Artist Who Heard Blue
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 recognizable subjects and objects from Western art around 1911, but how he achieved a new pictorial form of music.
Kandinsky is believed to have had synesthesia, 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.
Synesthesia 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 synesthetic.
There is still debate whether Kandinsky was himself a natural synesthetic, 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.