Cubism After Cubism

Part Two: Orphism Between the Wars

At  4:35 a.m on a chill and cloudy day in July, on the 25th day of the year 1909, a daring French aviator Louis Blériot (1872-1936), took off in an airplane of his own making, rising above Calais on the coast and pointed the nose of the aircraft towards England. Below were the cold and choppy waters of the English Channel, above was a sullen sky. This pilot was no ordinary flier; a former seller of headlamps for trucks, he was the head of his own company, Recherches Aeronautiques Louis Bleriot, and had succeeded in constructing the first engine powered monoplane. This plane, the Blériot VII, soared aloft in 1907 and even performed the first U-turn in the air. The plane that headed across the Channel was the “Number XI,” a design of ash, wires, and canvas, lacking instruments, even a compass. The plane, powered by twenty-five mechanical horses, was totally open, the pilot was operating the petals with an injured foot, because as an English magazine explained, “M. Blériot used to tumble with his machine with almost monotonous persistency.” Yet, despite the accident of the day before, the flyer, in pursuit of a £1ooo prize offered by the Daily Mail, seized a brief moment of calm in a windy season, described by the reporter as, “Taking the week-end as a whole, it has been one of the windiest periods of a particularly unsettled summer, and the previous day had in particular seemed hopeless for any cross-Channel flight.” Half way across the Channel, Blériot lost his bearings and kept his course, and traveling at somewhere between forty and fifty miles per hour arrived at a grassy field in Dover less than forty minutes later. As the magazine article summed up an hour of inexactness: “Accounts differ as to the exact moment of departure and descent, and as a matter of fact it is doubtful if any reliable timing was made since M. Blériot started without a watch as well as without a compass.” The man who had been named “le roi de la casse” had succeeded, winning a victory not just for himself but for his airplane company and the idea of flying safely across great and perilous distances. But Blériot gave as well as received of his fame: according to the Zenith watch company, “With his Zenith on his wrist, he took off aboard the Blériot XI, a frail ‘bird’ featuring a wooden frame and parchment-like wings.” Later the aviator said, “I am extremely satisfied with the Zenith watch, which I use regularly, and cannot recommend it highly enough to people in search of precision.” Such is the imprecision of history–watch or no watch–but it is worth nothing that the disputed watch exists today and was a wristwatch, a fashion for men that would become widespread during the Great War. In 1914, Blériot’s would produce the famous S.P.A.D., the fighter plane flown by the French, the Britsh and the Americans.

Promotional Card for Blériot’s Flight

Despite the definitely undashing droopy mustache sported by the pilot, Blériot’s flight across the English Channel in 1909 was the entry of France into the twentieth century and made the nation as important as America in the development of aviation. The French people could add yet another milestone in their march into modernity, first, they had built to Eiffel Tower and then they had conquered the formidable Channel. However, modern art took little note of the airplane except for the Cubist painter Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), the prophet of Orphism and the harbinger of Simultaneity. Delaunay was fascinated with modern life and its machines. Delaunay and his wife Sonia Terk-Delaunay (1885-1979) were associated with the Cubists, a radical art movement, but Cubism was less interested in looking out and responding to the modern urban life swirling around, and was, as a movement, was concerned with the concepts of painting. In other words, Cubism was art about art. Far more than any Cubist, before or after the War, Robert Delaunay used his developing style to attempt to capture twentieth-century life and its modernity. His study of an urban environment transformed by technology and the impact of the machine marked his art before and after the Great War.  While the Cubist who were being supported by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were shut up in their respective studios, making art based upon their atelier experiments. Indeed, whether with the so-called Analytic and Synthetic phases (named years after the War), the subject matter is usually one of interior settings, arranged for portraits and still lives, with the artists rarely venturing outside. The Salon Cubists explored the possibilities of expanding the implications of Paul Cézanne’s late work, continuing the traditions of art, basing their experiments upon historical subject matter. As with Picasso and Braque, the Cubists who exhibited publically were very conservative in their content, a choice that, for the most part, many of these artists continued after the Great War. Indeed, it has been noted that that most daring of artistic experiments, after the War Cubism, retreated and returned to “order.” Meanwhile, Robert Delaunay and Sonia Terk-Delaunay were out and about, exploring Paris and taking note of its events and activities, now a hallmark of a twentieth-century city.

Postcard of Blériot’s famous plane, shown flying over Paris,

Eiffel Tower in the distance, similar to Delaunay’s paintings

For the Delaunays, the question was always how to balance the strong pull of abstraction with the sheer material factuality of what they were representing. Theoretically, Robert Delaunay attempted to explain this shifting of his art between what seemed to be total abstraction and recognizable motifs of modernity with the term “simultaneity” referring to the mind’s ability to observe, remember, and react to stimulation of the sights, sounds, smells and dizzying array of perspectives, swerving from high to low and swaying from side to side. Far from being spare and intellectual in his theories, Delaunay always seemed to have painted with joy and excitement, ebullient in his pleasure in all things modern, and, for him, simultaneity was symbolized by his use of contrasting colors. Simultaneity, he asserted was “…a certain combination of colors, in harmonic contrast with each other, can reproduce the movement of light.” The idea of simultaneity can be seen as the juxtaposition of image of modernity, the Eiffel Tower, the famous plane of Louis Blériot, the Cardiff rugby team, and the Ferris wheel–engineering, flight, and sports–all modern phenomenon brought together by Delaunay. The airplanes and the Eiffel Tower are clearly rendered and easily recognizable, while their swirling propellors are repeated again and again by Delaunay’s favorite motif, the disk or the circle, broken by contrasting colors. These colors, colliding within the swirl, would cause vibrations of human vision, activating the retina, simulating the pulsating speed of modernity itself.

Robert Delaunay. Homage to Blériot (1913)

Robert Delaunay. Equipe de Cardiff (1913)

Delaunay’s ideas for new art was based upon an old and famous book by Michel-Eugène Chevreul, who was the director of the dyeing for Gobelins Manufacture. Published in 1839, historian Georges Roque gives it entire title as: On the law of simultaneous contrast of colors and on its applications to…, followed by an impressive list of all the fields to which this law can be applied, including tapestry, of course, but also painting, carpets, clothing, horticulture, stained glass windows, and so on..Its English title was The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours and their Application to the Arts. In his 2011 article, “Chevreul’s Color Theory and Its Consequences for Artists,” Roque quoted the chemist as writing, “In the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colors, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition and in the strength of their color..Is in this sense we say: t

hat Red is complementary to Green, and vice versa; That Orange is complementary to Blue, and vice versa, That Greenish-Yellow is complementary to Violet, and vice versa That Indigo is complementary to Orange-Yellow, and vice versa.”

Delaunay, according to Roque, was an avid reader of Chevreul, and, like Delacroix and Seurat and Signac before him, followed his theories closely and made them his own. Delaunay wrote, … the multiple dimensions [of a painting] form groups, which are opposed or neutralized, color being a measure of vibration of such or such intensity, given its neighborhood and its surface, in relation to all the other colors. Such vibration of an orange, placed in the composition next to a yellow— these two colors being placed almost side by side on the color diagram— their vibrations being therefore very close, vibrate very quickly. If, in the composition, there is a violet blue, this violet blue will form a vibration with the yellow orange: a much slower movement..” The artist was aware of Chevreul’s idea of “mixed contrast” or lingering afterimages left by one color upon another. As the scientist explained,
The distinction of simultaneous and successive contrast renders it easy to comprehend a phenomenon which we may call the mixed contrast; because it results from the fact of the eye, having seen for a time a certain colour, acquiring an aptitude to see for another period the complementary of that colour, and also a new colour, presented to it by an exterior object; the sensation then perceived is that which results from this new colour and the complementary of the first..” As Roque wrote, “..the contrast of complementary colors was used by Delaunay as a starting point to structure pure color relationships in his compositions, and as an attempt to infuse his paintings with the actual vibrations light. The optical properties of color vibrations were an excellent way of focusing, no longer on the object but on sensations produced by color vibration in the eye of the beholderWhat has been said for Delaunay holds true, too, for color music and the first attempts at abstract color movies. The problems that confronted their creators were similar but included time: how to organize color combinations in order to achieve harmony through time? Here the central concept was that of mixed contrast, which Chevreul defined as follows: The distinction of simultaneous and successive contrast renders it easy to comprehend a phenomenon which we may call the mixed contrast; because it results from the fact of the eye, having seen for a time a certain colour, acquiring an aptitude to see for another period the complementary of that colour, and also a new colour, presented to it by an exterior object; the sensation then perceived is that which results from this new colour and the complementary of the first. Indeed, it was crucial for music color as well as abstract color movies to take into account the afterimages produced by persistence of vision and to use them as a syntactic way of structuring the successive sequence of colors.”

We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection…of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower…To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years…we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal..

As tall and sturdy as the Tower was, it was intended to be torn down after twenty years, in 1909, but its height made it useful as a radio transmission tower, since 1898; and it was judged to be too valuable to be without. Five years later, as the Germans moved closer and closer to Paris during the battle of the Marne, signals sent from the Tower blocked German radios and hindered what had seemed a relentless advance. But, even before the War, young inhabitants of Paris, like Delaunay, the Eiffel Tower was the symbol of Paris as the capital of all things modern. When contrasting the rendition of the Eiffel Tower by Georges Seurat in the year it was completed, 1889, to the series by Delaunay from 1909 to 1912, it is clear that Seurat regarded the structure from respectful distance, rendering it static and frozen in its prison of points, while Delaunay, who studied the Tower for years, though of the monument to a revolution to be in constant motion.

Georges Seurat. Eiffel Tower (1889) Robert Delaunay. Eiffel Tower (1909) Red Eiffel Tower (1911)

Delaunay’s relationship to Eiffel’s achievement began in 1909 with a Cézannesquelike version of Seurat’s distant observation, but as his ideas concerning Cubism and simultaneity evolved, the artist activated the experience of the viewer when confronted with such a building. The Tower is viewed from above below, in sunshine and in shadow, from an open window to a view towards the expanse of the Champ-de-Mars. The Red Tower, as Delaunay called the steel structure, shared the sky with the aviator Louis Blériot, in Homage to Blériot in 1914, served as a backdrop to the poet Philippe Souplaut in 1922. The 1924 version of the Tower is more stable and is far away from Cubism but the vantage point, the bird’s eye view, is the artist’s attempt to wrestle with the inhuman scale of the steel erection.

In 2015 the Centre Pompidou presented the exhibition, Robert Delaunay: “Rythmes sans fin,” one hundred years after the artist established his signature image, circles of color, throbbing and pulsating, according to the scientific theories of Chevreul. As will be discussed in the next post, the post-war paintings of Robert Delaunay were quite large, large for the 1930s, amplifying and expanding the studies of color he did on a smaller scale before the War. The circular motif, a recurring theme throughout his career, was not, as is often assumed, an abstract composition but a study of the effect of electric lights installed in Paris–an event explored in the concluding chapter on this artist.

Robert Delaunay. Manège de cochons (1922)

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

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

Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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