For Wassily Kandinsky, music and color were inextricably tied to one another. So clear was this relationship that Kandinsky associated each note with an exact hue. He once said, “the sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.”
In fact, it was after having an unusually visual response to a performance of Wagner’s composition Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theatre that he abandoned his law career to study painting at the prestigious Munich Academy of Fine Arts. He later described the life-changing experience: “I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.”
Key painting to look for: Fragment 2 for Composition VII, 1913.
The neurological phenomenon Kandinsky experienced is called synesthesia (or “joined perception,” from the Greek word syn meaning “join” and aisthesis meaning “perception”). It’s a rare but real condition in which one sense, like hearing, concurrently triggers another sense, such as sight. People with synesthesia might smell something when they hear a sound, or see a shape when they eat a certain food. Kandinsky literally saw colors when he heard music, and heard music when he painted.
The artist explored these sensations in unconventional, artistic ways. Conceived for the theatre, Kandinsky created experimental performance-based expressions of synesthesia–The Yellow Sound being the most famous–which utilized original musical scores, lighting, and various media to explore prevalent color theories of the time.
Music played an important role in the development of Kandinsky’s abstract paintings. The famous Viennese composer Arnold Schönberg was one influence. Schönberg abandoned tonal and harmonic conventions in his compositions the same way that Kandinsky rejected the figure or recognizable object in favor of shapes, lines, and discordant colors in his work. He deployed color, line, shape, and texture to create a rhythmic visual experience that evoked an emotional response. Not surprisingly, Kandinsky gave many of his paintings musical titles, such as Composition or Improvisation.
For Kandinsky, color also had the ability to put viewers in touch with their spiritual selves. He believed that yellow could disturb, while blue awakened the highest spiritual aspirations. Just a year before he painted Fragment 2 for Composition VII, Kandinsky wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art. An important statement of Kandinsky’s theories on art’s potential to evoke psychological, physical, and emotional responses, the treatise is considered the first theoretical foundation of abstraction.
Update: Some of the images referred to in this blog post have been removed following the close of Modern Masters at the Denver Art Museum. Please visit the Albright-Knox Art Gallery Collection search page to find the related artworks. This appeared on this post while the exhibition was open:
Wassily Kandinsky, Fragment 2 for Composition VII, 1913, oil paint on canvas, overall: 45 3/8 x 50 1/8 x 3 inches (115.25 x 127.32 x 7.62 cm) Room of Contemporary Art Fund, 1947, RCA1947:1, © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.