Kandinsky as Synesthete


Excerpt from – (http://www.gameanim.com/2013/07/30/kandinsky-as-synesthete/#philosophical)

synesthe‘sia (-z-) n. Sensation in one part of body produced by stimulus in another part; production of mental sense-impression of one kind by stimulus of a different 2 sense. synesthe‘tic adj.

Russian psychologist A. R. Luria‘s thirty year patient, S., described his own personal synesthetic world thus, “I recognize a word not only by the image it evokes, but by a whole complex of feelings that image arouses. It‘s hard to express… it ‘s not a matter of vision or hearing but some overall sense I get. Usually I experience a word’s taste and weight, and I don ‘t have to make an efort to remember it – the word seems to recall itself. But it‘s difficult to describe. What I sense is something oily slipping through my fingers or I‘m aware of a slight tickling in my left hand caused by a mass of tiny, light-weight points. When this happens, I simply remember, without having to make the attempt.”

The artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), along with composers such as Scriabin, Messiaen and Schoenberg, was one of the earliest documented people to experience the scientific phenomenon known as synesthesia. By the mid 19th century, synesthesia had intrigued art movements that sought sensory fusion – and the possibility of the union of the senses appeared more and more frequently in the writings of musicians and visual artists, probably most notably Kandinsky. Multi-modal concerts of music and light became popular with many elaborate experiments in the sensory fusion of colour and music carried out by inventors as well as artists due to the required use of specifically-made dedicated instruments (1). While Richard Cytowic, the leading scientific authority on synesthesia, stresses the point that these deliberate contrivances are not indicative of real synesthetic perception, it must be noted that Kandinsky‘s artistic experiments were based on his own involuntary experiences of synesthesia – he was investigating perceptual and emotional mechanisms of real synesthetic experience. To him, synesthesia was a fact, not a deliberate contrivance. In this dissertation I attempt to illustrate the writings and theories of Wassily Kandinsky with regards to his synesthesia, and to show what benefits a greater knowledge of perception can hold for art in general.

Diagnosing Synesthesia

“Synesthesia” is taken from the Greek words syn meaning together and aisthesis meaning perception, an involuntary physical experience of a cross-modal association, whereby the stimulation of one sense reliably causes a perception in one or more different senses. Females and non-right-handed people predominate, with memory in synesthetes being superior to non-synesthetes, while math and spacial navigation suffer. Synesthesia appears to function in the left-hemisphere of the brain with the hippocampus being critical to its experience. There is nothing abnormal about synesthesia or synesthetes except that the condition is statistically rare.

The phenomenon of synesthesia is of particular interest because of what its understanding might tell us about consciousness, the nature of reality, and the relationship between reason and emotion from both a scientific and philosophical standpoint. A synesthete may describe the colour, shape and flavour of someone’s voice, or music whose sound appears visually as shards of glass or jagged, coloured triangles moving in the visual field. The experience is often projected before the individual, rather than appearing as an image in the mind‘s eye. Cytowic estimates the frequency of synesthesia to be at least one in every twenty five thousand, commenting that it is “aphorismic that nature reveals herself by her exceptions.”

General features of the phenomenon indicate a life-long stability between the inter-sensory associations. If the word hammer is red with white speckles, it is always perceived thusly. Synesthesia is also hereditary, with the most famous familial case being that of Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov. When, as a child, he complained to his mother that the coloured letters on his wooden alphabet blocks were “all wrong” she understood the conflict he experienced due to her own synesthesia. Unfortunately, most other synesthetes are surprised to learn that others do not perceive words, tastes and colours etc. as they do, and can be met with ridicule and disbelief, prompting them to keep their experiences private and hidden. However, the synesthetic sensations they experience cannot be suppressed and remain vivid throughout their lives, beyond any willful control.

In the past, science has shunned research on synesthesia as it was deemed too subjective an experience for proper scientific study. How could science possibly scrutinise a phenomenon whose quality must be experienced first-hand? Aside from a minor scientific following, synesthsia research and experimentation was instead championed by exponents of art, music, literature, linguistics, philosophy and theosophy. The creative community was intrigued with the notion that synesthesia seemed to have a direct link to the unconcious.

Kandinsky yearned to push aside analytic explanations and move himself and his audience closer towards the direct experience of synesthesia. Grasping that creativity, like synesthesia, is an experience not an abstract idea, Kandinsky reminds his audience that a mind that incessantly analyzes what is there impedes that experience, “lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and…. stop thinking!”


Kandinsky: Kleine Freuden

Cytowic has arrived at five diagnostic features to define synesthesia and distinguish it from other superficially similar, but wholly different phenomena.

1. Synesthesia is involuntary but must be elicited

Synesthesia is insuppressible. It cannot be conjured up or dismissed at will. It is a passive experience that happens to someone, although circumstances of attention and distraction may make the experience more or less vivid respectively.

2. Synesthesia is projected

Synesthesia is perceived outside the body rather than in the mind ‘s eye, usually close to the face or in the space immediately surrounding the body, rather than at a distance.

3. Synesthetic perceptions are durable, discreet and generic

The associations of an individual synesthete endure for a lifetime. That the perceptions are discreet means that during a matching task, synesthetes will match one stimulus to one perception or a few at most, while non-synesthetes pick diffusely over the available selection. That synesthetic perceptions are generic means that they are never complex scenes. They are “unembellished percepts”; blobs, lines, spirals; smooth or rough textures; agreeable or disagreeable tastes.

4. Synesthesia is memorable

Many synesthetes use their synesthesia as a mnemonic aid, easily remembering the synesthesiae that involuntary accompanies every sensation (2). Memories are stored in preference to the stimulus that triggers the parallel sensation.

5. Synesthesia is emotional and noetic

Synesthetes have an unshakeable conviction that what they perceive is real. The perceptions are accompanied by a “Eureka!” sensation, the sense of the lightbulb turning on that comes with insight. Synesthesia has an ineffable, passive, noetic and transient quality – the same four qualities are inherent in the state of ecstasy. An illuminated transcendence breaks the surface of reality that leaves the synesthete with a “noetic sense of truth”.

Synesthesia depends only on the left-brain hemisphere which fascinatingly displays a number of unexpected scientific anomalies during the synesthetic experience. When Cytowic’s patient Michael Watson experiences synesthesia, his hemispheric blood flow, (which was lower than the average person to begin with), dropped a further 18%. Normally, any physical or mental task increases blood flow by five to ten percent. Even more shockingly, Watson’s cortical metabolism dropped so low during synesthesia that he should have been left blind or paralyzed, yet his thinking and neurological performance were unimpaired.

That two synesthetes with the same sensory pairings do not report identical, or even similar, synesthetic responses has in the past been taken as proof that synesthesia is not “real” – purely the result of an over-active imagination or a hallucinogenic experience. This lack of agreement has even caused disbelief and animosity between synesthetes (3). Early synesthesia researchers were dismayed that a pattem of correspondence between stimuli and response was not obvious (4). However, Cytowic suggests that a similarity was not apparent because they were studying the terminal stage of the conscious perception, rather than some earlier neural process that led to that perception. He talks of perception as a one-way street, travelling from the outside world inwards, a metaphoric conveyor-belt running through stations in a factory, until a perception rolls of the end as the finished product.

Using the analogy of perception as a television screen, “the consensual image we see on the screen when watching television is the terminal stage of the broadcast. Someone able to intercept the transmission anywhere between the studio camera and the TV screen would be like a synesthete, sampling the transmission before it reached the screen finally elaborated. Presumably, their experience would be different from those of us viewing the screen.” We can similarly propose and test the concept of synesthesia as the premature display of a normal cognitive process. This theory implies that we are all essentially synesthetic, and that only a few people are consciously aware of the holistic nature of perception.


Diagram that Cytowic drew up fur his patient Michael Watson to enable him to best illustrate his answers to the taste/shape experiments.

The Properties of Form and Colour

“Everybody knows that yellow, orange and red induce and represent ideas of joy and riches” – Delacroix Excerpt

Kandinsky says that the artist can achieve a purely pictorial composition using the two means at his disposal – colour and form.

He talks of how, upon hearing the word red, we do not imagine a form that is red but an infinite space of redness in the subconscious, just as when we hear the word trumpet we imagine the sound we have learned to think of as trumpet-like, in fact, “one imagines the sound without even taking account of the changes it undergoes, depending upon whether it is heard in the open air or in an enclosed space, alone or with other instruments, whether played by a postilion, a huntsman, a soldier or a virtuoso.” Kandinsky refers to this purely internal, psychological representation of sight and sound as mentally imprecise, yet at the same time precise because the inner sound is left bare, without boundaries or descriptive restrictions. When red has to be painted, the artist has to choose a particular shade of red from the infinite range of possible shades of red and so the red is subjectively characterized. It is also limited by its extension upon the surface of the canvas, with other colours and the physical edges of the canvas objectively creating boundaries for the red. The red becomes a “subjective substance enclosed in an objective shell.” (5).

Kandinsky finds that “the value of many colours is reinforced by certain forms and weakened by others”, with deeper colours emphasised by rounded forms, (e.g. a blue circle), while sharper colours have a stronger sound in sharp forms, (e.g. a yellow triangle). This reinforcement of compatibilities is similar to the conflict or incompatibility that the child Nabokov experienced with his coloured bricks. Kandinsky is quick to point out, though, that incompatibilities should not be regarded as being disharmonious but rather as offering new possibilities. Sometimes form can be expressive when muted, just as jazz musicians know that expression comes from not only knowing when to play, but also knowing when not to play.

An artist does not merely record a material object but strives to give expression to the representation of the object. Any idealization or stylisation when beautifying an organic object only results in the “personal, inner sound becoming muted”, according to Kandinsky. He talks of the differences between abstract and organic objects in a pictorial composition, each with their own distinct sounds. A picture containing both organic and abstract elements will strike a “spiritual chord” as with regards to two different notes either reinforcing or disturbing harmony. This consonance or dissonance in composition affect the overall sound of the picture.

Kandinsky, like “Audiomotor”, (a synesthete who produced identical physical poses for identical sounds a decade apart), points out that the “the same form always produces the same sound under the same conditions”. This is typical of synesthetes, who always experience the same reaction when given the same stimulus. This is not universal, however, as one synesthete will experience a different taste for the word blue from another. However, to one synesthete the taste of blue will always remain the same. Yet Kandinsky observes that the sound of one form changes when combined with other forms.

Kandinsky came to several conclusions with regards to colour that were based not on scientific fact but his own “spiritual”, synesthetic experience. The great divisions of colour were:

  1. Warmth or coldness of a colour.
  2. Lightness or darkness of a colour.

Using this theory, there must be four main sounds for every colour; warm and light, warm and dark, cold and light, cold and dark. Kandinsky finds that a colour’s warmth or coldness can be measured by its inclination towards yellow or blue respectively, with this fact assuming even greater significance when one realizes that yellow tends towards light to such an extent that no very dark yellow can exist, while blue can assume so deep a tone that it verges on black.

Kandinsky created several tables to illustrate his colour theories:

Table 1.

First pair of opposites: I and II of an inner character, as emotional efect.

I. Warm (Yellow) <—–> Cold (Blue) = contrast 1

Two movements:

1. Horizontal. Towards spectator (physical, Yellow) <—–> Away from spectator (spiritual, Blue)

2. Eccentric and Concentric

II. Light (White) <—–> Dark (Black) = contrast 2

Two movements:

1. The movement of resistance. Eternal resistance and Complete lack of resistance yet possibility (Birth, White) <—–> no possibility (Death, Black)

2. Eccentric and concentric, as in the case of yellow and blue, but in petrified form.

Table 2.

Second pair of opposites; III and IV, of a physical character, as complementary colours

III. Red (Movement) <—–> Green = contrast 3

One movement: spiritual resolution of contrast 1

1. Movement within itself = potential mobility

Red = immobility

Eccentric and concentric movement disappear completely when mixed optically,

as with mechanical mixture of white and black = Grey

IV. Orange Violet = contrast 4 arising out of contrast 1

1. effect of active element yellow on red = Orange

2. effect of passive element blue on red = Violet

<—– Orange <—– Yellow <—– Red —–> Blue —–> Violet —–>

in eccentricdirection <—– movement within in itself —–> concentric direction

Table 3.

The pairs of opposites represented as a ring between two poles – the life of the simple colours between birth and death.

(The roman numerals indicate the pairs of opposites)

________________________I. Yellow

____________________/                           \

_______________IV.Orange                  III. Green

II. White                       |                                |                       II. Black

________________III. Red IV                    Violet

____________________\                            /

_________________________I. Blue


Kandinsky – Im Schwarzen Viereck

Kandinsky‘s Philosophical Beliefs

Although Kandinsky never refers directly to the philosopher, many of his own theories on art are implicitly characterized by the writings of the idealist Arthur Schopenhauer. According to Schopenhauer, man’s relation to the world is governed by what he calls the “Will”, a force that determines the way we represent the world to ourselves. The one way that we might free ourselves from these self-imposed boundaries is through art and aesthetic contemplation. Schopenhauer proposed that when we study objects aesthetically, we lose all sense of our normal identity. Rather than concerning ourselves with the functions of objects, we should look to their “purely abstract qualities” – their“harmony” and their “beauty”. Only in this way are we capable of perceiving the world in its pure form, rather than through distorted representation.

Of all the arts, Schopenhauer considered music to be the most competent medium in which to express mystical truth. He explained that music was the only art not to be bound by some kind of function or material limits, as painting is to paint and canvas or architecture to stone. Schopenhauer believed the paintings that accurately represent objects as they are seen by the human eyes were only likely to reinforce man’s normal “Will”-ful manner of viewing the world, rather than elevating him to the higher consciousness of knowledge and contemplation that Kandinsky and his contemporaries attempted to attain. Kandinsky‘s own Blaue Reiter Almanac quoted Schopenhauer’s treatise The World as Will and Representation when he described how a composer “reveals the innermost essence of the world, pronouncing the most profound truths in a language his reason cannot understand, drawing, like a galvanised sleepwalker, conclusions as to things of which, waking, he has no conception.”

Idealist thought provided a model for Kandinsky but it was with Theosophical teaching that he drew the strongest parallel.

theo‘sophy n. Philosophy professing to attain to knowledge of God by spiritual ecstasy, direct intuition, or special individual relations, esp. system of Jakob BOEHME; now usu., doctrines of the Theosophical Society.

Founded in 1875 by the Russian Helena Petrovona Blavatsky, the Theosophical Society was one of the many esoteric spiritual and occult movements that appeared towards the end of the nineteenth century. Many European intellectuals became attracted to Theosophy‘s optimistic output that brought solace to those dissatisfied with society‘s recent leaps in technology and urbanisation. With the advent of industrialisation and recent scientific discoveries such as Einstein‘s Theory of Relativity, many were uncertain about their spiritual identity in this new atomic universe (6). Theosophists believed in a deeper spiritual reality where man could communicate through states transcending his normal consciousness. They also claimed that, to counterbalance the physical and industrial changes in modern society, they were headed towards a new spiritual epoch. Kandinsky, in his book On the Spiritual in Art, quoted Blavatsky‘s claims that by “the twenty-first century, this earth will be a paradise by comparison with what it is now.”

Kandinsky, like the theosophical philosophy, intended to use his art to bring about a greater sense of morality and ethics, to heighten man’s consciousness. “Every man who steeps himself in the spiritual possibilities of his art is a valuable helper in the building of the spiritual pyramid, which will someday reach to heaven”. He believed if the abstract language of his art was successful in its purpose, it would be the appropriate language for the golden age which so many of his contemporaries believed they were headed.

Although never officially a member of the Theosophical Society, Kandinsy did attend the Berlin lectures of the then German president of the theosophical society, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner‘s lectures on colour, along with Kandinsky‘s synesthesia, formed the basis for Kandinsky‘s own colour theories. Of particular interest to Kandinsky was Steiner‘s theories on the way that specific colours could convey a feeling in a specific way so that Kandinsky was finally able to project his own synesthetic responses and reactions, incorporating them into the creative process. On the spirituality of colour, Kandinsky reported, “Blue is the typically heavenly colour, the ultimate feeling it creates is one of rest, supernatural rest. Red, as seen by the mind and not by the eye, produces spiritual harmony. Colour is a power that directly influences the soul, the artist is the hand that touches one key or another to cause vibrations in the soul”. This connection of art and soul reflects Steiner‘s association of spirituality and creativity.

However, the death and destruction of the first world war eventually shattered the ideals shared by the Theosophists as much more material realities were brought to the mind. Theosophy and its related ideas now seemed irrelevant in an age that witnessed the birth of communism and fascism.

Kandinsky‘s Spiritual (Synesthetic) Mind

Schoenberg questions, “If then, parallel octaves and fifths are not bad, why should the student not be allowed to compose them?” Kandinsky is attracted to Schoenberg‘s ideas on breaking away from orthodox thought to create something new, saying, “I do not believe that the teacher is obliged to burden his student with immutable laws”.

The same can be said about Kandinsky‘s composer equivalent, Alexander Scriabin, who even went so far as to distance himself from his fellow musicians‘ practice of colour/tone schemes that form the basis of colour-organs. According to Scriabin, colours were associated with tonality, not with singular notes. This statement is consistent with Cytowic‘s findings on coloured hearing with his patient Victoria, who saw high notes as pink and lower notes as blue –there are no specific colours for specific notes. Scriabin criticized his friend and fellow composer, Rimsky Korsakov, for reporting different cross-modal associations from himself. Whereas to Scriabin the key of F# major appeared violet, to Korsakov it was green. Scriabin attributed this deviation to an accidental (or abstract) association with the colour of grass or foliage due to the frequent use of this key for pastoral music. Korsakov may yet have himself been synesthetic as synesthetic perception has been proven to be non-universal and so is more than likely to differentiate from one person to another.

Scriabin – Prometheus

Scriabin‘s piece Prometheus was written for both the orchestra and the tastiera per luce, a type of colour-organ. As he was strongly opposed to the standard colour/note association of other sensory fusion musicians of his time due to his synesthesia, the tastiera per luce score contained two elementary lines, one supporting the musical lines and one opposing them. The audience were meant to hear consonance and dissonance in the movements of colour and music. This echoes Kandinsky‘s movements of colour with his tables that illustrate the eccentric (towards) and concentric (away) movements in relation to the spectator.

Kandinsky spoke of his discovery of his own synesthesia, or spirituality, while attending a performance of Wagner‘s opera Lohengrin in Moscow; “The violins, the deep tones of the basses, and especially the wind instruments at that time, embodied for me all the power of that pre-nocturnal hour. I saw all my colours in my mind, they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me”. This evocation of deep emotion is essential to produce a vivid synesthetic perception. Scriabin said that he would have a faint feeling of colour when listening to music, but as he grew more emotionally involved in the music, the synesthetic sensations of colour would become stronger, intensifying to give an image of colour. Messiaen, another synesthetic composer, explicitly stated that the colours he experienced were sometimes internal and sometimes external. It was this ebb and flow of emotion that Kandinsky and Scriabin attempted to convey through the consonance and dissonance of their respective works.

Kandinsky refers to colour as stimulating other senses; “There occurs a purely physical effect… The spectator experiences a feeling of satisfaction, of pleasure, like a gourmet who has a tasty morsel in his mouth. Or the eye is titillated, as is one‘s palate by a highly spiced dish. It can also be calmed or cooled again, as one‘s finger can when it touches ice”.Kandinsky relates a reaction to colour to other sensory reactions but also to emotive responses like that of pleasure and satisfaction. He goes on to say that all these physical sensations can only be of short duration. He says the reactions are “superficial” but penetrating deeper can give rise to a whole chain of experiences he describes as“psychic”. Clearly, not having a scientific explanation for his experience, he believed his synesthetic experience to be spiritual.

Kandinsky also talks of how the experience is only superficial when related to familiar objects, with those that we experience for the first time having “a spiritual effect upon us.” ”A child, for whom every object is new, experiences the world in this way: it sees light, is attracted by it, wants to grasp it, burns its finger in the process, and thus learns to fear and respect the flame. And then it learns that light has not only an unfriendly, but also friendly side: banishing darkness and prolonging the day, warming and cooking, delighting the eye. One becomes familiar with light by collecting these experiences and storing away this knowledge in the brain”. What Kandinsky has described here is the building of cross-modal association that enables us to learn about our surroundings. This could relate to Cytowic‘s note that children appear to be more synesthetic than adults, with some people‘s synesthetic response disappearing around puberty. Could it be that the adult mind, as Kandinsky observes, is just getting used to its surroundings, a kind of institutionalisation to common perception?

“The constantly growing awareness of different objects and beings is only possible given a high level of development in the individual. With further development, these objects and beings take on an inner value, eventually an inner sound…. The eye is more strongly attracted by the brighter colours, and still more by the brighter and warmer: vermilion attracts and pleases the eye as does flame, which men always regard covetously. Bright lemon yellow hurts the eye after a short time, as a high note on the trumpet hurts the ear. The eye becomes disturbed, cannot bear it any longer, and seeks depth and response in blue and green”. Kandinsky writes about emotions stirred up by different colours by assuming that in general the soul is closely connected to the body. Therefore, one emotion may provoke another corresponding emotion by means of association. Of course, he was referring to his synesthesia here but his reference to responsive association may give insights into the aforementioned childhood experiences of association.


Kandinsky – Trente

“For example, the colour red may cause a spiritual vibration like flame, since red is the colour of flame. A warm red has a stimulating effect and can increase in intensity until it induces a painful sensation, perhaps also because of its resemblance to flowing blood. This colour can then conjure up the memory of another physical agent, which necessarily exerts a painful effect upon the soul”. By drawing abstract parallels between response and stimuli, Kandinsky is attempting the difficult task of illustrating the nature of synesthesia to a non-synesthetic audience.

He attempts to explain that his sensory associations are not merely analogies or metaphors, saying, “One might assume that, e.g., bright yellow produces a sour effect by analogy with lemons,” then states that this is unfounded by giving the example of a fellow synesthete who was described by his doctor as being “spiritually, unusually highly developed,” who found that a certain sauce had a blue taste, meaning the sauce affected him in the same way as did the colour blue.

Kandinsky likens cross-modal translations of sensory dimensions to a kind of sensory echo or resonance like that found in musical instruments, whereby, “without themselves being touched, vibrate in sympathy with another instrument being played. Such highly sensitive people are like good, much played violins, which vibrate in all their parts and fibres at every touch of the bow”. That Kandinsky refers to synesthetes as highly sensitive gives the impression that he believes the sensory crossover phenomenon to come from some kind of outside, spiritual influence, with the synesthetic brain as receptor.

“Finally, our hearing of colours is so precise that it would perhaps be impossible to find anyone who would try to represent his impression of bright yellow by means of the bottom register of the piano”. This deduction correlates accurately with Cytowic‘s studies of non-synesthetes constantly relating a high tone to a bright light and vice-versa.

Kandinsky makes a very grand proclamation that “the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefidly touching the human soul”. He refers to this basic tenet as “The Principle of Internal Necessity”, but much practical work has already been done on this subject. Mrs. A. Zakharin-Unkovsky, a lower-school teacher from St. Petersburg, Russia, spent many years constructing a special, precise method of“translating the colours of nature into music, of painting the sounds of nature, of seeing sounds in colour and hearing colours musically”, although it is not known if she was herself synesthetic.


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