PRINT Summer 1978

Problems in Synchromism

UNTIL THE 1960S ONLY NOMINAL attention was paid the Synchromists. Their names were known: Morgan Russell, from New York, and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, a transplanted Californian, both of whom painted in Paris in the ’teens. But little stylistic differentiation was accorded them under the rubric of Synchromist. Not that basic documentation was lacking: the two painters had prepared written manifestos1 to accompany at least four important exhibitions of their work from 1913 to 1923. However, their outrageous statements about the errors and failures of earlier art, from the Impressionists up to the Cubists, discouraged many level-headed critics from seriously considering their remarks about their intentions. This material did, nevertheless, testify to what the artists wanted their art to be. What has not been carefully documented is the evolution of each artist’s own ideas over the ten-year period, how both differed individually at each point in their developments and, most perplexing, how their theory related to the artwork they produced.

A fruitful theoretical discussion of Synchromist style will only result when more of the artists’ papers become available. In the case of Morgan Russell, this has already begun. In the early ’60s a number of boxes of Russell papers, notebooks and letters dating back to the earliest years of Synchromism, experimental sketches included—was acquired in France and brought to the United States. Russell, it seems, had the habit of using pocket notebooks for jotting down his thoughts. In fact, herein lies the real drama of the current traveling exhibition “Synchromism and American Color Abstraction, 1910–1925”: key pages from Russell’s notebooks illustrating in short, often elliptic, comments, and in hasty rough sketches, the direction he wished his painting to take.

Some of the sketches have provided valuable clues to the conception of abstract-looking paintings, most notably the Synchromy in Deep Blue-Violet, 1913, whose genesis goes back to a notebook sketch of May 1912 that demonstrates its totally nonrepresentational nature.2 Later Russell prepared a short illustrated résumé for his patron, Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, called “Harmonic Analysis,” in which he explained how the painting had evolved. He had begun by drawing in two sets of lines, thus establishing the basic rhythmic patterns. The first restates the form of the canvas, recalling also the Cubist use of the outline or edge of their canvases as a “frame of reference” governing the pictorial organization.3 The second set of lines, in an S-curve, arose, says Russell, from his concern with the dynamics of the human figure. This reflects his admiration for the Baroque energy of Michelangelo and Rubens. Willard Huntington Wright, Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s brother, an art critic and portavoce of the Synchromist cause, points to Michelangelo’s Slave, much sketched by Russell in the Louvre, as being the conceptual origin of this synchromy. The human figure, in the classical contrapposto stance, appears in the notebooks again as the basis, more specifically stated this time, of the huge painting Synchromy in Orange: To Form, 1913–14. What had hitherto gone unnoticed was the extent to which Russell drew upon his sketches after Michelangelo—the already-mentioned Slave in the Louvre, the Pietà in the cathedral in Florence and figures from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—for the central or energizing motif of an abstract composition. This obsession with the power of the Michelangelesque figure must be an extension of his earlier experience as a sculptor.

As a painter, however, he faced the challenge of translating volume into color sensations. Except for the pages which are study sketches for the Synchromy in Deep Blue-Violet dating from 1912–13, more attention has been paid to the nature of Russell’s form than the problems he was struggling with in color.

These early color concerns are revealed in works such as the Impressionist-type scene showing how he had studied Monet, whom he called his “master of light.” Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso, as well, intervened in the formation of his style. The most eye-catching picture in this display of influences is the small oil of Apples, c. 1873–77, by Cézanne, which Russell had borrowed from Leo Stein to study. Two small paintings of apples by Russell have been juxtaposed. He had obviously been interested in how Cézanne had created a sense of mass in the objects by means of color rather than modelling. Russell’s color, however, is applied in heavier, more opaque layers of paint—which was to be a mark of his style throughout his career.

At about this same time, we know that Macdonald-Wright acquired four Cézanne watercolors. Cézanne was the acknowledged font for the two young artists. Years later Wright said of Cézanne, “His art bypassed nature as it had been painted up to that time and created a new cosmos imbued with mind and meaning, color and form, idea and method.”4 Cézanne had demonstrated how subtly the surface of form could be changed in its spatial relationships by modifying the facets of color he applied, by varying the degrees of tone, intensity and temperature, and by introducing complementary color accents. Furthermore, the effect of Cézanne’s luminous planes of overlapping color seem apparent in much of Macdonald-Wright’s style as he capitalized on the diametrically opposite effect that had so fascinated Russell. Such an example serves to point out the quite different orientations of the two artists who were soon to exhibit under the banner of Synchromism.

A painted sketch of a reclining female—decorative in a simplified and rather primitive fashion—recalls that Russell had worked in Matisse’s studio on and off during the years 1909–11, helping with a series of standing sculptures: the photo of a sculpted male nude with ink correction marks by Matisse dates from this time. What is not so apparent from this small work is how influential Matisse was as the direct link between Neo-Impressionist color theory and the Synchromists’ interest in systematic color usage. Russell had become acquainted with Matisse at the Stein soirées; he had also had the opportunity to study the paintings in the Stein home under the guidance of Leo Stein. In his drawing after Picasso, Three Women, c. 1911, Russell has not affected to do an exact copy. Rather, he has reworked the Picasso idiom in his own terms. The Cubist faceted surface becomes a series of wedges that move across the picture plane in an already discernible S-curve.

The whole story of these differences has not been documented here. Russell receives far more coverage in the show than does Macdonald-Wright. Of Macdonald-Wright’s few formative works, the Portrait of Jean Dracopoli, 1912, is remarkable for its strong use of spectral hues and its firm resistance to line. Several fine abstractions, the Organization (No. 5) and Conception Synchromy, both of 1914, come closest to the expectations of Synchromist theory:

spectral hues evolving to give density to volumes and extension to space. The complex play of circular shapes and wedges—the basic forms of the Synchromist language—reel and spin, overlaying each other in transparent veils of glowing colored light. It is in such works as these by Macdonald-Wright, and in the monumental (whether large or small) compositions by Russell—Synchromy in Orange: To Form or Cosmic Synchromy—that the problems of theory take second place to the power of impression, that “utterly complete painterly vision” which the artists invoked in their earliest manifesto. While the Whitney installation was didactically excellent, it did not focus emphatically enough on these best works.

From a practical point of view, any crowding of the canvases risks causing color interference and, hence, a distortion in the significance of the paintings themselves. What has been emphasized to the detriment of the artist is the suite of Wright’s semi-representational Synchromies in bright, diaphanous hues, all too much alike to be penetrated individually. They tended to overshadow Wright’s later works, which were moving into a more Cubist-representational style glowing with brighter, harder, gem-colored lights.

Lost in their midst were the later Russells, the Archaic Compositions from 1915–16—disquieting, lacking the heroic confidence of his early works. This same note of malaise lingers in the last small-scale experiments in Synchromism that Russell did, the “Eidos” series of 1922–23. Pigment betrayed him here in his search for light. In a statement which accompanied their showing in Paris at La Licorne Gallery in 1923 (not included among the texts reprinted in the Whitney catalogue appendix), Russell told how he had hoped to create the impression of an explosion of fireworks which would rest in the mind’s eye after the colors had died in the sky. He spoke of a luminous screen whose effects of color would be so powerful that they would “enlighten reason by means of the divine inebriation of the senses:”

Of inordinate interest to critics and art historians alike has been how Synchromism related to Orphism:5 whether it was merely derivative or, worse, a bland American imitation. This was a problem from the movement’s very inception, and it so exasperated Macdonald-Wright that he justified his assuming the name Synchromist “to avoid the irritation of having those classification maniacs file us under a label that does not describe us accurately.” Further on in the same manifesto, introducing the 1913 Bernheim-Jeune show in Paris, he complains that to confuse Orphism with Synchromism is “to take a tiger for a zebra on the pretext that they both have a striped skin.”

Obviously further clarification is necessary, difficult as it may be. Both Orphists and Synchromists had benefited most immediately from the Cubist disintegration of form into surface planes. Both had reacted to its neutral palette by reintroducing color. But color was a problem because its descriptive and literary roles were discounted. Color, in its essence, had other painterly functions, they felt. “Pure painting” was invoked. The theoretical background of both the Orphists and the Synchromists was similar. Helmholtz’s optics; Blanc’s esthetics, both practical and mystical; Chevreul’s laws of the simultaneous and successive contrast of juxtaposed colors; Rood’s text Modern Chromatics, which spoke in terms painters could understand about patterns of color harmonies, triads and chords, and whose musical analogies were in keeping with popular philosophy of the moment: these scientific and not-so-scientific notions were filtered through the practical experience of the Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists.

The Orphists and Synchromists vacillated both in theory and practice between total abstraction and semi-representation, maintaining that narrative content rather than object-representation was the foe of painting. Even the notion of ordering colors so as to create a new reality by means of the dimension of time can be found in both camps. Russell sought time in “color rhythms.” For Macdonald-Wright, Rood’s system of color chords—whose subtle variations he likened to musical intervals—permitted the painter, in effect, to move from key to key, from dissonance to balance, thereby generating sensations of movement within the color system itself. Perhaps it was only in the nature and direction of movement that the Synchromists differed from the Orphists. The simultaneity of the Orphic experience was essentially a surface phenomenon: the Synchromists instead set out to capture the vitality of mass and volume and an “unfolding of the spectrum into depth.”

Several paintings by both Robert and Sonia Delaunay are included in the present Synchromist exhibition. Those of Sonia constitute primarily a kind of visual footnote to the philological problem of the invention and use of the terms “Synchromism” and “Synchromy,” and, pending further significant data, we can hope the problem has been laid to rest with each side happy in its victory. Robert Delaunay’s Windows and The First Disc, both of 1912, presage motifs used later by the Synchromists: transparent planes as well as flat, opaque colored areas; grids and wedges such as Russell devised; and patterns of concentric circles developed by Macdonald-Wright in his most successful Synchromies of 1914–15. While the Delaunay works are of an earlier date, the catalogue points out that although the First Disc was published in the spring of 1914, it was not exhibited until 1922. In essence, nothing has been solved by limiting the discussion to the motifs and techniques of the Orphists. Experiments with color and time sequence, with analogies to musical rhythms and harmonies, were not uncommon. Works by Picabia, Kupka and Lhote have all been suggested as sources for Synchromist experiments in color and form. This will bear further study.

The same can be said for the influences of Synchromism on American modernism. The School of Paris was the vortex, drawing into its center young artists who were searching for a new language in art. Synchromism occupied a particular position vis-à-vis American artists, for it was a style that was firmly grounded in the French rational tradition, and yet it accepted the viability of the painterly mode. In addition, its avant-garde role was generally acknowledged. At the same time, the Synchromists were American and they showed in the United States.

Although the title of the present show suggests that Synchromism’s influences were manifest, no clear pattern of this emerges. Perhaps that was meant to be the message. Perusing the final short biographies does offer some interesting reflections on the kaleidoscopic interrelations of artists and styles. Only Thomas Hart Benton, known primarily as a regionalist, actually exhibited a “Synchromist” painting. Arthur B. Frost, Jr. and Patrick Henry Bruce are as close as any to the Synchromist tradition, but they were friends and followers of Robert Delaunay and strongly denied any Synchromist ties. Later they, with Jay Van Everen and Jan Matulka, exhibited as American Simultaneists. Lyman Saÿen, who painted bright semi-representational pictures, had experimented with a paint mill that would produce colors of an especially brilliant hue. Genealogically he was a Fauve in the Matisse tradition, as were a number of others including Carl Newman and Charles Sheeler. In all, this comprises a grouping of relatively successful early American modernists. Thirteen had exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York. Henry Fitch Taylor, one of the organizers of the Armory show, also published his experiments in color theory. Eleven of the 17 artists that showed at the key 1916 Forum Exhibition are also represented. Surprisingly, ten of the artists were part of the Steiglitz Group or had at least had work shown at the 291 Gallery. One of these was Macdonald-Wright.

Still, no clear pattern of substantive experimentation in color theory is evident, or, for that matter, any particular theory or philosophy concerning abstraction. Not even the Synchromists themselves evolved a unilateral view of the nature of subject in a painting. Thus we must conclude that the presentation of Synchromist works and the addendum of American so-called abstract works has presented more problems that it has solved. It has served well as illustration to Gail Levin’s scholarly catalogue, rather than the reverse.

So we are returned to the problem of words and theories. Regarding the Synchromists’ Bernheim-Jeune show, Gustave Kahn, in his review for Mercure de France, noted that the special intellectual temper of the artists was more apparent in their theories than in their displayed works, and he advised his readers to wait for further developments. “Attendons.” And in a sense we are still waiting. The accounts have yet to be balanced.

Janet Funston



“Synchromism and American Color Abstraction 1910–1925” was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. It will be at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (April 20–June 18, 1978); the Des Moines Art Center (July 6–September 3, 1978); the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (September 22–November 19, 1978), Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse (December 15, 1978–January 28, 1979); and Columbus (Ohio) Gallery of Fine Arts (February 15–March 24, 1979). The catalogue was prepared by Dr. Gail Levin, of the Whitney Museum’s curatorial staff.

1. This material is reproduced in the appendix of the Whitney catalogue.

2. This bit of evidence alone is valuable for establishing the chronology of Synchromist development, for it shows that Synchromism is not so much a style derived from Orphism as one which developed parallel to it.

3. In the Synchromy in Yellow (1913) Russell had already adopted a painted frame in a more complicated, yet at the same time traditional, fashion. The still-life subject is viewed through an oval frame painted on a rectangular canvas. The painted frame is worked out in a dominant color triad but reduced in value and mixed. This effect increases, by contrast, the brilliance of the spectral hues in the composition itself. In the monumental Synchromy to Form: Orange the entire composition is contained within a frame in which also appear the title and a visual as well as a verbal pun of the subject. The frame functions much as did those commonly painted in by the Neo-impressionists to provide an orderly transition from painted surface to the surrounding area. Macdonald-Wright also adopted the device of the painted frame in his Arm Organization (1914), but later over-painted it. Robert Delauney had already explored the uses of the painted frame in his 1911 “Simultaneous Windows.”

4. S. Macdonald-Wright, “The Artist Speaks,” Art in America, May–June 1967, p. 71.

5. In her recent article “Synchromism: The Balance Sheet,” Arts Magazine, March 1978, p. 106, Barbara Rose compounds the confusion by accusing Gail Levin, in her Whitney catalogue, of “uncritically” reiterating the so-called idée reçue of Orphism’s influence on the development of Synchromism by “according to the Delaunays a place of honor as father and mother figure in the exhibition.” The placement of the Delaunays’ paintings in the exhibition hardly suggests the integral nature of such an influence, as does, instead, the juxtaposition of the small Cézanne Apples. Even more emphatic are the statements in the catalogue which contradict this impression. The introduction to the catalogue indicates the direction of Levin’s thought when, speaking of the relationship of the Synchromists to the Orphists, she states (p. 9), “A similarity of style does not imply direct influence,” a theme that is then further developed and substantiated (pp. 14, 18–19).