Was It All in the Eye's Ear? Seeing Sound, Hearing Colour: Matthew Sweet Explores the Strange World of Vasily Kandinsky, Father of Abstract Art

Article excerpt

It is time to re-open the file on patient K. It's an interesting case. It involves psychic cultists and bizarre prophecies of Armageddon. It involves the sinking of the Titanic and the birth of modern abstract art. And it involves a strange neurological disorder called synaesthesia, in which your sensory modalities are all shook up. If patient K were alive today, Oliver Sacks would be writing a book about him. The Case of the Mendacious Synaesthete, perhaps. Or The Artist Who Pretended to See Sound in Order to Invent Abstraction. Let's give him his full name - Vasily Kandinsky. He's usually regarded as the father of abstraction, beating Mondrian and Malevich by a couple of years. His vivid, lucent and later geometric compositions have made him the most popular and accessible of all abstract artists. These days, of course, you can measure this by the preponderance of his images on ties, jigsaws, birthday cards and crockery. His work is even up on the wall of the Craggy Island parochial house, just to the left of Father Ted's bedroom door.

Kandinsky was born in Moscow on 4 December 1866, the son of a Siberian tea-planter. He trained as a lawyer before deciding to go to Munich to study art, apparently as a result of seeing a production of Lohengrin. Wagner's radical orchestration had a dramatic effect upon him: "I saw all my colours in my mind's eye," he later recalled. "Wild lines verging on the insane formed drawings before my very eyes." Such passages have added weight to the long-held belief in art- historical circles that Kandinsky was a synaesthete. It's an impression that Kandinsky himself liked to give. His autobiographical writings are full of descriptions that match synaesthetic experiences. "The sun dissolves all of Moscow into a single spot which, like a wild tuba, sets all one's soul vibrating," he wrote in 1913. "But this is only the final chord of a symphony which brings every colour vividly to life, which allows and forces the whole of Moscow to resound like the fortissimo of a great orchestra. Pink, lilac, white, blue, pistachio green. Flame-red houses, each an independent song. The garish green of the grass; the deeper tremolo of the trees; the singing snow with its thousand voices." This psychedelic riff reads like a textbook description of a Russian synaesthete's night on the town. Then again, perhaps he was speaking metaphorically. Or describing some narcotic experience. Or making it all up. On 14 April, the Royal Academy will open a comprehensive exhibition of Kandinsky's work, which - astonishingly - is the first time a major retrospective on the painter has been mounted in this country. And talk of synaesthesia will haunt the gallery, the catalogue and the reviews. So what is it, exactly? Well, a synaesthete reading this article would be receiving impressions of colour from every word, and each word would have its own colour-identity. The word "Kandinsky", for instance, might produce the vivid impression of spinach green. There is no obvious logic at work. Correlations like "fire" with orange and "grass" with green are uncommon, and the word "spinach" is as likely to inspire the sensation of translucent aquamarine as any more conventionally spinachy hue. Though these correspondences vary wildly between individual synaesthetes, each has their own unvarying chromatic grammar - "Kandinsky" will produce the same colour every time. And what is it that they sense? It is hard to be specific, as a vocabulary to describe synaesthetic experiences does not exist. Those with the condition say it is not an obviously visual or mental impression. It is not like the sensation of colour you get when you look at a pillar box in the snow, nor is it like the sensation of colour you get when you shut your eyes and imagine a pillar box in the snow. The science writer Alison Motluk is a synaesthete, but only realised after reading a description of the condition in an article in The Independent in 1994 : "That letters and numbers should have colours and shapes, strengths and weaknesses, and therefore be the subject of affection or disdain, seems completely normal," she explains. …