Carol Steen

Synaesthesia Association

The Hidden World: Art and Synesthesia

Carol Steen, Co-Founder American Synesthesia Association, Inc. New York City

On July 16, 1915, the American watercolorist Charles Burchfield, 1893 – 1967, told another of his secret perceptions to his journal. He wrote ‘It seems at times I should be a composer of sounds, not only of rhythms and colors. Walking under the trees, I felt as if the color made sound’. 

Charles Burchfield was a synesthete. He did not know that he was not alone and that his joined senses were normal and harmless. Consequently, he did not tell his wife or his five children that for him sound had color and shapes, shapes had emotions, and that time formed shapes that existed in space. He told his secrets to his journals and put codes depicting his joined experiences into his paintings.

Synesthesia has been known about for over 300 years.  It is a real perceptual ability in which the stimulation of one sense produces an experience associated with another sense. For example, a person may report seeing brilliantly colored, moving, simple shapes when listening to music, or when seeing letters, numbers, or words. A synesthetic sensation may be caused also by hearing a word, or a voice. Less commonly, synesthesia may be triggered by touch, taste, smell or pain. Scientists have identified over 60 forms of synesthesia and current research suggests that 1 person in 23 may experience one or more forms. Synesthetic experiences are typically simple sensations rather than perceptions of fully realized objects. Synesthesia runs in families and researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Trinity College, UK, and University of California San Diego’s Brain and Cognition Center believe that synesthetes are seven times more likely to pursue a career in the arts, including music, theatre, dance, and any of the visual arts.

Interpretation of an art object:

Synesthesia has a way of appearing in the artworks of those who have it, and commonalities can be found it one knows what to look for.  Thanks to the work of Dr. Heinrich Kluver, c.1920, and his taxonomy of perceptions that he called Form Constants, researchers in the arts have started to study artworks in terms of aesthetics and processes of art that have previously been unknown to them.  They are finding commonalities, and interest in the art world is considerable as evidenced by several recent museum exhibitions that have shown the artworks of artists whom curators now believe to have been synesthetic.  Known synesthetic visual artists are Wassily Kandinsky, Charles Burchfield, David Hockney, Joan Mitchell, Vincent van Gogh. Research is ongoing into numbers other artists thought to be possible synesthetes.

 Weekly, Nancy, Ecstatic light, New York: D C Moore Gallery, 2007

 Weekly, Nancy, Colour and sound: Charles E. Burchfield and the question of synaesthesia In Sensory 

 Crossovers:  Synaesthesia in American Art, ed. Sharyn R. Udall, Albuquerque, NM: The Albuquerque 

 Museum, 2010

 Steen, Carol; Berman, Greta, Synesthesia and the Artistic Process, Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia,

 Oxford University Press: Chapter 34 671–691, 2013

 Steen, Carol. 2001. Visions shared: A firsthand look into synaesthesia and art. Leonardo 34 (3): 203–208.

 Berman, Greta, Carol Steen, Daphne Maurer, and Patricia Albers. 2008. Synesthesia: Art and  

 the Mind.  Hamilton, ON: McMaster Museum of Art.

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