You might just see Kandinsky’s paintings as coloured lines and shapes on a canvas, but Kandinsky did not, he heard them. Known as the pioneer of abstract art, this Russian-born artist actually saw colour when he heard music, a neurological phenomenon known as “synesthesia”. In fact, he was so moved upon hearing Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at the Bolshoi theatre that Kandinsky decided to leave his career in law to pursue painting.
With his art he explored the connection between colour and sound, giving his paintings musical titles such as “Composition” or “Improvisation”, and creating visual images, or “chords”, which evoked the resonance of sound through line, shape, colour and texture. He went on to write “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, published in 1911, developing a colour theory which not only attributed colour to the qualities of sound but also of temperature, movement and emotions. For Kandinsky, colour went beyond visual perception, it had the spiritual effect of touching the soul.
“Our hearing of colours is so precise … Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.”
-Wassily Kandinsky, “Wassily Kandinsky, The Painter of Sound and Vision”, The Guardian
Kandinsky was not the first to have perceptual experiences involving the combination two or more senses (such as sound and colour). The concept of coloured hearing was first explored by Ancient Greek philosophers who developed the theory of timbre, or tone colour in music. Isaac Newton later expanded on the theory, claiming that colour tones and musical tones share a common frequency. Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs, a German physician, was the first to carry out medical research on synesthesia related to coloured hearing in 1812, followed by Gustav Fechner and Carl Jung.
By the 20th century, many of Kandinsky’s contemporaries had become inspired by the concept, creating art which involved multi-sensory experiences. Specifically a German group of artists called “The Blue Rider”, which Kandinsky was a part of, set out to make “Total Works of Art”, gestalt experiences which combined music, poetry, painting and dance.
“… blurring the edges between music and the other arts had become a widespread obsession. The idea fitted with the spirit of an age when artists and commentators from Russia to America were embracing pseudo-religions, dabbling in pseudo-sciences of dreams and symbols, and gabbling with excitement about the prospects for a new synthetic experience of art where the material distinctions between word, image and sound would melt away into a kind of spiritual… ecstasy that would shake the body and the world. Poems and paintings became music, and music became paintings and poems.”
-Gerard McBurney, “Wassily Kandinsky, The Painter of Sound and Vision”, The Guardian
In fact, synesthesia is not limited to only sound and colour. The most common form is grapheme–color in which people see colours when they look at numbers and letters. There are also other forms like the spatial sequencing of numbers and ordinal linguistic personification when personality or gender is associated with numbers, days of the week and so on. Synesthesia can occur between any number of combinations between two or more senses or cognitive pathways.
While it is technically a rare condition, it is perhaps more prevalent in our use of language than we realise. When we describe things, we often say that they “look like…”, “sound like…”, “feel like…”, “taste like…” and “smell like…” something. This would be a type of metaphor, making an analogy between the sensation and something in the world around us that has a similar quality. And this is, effectively, what we do when we describe the aromas in a glass of wine.
Wine aromas are derived from volatile chemical substances that are released into the air when we swirl the glass. Even if many of these chemicals are also found in the flowers, fruit, spices, and so on that we use to describe the aroma, what we are actually smelling is the chemical. A chemist might say “I detect C10H18O”, but the rest of us would say something more along the lines of “It smells like fresh roses.”
However, using your sense of smell to identify aromas through analogy isn’t exactly a synesthetic experience, or is it? There is a certain amount of mental visualisation that goes into recognising an aroma. Moreover, if we only focus on singular aromas to describe a wine it’s a bit like listening to Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and describing it as “a piece of music with violins, violas and other stringed and wind instruments.”. That doesn’t tell us anything about its bright but gentle sound and heartbreakingly hopeful melody that rises to a triumphant climax full of warmth and regalness before resolving into a sweet quiet.
When we describe music, we often tend to borrow words from the other senses to do it. The sounds we hear can be bright or dark even if it has no colour, light or heavy even if it has no weight, warm or cold even if it has no temperature, sweet or bitter even if it has no taste- not to mention all the emotions and sentiments which are evoked. The use of synesthetic metaphors such as these help us to be more articulate about what we are experiencing.
In the case of describing what we smell, we are at somewhat more of a disadvantage. Regarded as the “muted sense”, linguists have found that there is far less lexical differentiation for our sense of smell than for any of the others. This leaves a gap between what we experience and the words we have at our disposal to express it. If describing music can benefit from the use of synesthetic metaphors, what more reason to use them for describing aromas in wine.
We could describe the individual aromas we smell in the glass, like individual instruments, or we could describe the synthesis of its symphony- it’s metaphoric colour, weight, temperature, taste and sound. If Kandinsky could paint music, than why shouldn’t we at least try to “hear” the melody and timbre of what we smell in a glass of wine?
RESOURCES AND FURTHER READING:
McBurney, Gerard. “Wassily Kandinsky: The painter of sound and vision”. The Guardian, Art, 24 June 2006. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/jun/24/art.art
Miller, Renée B.. “Wassily Kandinsky’s Symphony of Colors”. Denver Art Museum, 19 March 2014. https://www.denverartmuseum.org/en/blog/wassily-kandinskys-symphony-colors
Winter, Bodo. “Sensory Linguistics: Language, Perception and Metaphor”. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2019.