In the mid-1970s Bridget Riley adopted the format of the curved stripe as a way of developing her use of colour in a less rigid and more freeform way. Orphean Elegy 5 is a coloured twist painting that through both its title and its form relates closely to the important series of paintings entitled Songs of Orpheus she made in 1978. In these paintings Riley pushed her regimented use of coloured to its most fluid and extreme, using a colour range and the optical effects of the twisting motif to undermine the autonomy of each individual colour and appear to dissolve it into an overall colour generated by the whole.
Having recognised in her 1960s work that 'the basis of colour is its instability' Riley was seeking, through the instability and flux suggested by the curved structure, to explore this fluid nature of colour in a more complex and even paradoxical way. 'Instead of searching for a firm foundation, I realised that I had one in the very opposite. That was solid ground again, so to speak, and by accepting this paradox I could begin to work with the fleeting, the elusive, with those things which disappear when you actually apply your attention hard and fast.' (Bridget Riley cited in Bridget Riley, Paintings from the 1960s and 70s, exh. cat., Serpentine, London 1999, p. 33)
'In the 1970s' Riley has recalled, 'I was led... to bands of colour stripes in which all the colours, in turn, cross over or twist around the others. I found that the tapering, or as you say 'attenuated', ends of such twisted bands were most sensitive to colour inflections of all sorts and began to use them in curve structures which intensified the effect of the disembodied colours. The rise and fall of these curves had to be precisely calculated for each group of paintings, and so I had to make templates as I needed them... I organised this fluctuating activity by bunching it up in clusters which emphasise one shift or another.' (Bridget Riley 'In conversation with Isabel Carlisle', Bridget Riley, exh. cat., Kendal 1999, p. 10)
Incorporating a sequential pattern of turquoise, blue, orange, pink and green stripes in a rhythmic twist across the canvas Orphean Elegy 5 echoes the colours of Song of Orpheus 5 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts) but to a very different effect. Whereas in that work the orange and pink are dominant, here it is the blue and green stripes that magically appear to dominate the work.