Hearing color, seeing sound: Synesthesia in art


Everything old is new again. That’s what I wrote in the margins of the catalogue for the exhibition titled Sensory Crossovers: Synesthesia in American Art, on view through May 29 at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense or cognitive pathway produces an involuntary sensation in a second sense. It’s like a short circuit in the brain that, for instance, causes sounds—especially music—to trigger the mental sensation of color or shapes. Imagine cranial fireworks synched with life’s aural soundtrack. There are various estimates as to how common or rare this is, and some claim that it might be more common among artists than the general public. The Russian modernist painter Wassily Kandinsky, who may or may not have experienced it (depending on which authority you believe), described colors as having tactile qualities; orange, for instance, was “prickly.” He also wrote that music produced the colors and shapes he used in his paintings. Of course, Kandinsky was a brilliant theorist who often spoke metaphorically about art, and also associated painting with spirituality, among other things.

A popular trend toward associating music with visual art began in the mid-nineteenth century when multimodal concerts of music and light became popular, particularly those of composer Alexander Scriabin (who most likely was not a synesthete). While researchers swept the phenomenon under the scientific carpet for many decades, early twentieth century modernist painters adopted the intellectualidea of synesthesia as a means of stimulating artistic expression. Germany’s Blaue Reiter group (of which Kandinsky was a member) explored the emotional and perceptual dynamics of color, sound, and other senses. Artists began using musical terms such as “composition” and “tone” to describe art, and some, like Georgia O’Keeffe, employed artistic contrivances to which the term synesthesia have been inaccurately applied. Years ago, it was common practice for classroom teachers to pop an LP on the record player and direct their students to express the music in paint. Eventually the trend died out.

Then in 1989 American neurologist and author Richard Cytowic published a pioneering text,Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses, and suddenly synesthesia was the darling of neuroscience. The art world was quick to pick up on this, resulting in several recent synesthesia-themed exhibitions in major museums. Until now though, American art has remained untapped as a subject for this premise. That’s what Sensory Crossovers: Synesthesia in American Art aims to remedy. The show, which traveled here from the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, is something of a departure for the BPAC, which is devoted to the work of WNY artists. However, there is a local connection in the work of watercolorist and museum namesake Charles Burchfield, who is included in the exhibition. Nancy Weekly, head of Collections at BPAC, notes that while only a few of his works are included in the original show (and he is the only WNY painter in it), she has added items from the Center’s collection and borrowed two from the Albright-Knox.


Left: William Meyerowitz’s The Overture (c. late 1920-mid 1930s). Right: Arthur Dove’s Fire in the Sauerkraut Factory (1938-41).

The exhibition features paintings from a wide range of art luminaries and lesser known artists, including O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, Man Ray, Agnes Pelton, Adolph Gottlieb, Clyde Connell, Jackson Pollock, and Joseph Stella. The question viewers must address is whether the artists included are truly synesthetic or working within an abstract construct, attempting for example to create graphic patterns that ostensibly portray musical compositions. Weekly concedes that some of the artworks included are “visual representations of music by artists who were not necessarily synesthetic, but guest curator Sharyn Udall has conducted research for years to find examples of artists who may plausibly have been synesthetic.”

It was perhaps inevitable that the work of Burchfield would be included. The painter’s use of graphic symbols, the energy-laced appearance of many of his landscapes, and his visual depictions of sounds all imply synesthetic associations. Burchfield’s The Moth and the Thunderclap, for instance, virtually crackles with pictographic energy. It’s such a vividly powerful depiction of the sound and atmospheric feel of a lightening discharge that it almost makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. But was Burchfield synesthetic? Weekly is ambivalent. “I’ve been investigating this subject for nearly twenty years, and I have been corresponding with Sharyn Udall about this exhibition for about five years. From the start she felt Burchfield was essential for the exhibition. Obviously we can’t prove that Burchfield or other deceased artists had synesthesia since they’re not around to interview,” says Weekly, “We can only make deductions based on what they have written and painted.”

Theresal Bernstein's Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong (1927).
Theresal Bernstein’s Lil Hardin and Louis Armstrong (1927).

Weekly concedes that there are questionable precedents to synesthesia. “In doing research I read about the auras that are described and illustrated in Thought Forms [1901] by the theosophists Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater, and I think those were contrived.” But Weekly sites evidence that confirms the physiological existence of synesthesia derived through neurological testing that measures areas of the brain stimulated during sensory crossovers. She talks about a 2008 conference and workshop she attended in Hamilton, Ontario, that provided a watershed in her thinking. The workshop included presentations by neurologists, artists, synesthetes, art historians, and curators. “At the end of my presentation, members of the audience were convinced that Burchfield was synesthetic.”

Unconvinced is Burchfield’s daughter, Catherine Parker, an artist herself. Parker states unequivocally, “My dad did not have synesthesia. He did, when a young painter, invent a system of using color to express certain things, mostly nature related. And, as you may know, he also invented a series of graphic symbols to express certain emotions. So it was an invented system rather than something he experienced naturally.” Whether individual artists in the exhibition had synesthesia, consciously adopted the metaphoric concept of synesthesia, or have had one or the other erroneously attributed to them is open for debate. And it’s a spirited debate, in view of the vibrant colors, edgy shapes, and energized lines on view.




Bruce Adams is an artist, retired educator, writer, former president of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, skeptic, gardener, former magician, husband, and father.