Synesthesia has been on my mind a lot lately. The first time I was introduced to the concept, I was reading A Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. The novel is deliciously written, exploring colors, shapes and the theme of art for art’s sake. A particular passage always stuck with me:
One should absorb the colors of life, but one should never remember its details. Details are always vulgar.
And that, in part, is what synesthesia is. Synesthesia is a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory pathway. Synesthetes, those that have synesthesia, will see colors when they hear sound or touch objects.
Several Circles by Wassily Kandinsky, 1926. Image courtesy of WassilyKandinsky.net
Every case of synesthesia is different. Some people see colors while tasting food. Others hear sounds from the smell of fragrances. Some can taste sounds and images. The most commonly reported phenomenon is people hearing and seeing letters and numbers in colors. Each color has a specific color. No synesthete sees the same color for letters.
When thinking about this, I imagine listening to my favorite music and watching a myriad of brilliant, color-saturated shapes and lines performing before my eyes. What a beautiful way to experience life! It is difficult to say how many people have synesthesia. First of all, they experience this blending of the senses since birth. They do not see it as a “condition”, but as a regular way of living. Secondly, while research has been conducted on synesthesia since the 1880s, findings have not been widely distributed. Today, it’s estimated that as many as 1 per every 100 person possesses this magical gift.
This video, An Eyeful of Sound, tries to show you the experience of synesthesia:
There is good news. To a certain degree, we all experience synesthesia. Stoop interference tests illustrate this. These tests use the word green written in a a different color of ink. You are asked to identify the word, and ignore the color – tricky, eh?
The early researchers were Heinrich Kluver (1897-1979) and Georg Anschutz (1886-1953), both of which worked independently. Frustrated by romanticized, poetic, and vague descriptions of what synethetes were seeing, they conduced rigorous studies with the collaboration of synesthetes to peer inside their minds, and produce a classification of the experience. These studies included the synethetes creating artwork. Here are images produced from the studies:
My interest in synesthesia led me to an exhibition catalog for the show Synesthesia: Art and the Mind, a show produced by McMaster Museum of Art in Ontario, Canada. (I highly recommend this catalog!) Much to my delight, the catalog explained synesthesia in crystal clear detail, while divulging that many of my favorite artists and musicians were in fact synethetes. The list includes: Vincent Van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky, Charles Burchfield, Joan Mitchell, and Duke Ellington. Wow, this explains a lot. . .
Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) was an American watercolor painter. Based in Ohio, his main works explored nature and the effects of Industrialism on small towns. His work includes unusual color combinations, rhythmic use of lines and shapes, as well as ordinate objects enveloped in auras of color. These are typical signatures of a synesthetic artist.
Joan Mitchell (1925-1992), also American, was an Abstract Expressionist. Her paintings are expansive, often covering two separate panels. Mitchell was also primarily influenced by landscapes, and drawn to works by Van Gogh and Kandinsky. (Makes me wonder if synethetes are are drawn to each other like magnets.) Her paintings contain scribbles, scratches, and drips of paint that have a sense of movement. Some of the paintings seem like they will drip off of the canvas and disappear. Others look like the hues would blow away with a gust of wind, like crisp autumn leaves.
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was Russian, and is credited as having been the first real abstract artist. His earlier works echo in the vein of synesthesia: bold, unusual color combinations, dashes of color, and soft lines.
As he began to experiment with his work, he claimed to have discovered abstraction by accident: he looked at one of his paintings upside-down. His abstract work has unexpected and unique rhythms, and are mostly named after musical compositions.
Schwabing with the Church of St. Ursula by Kandinsky, 1908.
Composition W by Kandinsky, 1939.
We are lucky to even read a little of Kandinsky’s synesthetic experience. He described a trip back to Moscow below:
The sun melts all of Moscow down to a single spot that, like a mad tuba, starts all of the heart and all of the soul vibrating. But no, this uniformity of red is not the most beautiful hour. It is only the final chord of a symphony that takes every colour to the zenith of life that, like the fortissimo of a great orchestra, is both compelled and allowed by Moscow to ring out. – Kandinsky
Looking at all these synethetic artists, I can’t help but wonder if artist and fashion designer Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) had synesthesia, too. Sonia, along with her husband Robert, developed a color theory called simultaneity – the sensation of movement when contrasting colors are placed side by side. She also referred to her garments from the 1920s as robe poemes, or dress poems. I’ll let you be the judge:
(FYI: Tissu is french for fabric)
For more information on:
- Synesthesia: Art and the Mind exhibition at McMaster University, please visit Canadian Art’s website.
- Sonia Delaunay, please visit the on-line exhibition of Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay. It can also be seen in person at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York until June 5th, 2011. You can also watch this video: