Abstract Painting Style of Orphism/Cubism: Characteristics, Legacy.

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Cosmic Synchromy (1913-14)
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute.
By Morgan Russell, one of the most
innovative 20th century painters from
America to paint in Paris before WWI.

Synchromism (c.1913-18)


What is Synchromism?
Origins and Characteristics
Theory of Colour in Painting
Reputation and Legacy

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What is Synchromism?

In modern art, the term "Synchromism" refers to a style of painting launched in Paris in 1913 by two American painters, Morgan Russell (1886-1953) and Stanton MacDonald- Wright (1890-1973). Similar to the French style of Orphism, Synchromism was a form of abstract art, in which colour was accorded the main role as a source of form and expression. Synchromist exhibitions were held in 1913 in Paris and Munich, and also in New York, in the wake of the famous International Exhibition of Modern Art (otherwise known as the Armory Show). The Synchromist style of American art was also adopted by the mid-West painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), before he switched to Regionalism during the 1920s. Initially hailed as one of the coming abstract art movements, it fizzled out during the First World War, although its founders retained a reputation for being in the forefront of modern artists in the early 20th century. By the end of the war, a new austere, geometric style of non-objective art - exemplified by the De Stijl movement, founded by Theo Van Doesburg (1883-1931), and Neo-Plasticism created by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) - would supercede Synchromism (and Orphism) in Europe, while Realism would take hold in America.



Origins and Characteristics

Both Morgan Russell and Stanton MacDonald-Wright began as figurative painters, but while living in Paris they became drawn to concrete art. Influenced by late 19th century techniques, like Cloisonnism (Emile Bernard) and Synthetism (Paul Gauguin), as well as avant-garde artists including Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Robert Delaunay (1885-1941), and Frank Kupka (1871-1957), they began to explore the properties and effects of colour. They both studied under Ernest Percyval Tudor-Hart, a Canadian painter whose colour theory was closely linked to musical harmonies.

Russell and MacDonald-Wright sought to develop the structural principles of Cubism and the colour theories of Neo-Impressionism, and their experiments in colour abstraction were close to those of the Orphists. So similar were they, in fact, that in 1913 the Synchromists issued a manifesto - one of the few groups of American artists to do so - proclaiming their originality, and stating that to see them as Orphists was to 'take a tiger for a zebra, on the pre-text that both have a striped skin'. Regardless of who was first, what is striking is the similarity in interest of different groups of artists attempting to identify and define a language and vocabulary for abstract painting in its own right. Both strove to formulate a system in which meaning or significance did not rely on resemblance to objects in the outside world, but was derived from the results of colour and form on canvas.


Theory of Colour in Painting

Russell was also a musician and his intention was to formulate a colour theory in painting in which the relationships between colour pigments and forms would create rhythms and musical relationships. This desire to create sound using colour and shape - a form of 'synaesthesia', producing a mental sense-impression relating to one sense by stimulation of another - had been a concern of the French Symbolism movement in the late nineteenth century, as well as of Kupka and Kandinsky. The musical analogy, and other Synchromist features, are visible in Russell's monumental painting Synchromy in Orange: To Form (1913-14, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo). Here, chromatic combinations and Cubist structures are brought alive by free-flowing rhythms and arcs that create a sense of movement and dynamism. See also his work Cosmic Synchromy (1913-14, Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, New York)

Reputation and Legacy

The Synchromists exhibited in Munich, in Paris at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery - during which they attracted the attention of the critics Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) and Louis Vauxcelles - and in New York in 1913 and 1914 to uproar and controversy. But though Synchromism scandalized the public, it ranks among the more influential modern art movements in its impact on American artists, particularly after its appearance in the seminal Armory Show in New York in 1913, the moment when European modernism arrived in the USA. Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975, see American Scene Painting and also Regionalism), Patrick Henry Bruce (1880-1937) and the Symbolist Arthur B. Davies (1862-1928) are amongst those who were called Synchromists at some point during their careers. Many of the Synchromists were included in The Forum Exhibition of Modern American Painters in New York in 1916, a show organized by Stanton's brother, Willard Huntington Wright. By the end of World War I Synchromism had almost entirely died out, with many of its practitioners returning to representational art. Disillusionment with Europe caused by the war, led to a rejection of European avant-garde art and a concurrent renewal of interest in work that seemed more 'American', such as Social Realism. However, MacDonald-Wright eventually returned to Synchromist paintings following Russell's death in 1953.


Synchromism is represented in several of the best art museums in America, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, New York; Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey; and the Frederick Weismant Art Museum, University of Minnesota.

• For a chronological guide to the evolution of modern American painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For information about painting and sculpture in America, see: Homepage.

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