Synaesthesia in Art


When I was younger, I associated people with colours. For me, colours were a feeling unto themselves, the intricate layers of emotion that language has not yet welded into a tangible form. As I grew older, this feeling persisted, only I found colours developed a different significance, which I could only discover through maturity. That is not to say my relationship to colour responded to adolescent change, the emotional intensity that hormonal fluctuation necessarily evokes, rather it was a new understanding of life; a lens more experienced, more aware of the complexity of the world. Colours are now related with the patterns of my thought structure, the manner that I view people, which occasionally render my palette inert, for the hue appears almost too basic to represent that feeling attached to the individual. Although it appears peculiar, bemusing, or perhaps farcical, my condition, commonly known as synaesthesia – where separate senses blend together to provide an idiosyncratic emotional experience – has affected hundreds of thousands of people, including many cultural figures, particularly in the arts.

colours were a feeling unto themselves

Art is an inviting medium for those with synaesthesia. The reality of this knot of emotions seems fitting for the dynamism and scope the form can endure, in its endless variety of creative exploration. Wassily Kandinsky experienced synaesthesia in his works, not through colour, but music. Notably, he ruminated ‘the sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or a dark lake with treble’. Blurring the senses into a melodious visual spectacle, adds a whole new dimension to art. Take, for instance, Composition VIII, arguably his most famous work. Those sharp lines hint at a staccato, while the circle’s aura draws you in, as if returning to a chorus or a comforting perfect cadence of finality. More recently, Melissa McCracken’s galactic artworks emerge from music’s stimulating effect on her mind, whereas Daniel Mullen delves into the subtle nuances of the geometrical simplicity of sound.

the unusual events of the mind unfold into sensational wonders

Other artists with synaesthesia seem to have gone undiagnosed. Some postulate that Vincent Van Gogh had synaesthesia, since he reported to see each note of the piano as a different colour and in a letter recounted that ‘some artists have a nervous hand at drawing, which gives their technique something of the sound peculiar to a violin’. Recently, I watched Jim Carrey’s documentary, ‘I Needed Color’, and noticed the incredibly intimate bond between his work and his emotional experience. Many have attributed this to recreational drug use, which it could be, as drug use and synaesthesia are related. Hallucinogens, such as LSD, connect the brain in a similar way, this sensation attributed to receptors usually not associated fusing together to elicit a powerful synthesis of sensual responses. Synaesthesia is less potent, far less euphoric, than the chemically induced buzz from other substances, however, it offers the same window into the synaptic capacities available to us. It is, for synesthetes, a creative slit where the unusual events of the mind unfold into sensational wonders, often irretrievable or unrelated to others.

Artwork’s unmatched ability to translate these discordant sensations into the visual mode is testament to the genius of the canvas’ power. Artists’ paintings publicly display synaesthesia, which, on a wider scale, relates to our perpetual fascination with comprehending the ever-increasing complexity of the human condition. 

Image: ‘Unnamed Improvision II’ by Wassily Kandinsky, f_snarfel via Creative Common.

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