The man who heard his paintbox hiss
12:01AM BST 10 Jun 2006
A new exhibition of Wassily Kandinsky’s work shows how the artist used his synaesthesia – the capacity to see sound and hear colour – to create the world’s first truly abstract paintings. By Ossian Ward
Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky is widely credited with making the world’s first truly abstract paintings, but his artistic ambition went even further. He wanted to evoke sound through sight and create the painterly equivalent of a symphony that would stimulate not just the eyes but the ears as well. A new exhibition at Tate Modern, Kandinsky: Path to Abstraction, shows not only how he removed all recognisable subjects and objects from Western art around 1911, but how he achieved a new pictorial form of music.
Kandinsky is believed to have had synaesthesia, a harmless condition that allows a person to appreciate sounds, colours or words with two or more senses simultaneously. In his case, colours and painted marks triggered particular sounds or musical notes and vice versa. The involuntary ability to hear colour, see music or even taste words results from an accidental cross-wiring in the brain that is found in one in 2,000 people, and in many more women than men.
Synaesthesia is a blend of the Greek words for together (syn) and sensation (aesthesis). The earliest recorded case comes from the Oxford academic and philosopher John Locke in 1690, who was bemused by “a studious blind man” claiming to experience the colour scarlet when he heard the sound of a trumpet.
The idea that music is linked to visual art goes back to ancient Greece, when Plato first talked of tone and harmony in relation to art. The spectrum of colours, like the language of musical notation, has long been arranged in stepped scales, so it is still unclear whether or not Beethoven, who called B minor the black key and D major the orange key, or Schubert, who saw E minor as “a maiden robed in white with a rose-red bow on her chest”, were real synaesthetes.
There is still debate whether Kandinsky was himself a natural synaesthete, or merely experimenting with this confusion of senses in combination with the colour theories of Goethe, Schopenhauer and Rudolf Steiner, in order to further his vision for a new abstract art.
Sceptics have dismissed synaesthesia as nothing more than subjective invention, like a bad case of metaphor affliction – after all, anyone can feel blue, see red, eat a sharp cheese or wear a loud tie. Recently, however, a group of neuroscientists has been able to prove that synaesthetes do indeed “see” sound. A series of brain scans showed that, despite being blindfolded, synaesthetes showed “visual activity” in the brain when listening to sounds. Now all that is left is to find the gene that may be responsible.
Despite the lack of medical proof for Kandinsky’s synaesthesia, the correlation between sound and colour was a lifelong preoccupation for the artist. He recalled hearing a strange hissing noise when mixing colours in his paintbox as a child, and later became an accomplished cello player, which he said represented one of the deepest blues of all instruments. Sean Rainbird, curator of Tate’s forthcoming Kandinsky exhibition, says, “My feeling is that he was quite a natural at it. To have painted the largest work he ever made, Composition VII, in just three days, shows that this language was quite internalised.”
Kandinsky discovered his synaesthesia at a performance of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin in Moscow: “I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.” In 1911, after studying and settling in Germany, he was similarly moved by a Schoenberg concert and finished painting Impression III (Konzert) two days later. The abstract artist and the atonal composer became friends, and Kandinsky even exhibited Schoenberg’s paintings in the first Blue Rider exhibition in Munich in the same year.
If Kandinsky had a favourite colour, it must have been blue: “The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural… The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.” Despite his theories that the universe was in thrall to supernatural vibrations, auras and “thought-forms”, many of which came from arcane, quasi-religious movements such as theosophy, Kandinsky’s belief in the emotional potential of art is still convincing today. Our response to his work should mirror our appreciation of music and should come from within, not from its likenesses to the visible world: “Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.”
Kandinsky achieved pure abstraction by replacing the castles and hilltop towers of his early landscapes with stabs of paint or, as he saw them, musical notes and chords that would visually “sing” together. In this way, his swirling compositions were painted with polyphonic swathes of warm, high-pitched yellow that he might balance with a patch of cold, sonorous blue or a silent, black void. Rainbird describes how the artist used musical vocabulary “to break down the external walls of his own art”.
After 1910, he split his work into three categories: Impressions, Improvisations and Compositions, often adding musical titles to individual pictures such as Fugue, Opposing Chords or Funeral March. He also conceived three synaesthetic plays combining the arts of painting, music, theatre and dance into Wagnerian total works of art or Gesamtkunstwerks, which were designed to unify all the senses.
Kandinsky undoubtedly led the European revival in synaesthesia but there are many other examples of sonic influence in modern art, from Munch’s The Scream and Whistler’s Nocturnes and Harmonies to Ezra Pound’s cantos and T S Eliot’s quartets. Yet Kandinsky’s curious gift of colour-hearing, which he successfully translated onto canvas as “visual music”, to use the term coined by the art critic Roger Fry in 1912, gave the world another way of appreciating art that would be inherited by many more poets, abstract artists and psychedelic rockers throughout the rest of the disharmonic 20th century. Here then are Kandinsky’s guidelines so that you can visit Tate Modern and experience synaesthesia for yourself: “Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and… stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?”
- ‘Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction, 1908-1922’ is at Tate Modern, London SE1 (020 7887 8888), June 22-Oct 1.
Amazing technicolor dreamers
The influential French poet and chronicler of modern life displayed synaesthetic sensibilities in his 1857 sonnet “Correspondances”: “Perfumes, sounds and colours answer each other.” In addition to his frequent writings on Richard Wagner’s music, Baudelaire was intrigued by sensuous experiences, especially of the body within the city. He also experimented with hashish in order to enhance the intermingling of the senses. Baudelaire’s countryman and fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud had synaesthesia, too.
The Russian author famed for his English novel of 1955 Lolita, developed his “freakish gift” of synaesthesia during childhood when he complained to his mother that the colours on his wooden alphabet blocks were “all wrong”. Synaesthesia is now recognised as a genetically inherited trait, and the Nabokov family was full of synaesthetes; his mother, wife and son Dimitri all had the condition. “The confessions of a synaesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings,” wrote Nabokov.
The acclaimed French composer and organist claimed that his complex chords and rhythms came to him in “coloured dreams” in which he saw blue, red and green spirals moving and turning with the sounds. “When I hear music, I see in the mind’s eye colours which move with the music. This is not imagination, nor is it a psychic phenomenon. It is an inward reality.” He composed many synaesthetic works such as Chronochromie-Strophe I (1960), and was also heavily influenced by birdsong.
Although he has never been tested for synaesthesia and perhaps experiences no more sensory crossover than many of today’s multimedia artists, Hockney’s stage sets for performances of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Mozart’s Magic Flute and Erik Satie’s Parade were, he claimed, created simply by listening to the music as colour and shape: “When I listened to the music, the tree just painted itself.” He is also interested in all kinds of optical phenomena in art, from photography to the use of mirrors and lenses by Old Master painters.
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
The Italian artist and author of the inflammatory Futurist Manifesto of 1909 (and the lesser-known Futurist Cookery of 1932) conceived of a tactile dinner party in which guests would wear pyjamas of sponge, cork and sandpaper while eating food without use of their hands. He played a series of “intoning” instruments that whispered, screeched, whistled and crashed at a series of London concerts in 1914 with Luigi Russolo, who advocated his own manifesto on “The Art of Noises”. Marinetti also believed that fingertips, knees and elbows could see.