With his abstractions composed of paint transformed into light, Robert Delaunay made a crucial contribution to art in the early 20th century. His new aesthetics arose out of a quest for ‘pure painting’, which he discovered in the synthesis of Impressionist series and Cubist tradition. Delaunay used 19th-century colour theories to experiment with the reflection and refraction of light, a process for which art critic Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term ‘Orphism’. Derived from the name of the mythical bard Orpheus, Orphism is a painting style based on rhythmic chromatic harmony.
Delaunay’s work represents the fullest flowering of Orphism, particularly in his Circular Forms, Sun and Moon. The painting is dated 1912 to 1931 in the bottom left corner; the unusually large time span for the work’s creation is enough to signal how important the composition must have been for the artist. The subtitle ‘Sun and Moon’ bespeaks less a figuratively legible form than the atmospheric differences between the two qualities of light. Loosely assembled, floating circles are concentrated in two focal points: to the right the brilliantly glowing solar area with an assortment of mutually permeated circle fragments, and to the left the nocturnal side, comprised of many thickly applied, concentric circles. The pale moonlight is echoed in the cool blue, turquoise and red, while the prismatic fan of the sunlight is represented in warm, contrasting facets.
Delaunay was inspired by more than the electric light of the Parisian metropolis. In his paintings he strove towards a space that was now becoming accessible thanks to new vehicles like the Zeppelin and the airplane, while in his rainbow-bright discs composed of simultaneously perceptible contrasts he was the first French artist to devise an abstract visual vocabulary.