Optically spellbinding, Bridget Riley’s Orphean Elegy 7, 1979, is a shimmering fusion of colour, rhythm and form that stems from one of her most important series. Bands of pink, orange, yellow, violet and green undulate in twisting kaleidoscopic motion, creating a hypnotic illusion of three-dimensional movement. Begun in 1978, in conjunction with her Songs of Orpheus, Riley’s Orphean Elegies marked the culmination of her ‘lyrical’ period; the first work in the series featured in Robert Hughes' seminal 1980 documentary The Shock of the New. Between 1974 and 1981, the artist devoted herself almost exclusively to curved structures, producing canvases described by Paul Moorhouse as ‘some of the most serene and emotionally radiant that she has ever painted’ (P. Moorhouse, Bridget Riley, exh. cat., Tate, London, 2003, p. 83). Dispensing with the vertical stripes that dominated her oeuvre during the 1960s, the curve paintings allowed Riley to investigate increasingly complex visual effects. The varied thickness of each strip causes the colours to vibrate with different degrees of intensity, producing a delicate prismatic light that appears to ripple across the entire chromatic spectrum. While she initially deployed three colours against a white or grey ground, the Songs of Orpheus and Orphean Elegies expanded to encompass five colours, the latter series particularly deep in saturation. Their reference to the mythical musician and poet Orpheus captures the synesthetic ambition of Riley’s practice, which frequently invokes the rhythms of language, nature and melody. Seven of the eleven works from the two series are held in institutions, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Arts Council Collection, London, as well as Japan’s Toyama Prefectural Museum of Art and Design, Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts and Iwaki City Art Museum.
Currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Riley first emerged during the 1960s as a key exponent of Op Art. Over six decades, she has probed the retinal and psychological effects of colour, observing the mercurial interaction between tonalities when aligned in different combinations. The curve first appeared in Riley’s practice in the 1961 canvas Kiss, recurring in colour in the 1967 Cataract series. It was not until 1974, however, that Riley began to investigate its potential in earnest, eventually wrapping the colours around one another to create complex patterns of tonality and movement. When juxtaposed, the colours of the Orpheus paintings evoke their missing complementaries, thereby creating a dual system of real and imagined hues. Though Riley’s process is one of careful planning, using studies and mock-ups to calculate her desired effects, she ultimately arrives at her colour combinations through intuitive sensory means. She has explained that the natural movement of the human figure was very much in her mind during the creation of the curve paintings – much more so than the technical intricacies of the colour wheel. In this regard, Orpheus – whose melodies famously had the power to overthrow scientific laws – is an appropriate figurehead for these works. Indeed, Riley’s own understanding of these paintings is shot through with elusive musical metaphors: ‘When played through a series of arabesques the curve is wonderfully fluid, supple and strong’, she writes. ‘It can twist and bend, flow and sway, sometimes with the diagonal, sometimes against, so that the tempo is either accelerated or held back, delayed’ (B. Riley, quoted in R. Kudielka, ‘Supposed to be Abstract’, Parkett, No. 61, 2001, pp. 22-29).
The late 1970s was a significant period for Riley. Her second retrospective, organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain and featuring nearly 100 paintings, opened at the Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, subsequently travelling through America, Australia and Japan. En route to these various destinations, the artist visited a variety of natural and cultural wonders, including the Great Barrier Reef, Ayers Rock and the Borobudur Temple in Java. Riley had long derived inspiration from the rhythms and colours of the world around her, and these sights nourished her visual imagination; a further trip to Egypt during this time would become the catalyst for the so-called ‘Egyptian palette’ that would come to dominate her practice shortly after the present work. At the same time, Riley continued to deepen her engagement with art history, and experienced a number of significant encounters during this period. In 1977, whilst visiting Japan, the Osaka Museum granted her access to the sketchbooks of Ogata Korin: a painter and designer of the Tokugawa period, whose studies of waves would surely have resonated with her curve paintings. Between 1977 and 1978, furthermore, Riley attended two major exhibitions of work by Paul Cézanne and Claude Monet, which had a profound impact on her understanding of both artists. She had long admired their innovations in colour, form and light, and gained powerful new insights from seeing so many of their works together in the flesh. Their approaches to natural phenomena – from Monet’s glistening Nymphéas to Cézanne’s ethereal Mont Sainte-Victoire – are called to mind in the undulating surface of the present work, where order gives way to immaterial sensation.