Subway to Synesthesia

Beneath Broadway, the #1 line of New York City’s subway runs up the Upper West Side and deep into the Bronx. The 116 St. station stairway debouches right in front of the entrance to the Miller Theater at Columbia University. The Miller hosts many offbeat classical and world music events. In September, pianist Susan Rothenberg and the Brentanno Quartet, along with soprano Susan Mabuchi, performed works by Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern that are meant to evoke a color-scape as well as a sound one — the conflation of senses often called synesthesia.

Pianist Susan Rothenberg at the Miller Theater, photo by Julieta Cervantes.
Pianist Susan Rothenberg at the Miller Theater, photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Here is the Wikipedia definition:  synesthesia is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway… The word "synesthesia" has been used for 300 years to describe very different things, from poetry and metaphor to deliberately contrived mixed-media applications such as son et lumière shows or diorama. It is crucial to separate artists using synesthesia as an intellectual idea—pseudo-synesthetes such as Georgia O'Keeffe who used such titles as "Music-Pink and Blue"—from those who had the genuine perceptual variety, such as Vassily Kandinsky or Olivier Messiaen.

The Miller Theater concert was performed in conjunction with a major retrospective this fall of Vasily Kandinsky paintings at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC. There are museums in the United States that are closely associated with the work of a few artists: MOMA, with Picasso and Matisse; the Whitney, with Edward Hopper, Robert Henri, Georgia O’Keefe—and above all, the Guggenheim, with the paintings of Kandinsky. This Frank Lloyd Wright designed building not only houses more of Kandinsky’s work than that of any other artist, but its commitment to him is long term and recurrent, presenting a large show of his work about every twenty years. His paintings were highly favored by the founding director, Hilla Reba, whose patron was the great collector Solomon R. Guggenheim. Here is a group photo taken in 1930 at the Bauhaus School in Dessau, Germany, where Kandinsky was teaching:

 Left to right: Irene Guggenheim, Vasily Kandinsky, Hilla Rebay, Solomon R. Guggenheim in Dessau, Germany, 1930.
Left to right: Irene Guggenheim, Vasily Kandinsky, Hilla Rebay, Solomon R. Guggenheim in Dessau, Germany, 1930.

Kandinsky is credited as being the single artist most responsible for carrying painting from a late 19th century slim, hothouse hold on realism, across the threshold and into the chilly mansion of full abstraction. As a leader in this revolution he was an unlikely candidate. Born in Moscow, Kandinsky’s fate seemed to be dictated by his family. He studied law and economics and turned to painting only at the age of 30, after hearing a performance of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, and seeing a painting of haystacks by Monet.

Monet Haystack, Art Institute of Chicago.
Monet Haystack, Art Institute of Chicago.

He often cited these two events as decisive factors when he chose to leave Russia to study painting in Munich, a kind of music/art mash-up. Music began to burrow into the very core of his painting.

In mid January of 1911, Kandinsky heard a concert of Schoenberg’s music in Munich that included the Three Piano Pieces of 1909. The painter fired off a “fan letter” to the composer that initiated a correspondence that lasted until July of 1936, even after Schoenberg had fled Berlin in 1933 and had settled in Los Angeles, where he lived and taught until his death in 1951. Their relationship waxed as they discussed their parallel ideas about synesthesia in music and painting (Schoenberg was an accomplished amateur painter as well) and as they exchanged notes about their separate works for the theater.

All of this, along with many photos and document reproductions, is presented in the book Arnold Schoenberg/Wassily Kandinsky, edited by Jelena Hahl-Koch: Arnold Schoenberg / Wassily Kandinsky: Letters, Pictures and Documents

Here is an excerpt from Kandinsky’s first letter to Schoenberg:  “In your works, you have realized what I...have so greatly longed for in music. The independent progress through their own destinies, the independent life of the individual voices in your compositions, is exactly what I am trying to find in my paintings.” [ Kandinsky predicted that] “today’s dissonance in painting and music is merely the consonance of tomorrow.” He signed the letter, “With feelings of real affinity...”

In a period of slightly more than a decade his work developed from an advanced Russian Primitivism and French Fauvism toward a riot of increasingly more colorful, flat-plane, free-form abstraction, with avant-garde music as a psychic paintbrush. In 1911, he became, along with friends Alexei Jawlensky and Franz Marc, three of the founding members of a group that called themselves The Blue Rider: Der Blaue Reiter link

That same year he published his first book, On the Spiritual in Art. This work lays out his theory of the artist as prophet (from his theosophist beliefs), the influence of music in his painting (his embrace of Schoenberg’s journey into dissonance and atonality as a parallel to his own embrace of abstraction), and his emphasis on an intellectualized sense of synesthesia.

All of these areas are discussed in a detailed Wikipedia entry that brings real order to the often-tangled web of his painterly evolution: Wassily Kandinsky link

Kandinsky reached a kind of summit in abstraction just before WWI but, being an enemy alien residing in Germany, he had to return to Russia during the war. He remained there for the first few years after the Russian Revolution. In 1922, he returned to Germany to teach at the Bauhaus, first in Weimar, then in Dessau. When the Third Reich closed down the Bauhaus in 1933, he was forced to move yet again, this time to Paris, where he lived and worked until his death in 1944.

These are the broad strokes of a life lived so much on the move, the very definition of the peripatetic painter. I have often wondered to what extent this vagabond existence was a factor in the restless movement and energy of his work, even when it settled into a more geometric stability during the Bauhaus years. It’s well worth taking a look at the evolution of his painting style from this perspective.

Kandinsky’s early work, influenced by Russian folkloric elements and the French Fauves, looks like this, surely realist, but already teasing with abstraction in its reduction of definable space and depth:

Here are two paintings from the Blue Rider period, the first, looser, with an area of undefined white canvas, which for him signified openness reaching toward definition, and the second, which he defined as his most complex canvas, its energy and flow racing right up to the canvas’ edges:

 "Painting with White Border (Moscow)", 1913, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
"Painting with White Border (Moscow)", 1913, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
"Composition VII," 1913, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
"Composition VII," 1913, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

The work of the Bauhaus period was more geometric, in sympathy with the Constructivist aesthetic taught there and with that of the young, like-minded Russian artists:

"Composition 8"  1923, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
"Composition 8" 1923, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
"Composition 10" 1939, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
"Composition 10" 1939, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Once in Paris, Kandinsky’s work began to reflect influences from the Surrealists and the organic biomorphism then becoming dominant. This late work, while still colorful, seems to turn more inward, almost as if the brain is reflecting upon itself. These swirling, yet constricted forms, seem to suggest either a journey finished, a goal reached, perhaps even a dead end, the self caught inside itself.

The truth is that Kandinsky painted little the last five years of his life and living almost as a refugee during the Second World War must have taken an emotional toll on him.

The reason I have walked us through this chronology of Kandinsky’s work is two-fold. First, it demonstrates how much the painting evolved over four decades, always reaching out and beyond, never content with settling into a defined “style”, yet somehow always identifiable as his. And second, I think it gives lie to the belief that his work was in decline from the WWI period to the end of his life.

This has long been a fashionable position.  But this current exhibition challenges that view. What so surprised me about seeing the whole span of his artistic life in this one venue is just how logical, even organic, that progression is. It is made more apparent when shown in a space like the Guggenheim. Not only does the signature ascending spiral ramp of the Gugg present the work in a continuous stream rather than in discrete gallery “bits,” but it also is revelatory of what a perfect match exists between the architecture of this museum and the flow and rhythm of Kandinsky’s swirls, jags and colors. So, while many museums may lay claim to being repositories of the major work of certain artists, I can think of no other where there is such a unifying harmony between the created work and its public presentation. Surely, both Frank Lloyd Wright and Hilla Reba were keenly attuned to this unity as the actual design for the museum evolved over more than a decade. If Schoenberg’s music reflects a connection, a synesthesia with this painting, then Wright’s architecture does likewise. Even if you know Kandinsky’s work well, to see it in this location will cause you to re-evaluate it.

At this point Roberta Smith’s NY Times review may help sort out some of the chronological details:

The New York article link

In his New Yorker review Peter Schjeldahl tries to define the experience of looking closely into one of the paintings from the Blue Rider period:

The English art critic David Sylvester noted that the works of Kandinsky’s great period offer “nothing tangible for us to hold on to; it is as if we were in a small boat out in a rocky sea.” The way to enjoy them for as long as you can stand it is to move in close and give yourself over to their waves and waterspouts “as if you had got out of the rocking boat and decided to swim for it.”

I think this aquatic metaphor is more than a literary device. It is, in fact, very much like the experience I had at the Guggenheim. To stand in front of each painting, examining it from outside, then moving on to the next, really is like being in that rocking boat. Here, for the first time ever with Kandinsky I tried to accept each painting as a total sensory experience, to put myself outside the boat, into the water. I found my eyes leading me deeper into the colors, swirls and textures. I can’t say that I experienced any kind of synesthesia but I did begin to understand why Kandinsky had titled so many of his paintings with musical terms: Impressions, Improvisations, and Compositions. According to Kandinsky’s own ranking, the Impressions are works based on real life and they include the early work and the first year of the Blue Rider paintings. On close study it is possible to pick out the reality-based figures that seem nearly lost in the riot of color and movement. It is possible to track the horses and riders in much of this work, a perception that was always lost to me before. Improvisations are more spontaneous and unconscious depictions, often fusing into total abstraction. Compositions are the formal expression of his ideas, the totally controlled realization of many preparatory sketches.

These terms have direct correlatives in the world of classical music. Kandinsky wrote of the primacy of music above all the arts, as it is inherently an abstract art that forces the listener to accept it on its own terms. This condition is what Kandinsky aspired to in his painting, that you accept the painting qua painting, not as a simulacrum of the real world. Since Schoenberg’s music was so crucial to Kandinsky’s theories, it may be insightful to listen to a very short piece by this still challenging composer. Here is Mitsuko Uchida playing the first of the Six Little Piano Pieces, op.19:

While looking for this Schoenberg selection I saw that there were several dozen YouTube videos setting many kinds of music to Kandinsky’s paintings, far more than I had seen while searching for film to illustrate painters for the Roy Andersson essay:

John’s Bailiwick blog entry “The Swedish Comedian—An Oxymoron link

Beyond Kandinsky’s own predilection for Schoenberg’s music, there is something in the dynamics of his painting that seems to lend itself to musical “portraits”. This first video is a straight ahead chronological presentation of his paintings that uses a Schubert cello sonata written almost a century before Schoenberg:

This next video mainly features later geometric and biomorphic paintings, in keeping with the highly structured rhythmic quality of Wim Mertens When a Bird:

This third video, a quick “flipbook” effort, is Kandinsky “lite” in its rapid image turnover and the film trailer-like pop urgency of the music. It is not the feeling I get from the paintings, but I guess synesthesia is a personal brew:

And finally, this “synth” interpretation, which sounds “brown” to me, or maybe “muddy brown.” The music by Solyaris is described by the video artist “scober2003” as Thru the Ozone.

Here is his statement of intent: Kandinsky's art creates spatial equivalence between feeling and vivid color. I have matched the abstract music of Solyaris with the polychromatic structures of what has become best known as Kandinsky's art, to assist in your journey... Thru The Ozone!

Sorry, to me this artist is a bit color blind. But this is exactly what has fascinated me for years about the idea of synesthesia in music. For a concept that wants to find some quasi-scientific platform, it is very elusive. But the exploration is intriguing. There are dozens of YouTube videos where people have animated Kandinsky paintings, composed them from digital elements, even deconstructed them. It’s an endless game.

To end all this musical and painterly foofaraw and as an exit point to this moebius-like exploration, here is an imaginative video by Terri Timely about a different synesthesia sense.  Ah musical food? This perhaps we can more easily digest.



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