so to speak, by intuition, to concern themselves with new possible measures of the extent which in the language of the modern workshops all were referred to collectively and briefly by the term of the fourth dimension. In reading this early book, written in the midst of swirling ideas about painting and poetry, one becomes aware of the struggle on the part of Apollinaire to organize what he was both seeing in studios and what he was trying to execute with his own poetry. This book is often quoted in part, the parts that seem to describe Cubism, but those sections are spare and intermittent. In between, certain lucid passages, Apollinaire meditated—as he said he was—upon the arts, music, poetry and painting and the need for a new aesthetic or definition or purpose. Trying to distinguish among the various manifestations of Cubism, he divided the movement (strangely) into parts, only one of which had any currency as of the writing of the book: “‘Orphic cubism’ is the other great trend of modern painting. It is the art of painting new ensembles with elements borrowed not from the visual reality, but entirely created by the artist and endowed by him with a powerful reality. The works of the Orphic artists must simultaneously present a pure aesthetic approval, a construction that falls under the senses and a sublime meaning, that is, the subject. It is pure art.”

Robert Delaunay. Homage to Bleriot (1914)

The main point of this passage is “pure art,” which within the Orphism of Robert Delaunay, refers to the concept of “simultaneity.” For poets and painters, the term “simultaneity” indicating a combination of association and memory and spontaneous visual and cognitive experiences emerged to explain the endeavors of Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), a Parisian artist, and his associates before the Great War. Matthews quoted Apollinaire as writing that modern painting turned away from its traditional task of copying nature and moved towards plastic means of expressing–not Renaissance solutions to mimesis–but painting as an independent activity in and of itself: “the autonomy of the artistic artefact.” As Apollinaire said, “We must forget exterior reality and our knowledge of it in order to create the new dimensions, the order and extent of which will be discovered by our artistic sensibility in relation to the world of plastic creation.” By 1912 and 1913, the poet became deeply involved with the work Delaunay, who had begun the long process of conceptualizing and theorizing the aims of his own paintings in relation to the other prominent artists exhibiting in Paris. Delaunay understood what the Cubists, whether Picasso and Braque in their studios or Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger in the Salons, were attempting to convey–an expansion of dimensions from two and the illusion of three to the insistence upon a fourth dimension: the passage of time itself and its imprint on experience and memory rendered conceptually on a flat canvas.

Georges Braque. Still Life with Clarinet (Bottle and Clarinet) (1911)

But Delaunay seemed to want to also “respond to a present expressed in transformational technology.” Although it would be tempting to stop at this point because Delaunay was involved in his Ville series, incorporating the modern sights of Paris, from the old Eiffel Tower, now recognized as “new,” to biplanes, zipping through the clouds above, his intentions were much deeper than a mere representation of modern life and all of its novelties. Matthews explained,

This desire is articulated in relation to the urban environment and the urban experience, and to the iconography of the technologized world of mass communication. This involvement with movement and with the experience of modernity, combined with Delaunay’s Orphism as a reaction against a certain austerity and impersonality in Cubism. It is argued that this reaction forms the initial impetus in Delaunay’s desire to develop Cubism more radically and to extend the scope of art in the post-representational era. Even Delaunay’s approach is taken purely as a reaction against Cubist ‘austerity,’ what becomes increasingly explicit in Delaunay’s approach is a concentration on color–a desire to reverse the Cubist tendency to exclude this plastic element from its productions. But to respond to Delaunay’s contribution in terms of a rejection of the Cubist ‘analytical’ style is to suggest that all original and creative art is fundamentally anti-conceptual.” According to Matthews, Delaunay “seems to have regarded Cubist productions as a necessary destruction of the restrictions exercised by perspective. For Delaunay, Cubism provided a definitive rejection of Classical forms.

What Delaunay focused on, starting in 1912 and continuing after the war in his writings in 1924, was the key weakness of Cubism as practiced by Picasso, Braque, and even the Salon Cubists, was their concentration on the object itself and the “breaking up” or “fragmentation” of the object from a singular focal point. In other words, the Cubist artists trapped themselves within perspective, replacing one system with another, but still mired in the terms of the Renaissance. “Ainsi le cubisme croyant apporter un nouveau langage–expressif–ne faisait qu’apporter une modification extériure dans un système qu’il n’abolisait pas–mais qu’il soutenait: l’introduction de pluisiers points de vue d’un object sur la toile ressortissait de la même vision sinon complétée.” Delaunay also dismissed Futurism, locating its fundamental weakness, that of imitating speed and simultaneity, rather than expressing these modern qualities in a plastic manner. For Delaunay, the approach to capturing the uniqueness of modernity sould be simultaneity as manifested through color. Color, like music, is abstract, is a language in its own right. Furthermore, color can be freed from its Renaissance task of imitation of nature and can explore its inherent plastic possibilities.

Matthews stated, “It is though, for Delaunay, the canvas is experience–of identity, of the present. The reading it demands of the viewer and the painter, its manipulation of the displacement that constitutes the relation of color to light, efface the contours of the painting itself..each painting is experience, it contrasts represent the pursuit of contrast and difference, the sensation of light and the ‘otherness’ of time. Thus, with the paintings of Delaunay, color is the fact and process of transition, meaning that the canvas itself become experience. As Apollinaire explained it, for Delaunay the basic condition of color is its complementary color; and, because the existence of red, for example, is conditional upon its opposite color, green, the colors cannot be separated. If they cannot be thought of as separate, colors, plural, can only be material perception or experience. It can be assumed that, at some point, Delauany went beyond his 1912-1913 quarrel with Analytic Cubism and Futurism and continued developing his own independent theories about color in painting and the problem of painting modernity. Picasso and Braque gave up monochrome painting between 1912 and 1914 in favor of experimenting with collage and pasted paper and neither of the artists returned to the incomprehensible hermetic monochromatic Cubism of their early years. Robert Delaunay and Apollinaire apparently took their stands on modern art and its competing styles and approaches far more seriously than either Braque of Picasso, for the two allies parted company over Apollinaire’s reluctance to dismiss Futurism entirely, while Delaunay rejected Futurism completely.

Robert Delaunay. Disque simultané (1912)

In his 1982 book, The Structure of Modernist Poetry, Theo Hermans noted that Apollinaire, in effect, separated Orphism from the rest of Cubism by linking it to Impressionism and post-Impressionism, which studied color as light and color in terms of contrast respectively. Orphism abandoned mimesis for the purity of contrasting colors and, according to Hermans, Apollinaire understood Orphism to be the natural successor to Cubism because simultanism was the “ultimate goal” of avant-garde art. As Hermans said, correctly, “Apollinaire’s comments on the Cubist painters are to be approached with some caution,” and noted that the poet “defended the new painters out of a sense of solidarity rather than conviction; his interest also shifted fairly from Cubism proper to Robert Delaunay’s Orphism.” The author noted that the artists were not particularly impressed with Apollinaire’s book, “a book which is often more lyrical than informataive on the subject of Cubism.” When Apollinaire

..turns to Delaunay’s Orphism as the attainment of the desired ‘peinture pure,’ all references to geometricism are indeed dropped; and, since he describes Orphism in terms of ‘lyricism plastique’ and ‘peinture poétique,’ the central opposition between Cubism and Orphism appears to revolve around the contrast ‘cerberal’ (implying schematization and geometricism) versus ‘lyrical’ (implying totality of perception and harmony of contrasts..)..In Apollinaire’s view, the striving towards ‘pure painting’ which motivates the artists of the new generation implies, at a first stage, the ‘reduction to essentials’ and the preoccupation with ‘conceptual reality’ found in Cubism. This means in turn that, as the painter’s attention shifts from visual perception to the complexities of multiple viewpoints and to the sysematic composition of the painting itself, the external object or model loses its significance and becomes merely pictorial material to be taken apart and re-arranged..The next step in the evolution then, is represented by Orphism, which appears to be basically a further elaboration–in Delaunay’s case leading eventually to fully nonfigurative painting–of the principle of analytical multiplicity towards simultaneity of vision, combined with a more pronounced emphasis on the final product as a harmonious and purely pictorial composition of color contrasts. The instantaneous perception of totality is thus substituted for systematic analysis, and color harmonies take the place of linear construction..The ‘purity’ of Orphism lies in its superior ‘creative’ aspect..In the articles of the years 1913 and 1914 he goes still further in championing Orphism, presenting it as the successor to Cubism..The Cubists’ clear-cut geometric shapes have no place in Delaunay’s Orphism, which..operates almost exclusively with color contrasts and the pictorial harmony resulting from such contrasts..Delaunay concentrates on light, and, as he puts it ‘Light in Nature creates the movement of colors.’ Movement can be reproduced ‘by the rapport of odd elements,’ and this constitutes ‘Rhythmic Simultaneity,’ or ‘harmony, the rhythm of colors.’ The Orphist’s primaraya concern is with the total (as opposed to the ‘analytical’ in the Cubist sense) and simultaneous perception of a dynamic reality, with what Delaunay also calls ‘the synchornic movement (simultaneity) of light which is the only reality..Since the Orphist work of art consists in the pictorial presentation of such as simultaneous and dynamic multiciplicity, it will resist the intrusion of ‘descriptive’ or ‘literary’ elements.o

Obviously, Delaunay was intent on staking out his own place and was making claims for his own art and that of his two allies, Sonia Terk-Delaunay (1885-1975) and František Kupka (1871-1957). And for a time, Guillaume Apollinaire was his ally and was an interpreter (and often the mouthpiece) of the painter’s philosophy. Although the poet and painter ultimately parted company, they were not to be reconciled. The Great War began, scattering the artists, sending Delaunay and his wife Sonia Terk-Delaunay to the neutral nations of Spain and Portugal to wait out the War. Apollinaire served in the War, was wounded, and ultimately died of this wound. It is the death of this poet and interpreter of art that leaves behind one of the many blank spaces of unfinished throughts and unwritten words that that would never be consummated. It was left up to Delaunay to carry on his crusade for pure painting, but after the War, the art world had changed and the Orphists were left without their previous foils. But they were on their own ground, uncontested, and post-war Orphism carried on, only to be interrupted again by the Second World War. In the decades after 1950, the art histories of Cubism would be written, shifting out Orphism except for a passing mention. Only in the 1980s were here attempt, notably within literary circles, that the Cubist painters who were not Picasso would be given their due. In the years between the wars, Robert and Sonia Delaunay continued Orphism, now separated from Cubism, as an art of modern life, which will be discussed in the next post.

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Orphism and Simultaneity


Art and Time

The last great body of art that reflected the pomp and circumstance of measureless and atemporal time was the nostalgic view of Paris created by the photographer of Old Paris, Eugène Atget. Paris lies before his camera, silently brooding over its history, hiding the secrets and lies of its vanished inhabitants behind closed doors. Atget’s Paris is an archaeological exhibition into a vanished civilization mysteriously devoid of activity and yet replete with memory. In contrast to a time when the pace of change was slow, gradual and imperceptible, change occurred every day in the Twentieth Century. The concept of endless and rapid change can be said to have the prevailing characteristic of the new century. A child of the Twentieth Century, who was also an important photographer by the time he was twelve,Jacques-Henri Lartigue, photographed a world of flight and speed that defied the boundaries of space and time. While Atget refused to photograph New Paris–everything from the Second Empire on–Lartigue was characteristic of the artists born into the new century who responded to this new machine age with a variety of reactions, most of which were admiring and accepting.

The artists pondered the very meaning of machines–rational, scientific, abstract, inhuman and unsentimental, they copied the very look of machines with a machine aesthetic that was shiny, stripped down, slick, unadorned and plain, functional and elegant. They examined the functions of the machine, its penchant for repetition, and its role in the process of the assembly line into a series of parts and functions. And they speculated on the implications of a machine culture in all its dehumanization, in its impact upon human beings, newly alienated and without wholeness. Art and artists begin to show a new concern for the means, the process, and the production of art, rather than with the ends or the finished artistic product.

Art and Simultaneity

During this pre-War period, “isms” were springing up overnight in a bewildering variety. Part of this was an attempt on the part of art critics to put names to variations on Cubism, part was a response of the artists themselves to distinguish themselves from their fellows, with whom they might disagree. “Orphism” was a name coined by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire on the occasion of the Section d’Or exhibition of 1912. The reference to Orpheus is a reference to the pure form of music—a way of making art, which did not rely upon conventions of imitation of objects in the real world. As Pure Painting, Orphism could be as pure and as abstract and as non-referential as music. However, the Orphist artists often referred to an object. Husband and wife, Robert and Sonia Terk-Delaunay and Francis Picabia always had some kind of tangible thing at the heart of their conception.

Only “Frank” Kupka conceived of his forms as being strictly non-representational, standing for spiritual ideas. In his interest in the spiritual, Kupka was similar to Kandinsky in the reason for his abstractions. Orphism was about states of mind and states of consciousness and states of being. These artists, who sometimes included Fernand Léger, were convinced that Modern Life had produced a modern consciousness. This idea of a change in culture producing a change in consciousness is central to Orphism. Modern consciousness responded to the vibrant excitement of the modern city. Modern consciousness, aware of constant change and flux, sensitive to a speeded up existence, had learned intuitively how to grasp many things simultaneously.

As they would be for Futurism, dynamism and simultaneity are key concepts for Orphism. The symbol or sign of this modern life was, for the Orphists, light itself: light which absorbed everything; light into which one could be absorbed. Life was in movement and flux and in light itself. The artist could express this new consciousness, this new form of seeing, which was simultaneous and dynamic, ever moving and ever flowing, by throwing him/herself into the act of pure painting. Although the painting produced by this act often seemed purely decorative, the artists saw their works as having a far deeper meaning. Deeply influenced by the philosophical ideas of the philosopher, Henri Bergson, these artists considered the act of seeing to be the generating force of consciousness or elan vital itself. Seeing, for the Orphists, was consciousness itself.

These ideas about mind and matter have a variety of sources. The poetry of the Nineteenth Century poet, Stephane (Étienne) Mallarmé (1842-1898), was concerned with the inner workings of the mind and stressed the mental activity of creation. Of interest to the Cubists of this period was Mallarmé’s use of words on the pure white page, words that were positioned, rather than written in an open field, words that suggested movement rather than narrating an event. The words of Mallarmé were to be looked at and followed by the eyes as they marched up and down and across the pages in his ground-breaking poem, Un coup de dès. A precursor to concrete poetry, the poetry of Mallarmé was a creative extension of Symbolist poetry, allowing greater freedom for the reader whose eyes and mind was activated by the rolling words, bounding across the white pages.

The idea of a visually activated picture plane that engaged the eyes in a physical fashion, not allowing vision to pause and rest, became important to the Cubist artists. Like modern life, art had to move. Although the Orphists used words on the picture plane, their central concern was the representation of light, which is the essential aspect of la vie moderne. Under the impact of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, the Orphists broke the objects into small planes, fracturing the materiality with the dynamic action of light. Space and matter interacted in the mind, which associated the things of the world. The desire to go beyond the objective world (unlike Picasso and Braque) owed a great deal to the philosopher, Henri Bergson who emphasized constant change and process of time.

This is the concept of simultanism: all things are simultaneously present to the consciousness which is mobile, transforming past and present through memory. One’s present consciousness is an interpenetrating state of being. This being is indivisible and is the result of the flux of the whole. The interplay between the object and the environment is artistically conceived as a actual movement in space, for perception changes as movement changes the shape of the object as light dematerializes the object. There are two types of motion: centripetal in which the object moves in on itself as an internalized mass and an outward movement that, according to Bergson, prevents the phenomenon of an isolated object. There are only intimations or simultaneous movements within a continuous field.

Orphism was not an ideologically consistent movement, such as Futurism with its many manifestos. Orphism was, instead, a temporary coincidence of tendencies, which lead to or suggested non-figuration. Movement and light destroyed the materiality of bodies. These ideas of light, modern life and modern consciousness rested upon a variety of influences and older ideas. There was a resurgence of interest in Neo-Impressionism in 1911, largely due to the publication of a book by Paul Signac on color from the time of Delacroix to Seurat. Equally important for Orphist ideas of color was Fauvism, especially Matisse’s now published, Notes d’un peintre of 1908. Of course, the idea of light being colored and of color being light can also be traced back to the Impressionists. The Orphists tended to look less at natural light and more at artificial light. Robert and Sonia Delaunay, especially, were fascinated by the colored halos of light emanating from the newly installed electric streetlights in Paris. Colored disks became a major and permanent theme in his work and the work of Russian expatriate Sonia Terk-Delaunay who also painted the excitement of the balls in Paris.

The visual vocabulary of Cubism enabled the Orphist artists to see ways of breaking objects into small planes, denoting the dynamic action of light. The Cubist vocabulary also allowed them to associate objects brought together in the mind and to present these objects, fragmented, and juxtaposed, in non-traditional ways. The idea that the mind takes in many things simultaneously, conveyed on the canvas as a rather prismatic and fractured image, is of course indebted to Henri Bergson in whom the Futurists who were also interested. To Bergson, all is simultaneously present in the mind, to the consciousness, which is mobile. One’s present consciousness is a state of being constantly in flux, but indivisible with the whole. Experience is perpetual, not broken into discrete units. While the Orphists produced totally abstract works of brilliant color out of these philosophical concepts, their Russian colleague, Marc Chagall, used his love of Russian folk art and his nostalgia for his home town of Vitebsk to create a world of memory and light and color, illustrating a new universe with its own laws and its own fairy tale rules in I and the Village (1911).

For a time Cubists, Futurists, Orphists and avant-garde artists, such as Chagall that defy classification, exchanged ideas and visions in pre-War Paris. Ardengo Scoffici, the editor of La Voce, and Lacerba, could chat with Guillaume Apollinaire, who would spend time with the fellow poet, Blaise Cendrars and the Italian art critic and editor of Montjoie!, Riciotto Canudo. The French artist, Robert Delaunay and his Russian wife and artistic colleague, Sonia Terk-Delaunay, were marital proof of the famed Moscow-Paris railway and artistic link between the two capitals. Gino Severini, the Parisian born Italian Futurist, would have known the concept of élan vital of Bergson who believed the future would be formed by action (Creative Evolution, 1907). For Bergson, the universality of art was the vitality of creativity and his ideas would take on a new and unexpected life within Futurism.

Despite the similarity of the ideas and sources shared by the Orphists and the Futurists, the two groups diverged on the question of politics. Orphism was a radical art movement only, while Futurism was also a radical political movement. Orphism used ideas of Divisionism for the explorations of color theory. For the Futurists, Divisionism was far more than a painting technique or a theory of color; Divisionism was modern life itself: life, which was in flux, in motion…divided within itself, in effect, allowing a constant Bergsonian “interpenetration” of mind and matter. For the Futurists, Divisionism was radical and revolutionary. Divisionism was the 20th century incarnate.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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