Listening to the Colors in Kandinsky’s Paintings

It’s no coincidence that the current Guggenheim show Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle places a contemporary sound installation nearby to highlight the confluence of the two modalities of sound and sight. Kandinsky was synesthetic. As a painter he heard the colors on his brush and as a musician he saw the colors he played. For Kandinsky deep blue was the sound his cello made. The fusion of color and sound pervades his work, and nowhere it is more evident than in his groundbreaking Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) exhibition. Staged only briefly in Munich in 1911 it would become emblematic of what art historian Robert Hughes memorably called “the shock of the new.”

Vassily Kandinsky, “Yellow – Blue – Red” (1925) (image by cea+ via Wikimedia Commons)

But for all the talk of synesthesia and the trans-sensory experience of music and color in the early years of this century, music was conspicuously absent from both Kandinskythe Guggenheim exhibition in 2009, and the Tate Modern’s 2006 Kandinsky, The Path to Abstraction. Only Independent Curators International demonstrated how current artists manipulate the visual and the aural and meld them into a whole with the viewer’s participation in the 2006 traveling show What Sound Does A Color Make?

It’s worth stepping back for a moment to the early 1900s, when visual artists working in cities from Los Angeles to Moscow began conceiving an art that expressed the energy and complexity of the new century. Inspired by technological innovation, scientific discovery, a fresh perspective on spirituality, and the new science of psychology, they sought to transcend representation and ultimately elevate the viewer to a sublime sensory level, the same heightenedy and visual consciousness that they as synesthetes experienced. These pioneering artists and avant-garde composers were intent on the realm of representation behind leaving. They looked at the model of music as a purely abstract form that could push beyond perceived reality into the limitlessness of space and time. This then was the revered end to which visual art could aspire. Their endeavors came to be known as visual music, a term coined by Bloomsbury art criticizing Roger Fry in 1912 to connote this realm where artists and musicians worked to link the disparate phenomena of sight and sound.

Wassily Kandinsky, “The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter)” (1903) oil on canvas, 20.5 x 21.4 inches, private collection (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The Blue Rider was the first exhibition to twin the concepts of abstract art and abstract music, two non-representational forms that would captivate artists and the art world right through to the 21st century. Blue — the deeper the better — was for Kandinsky the most spiritual color. He worked closely with his friend, the painter Franz Marc, as well as radical composers Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander Scriabin, who sought to express the abstraction and divinity of color in their music. The drive toward this ideal of fusion in the arts or Gesamtkunstwerk was in the air at the time. The composers called their work color experiments; others called it dissonant painting. That term was closer to what Kandinsky, who wrote a treatise on sound and color in the form of aa stage composition, The Yellow Sound, might have had in mind for The Blue Rider arts collective.

Fresh and wild, Kandinsky and Marc’s inviting exhibition design beckoned the spectator to engage more intimately with simple but by no means simplistic art; to spend time imbibing the multi-sensory emanations of works on display, and in so doing, take a path that well could lead to higher consciousness. At the time this Platonic ideal of art was as prevalent as the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk.

Franz Marc, “Yellow Cow (Gelbe Kuh)” (1911) (image by Dr. Alexey Yakovlev via Wikimedia Commons)

Large paintings mixed with small, media mixed with media all merging into what was for 1911 an upending arrangement. The idea behind the deliberate disparities was to express the primitive and therefore spiritual inner state of the artist, to flout the conventions of post-Renaissance Western tradition with its groaning, still life boards. The combinations were startling bedfellows at the time. Photos taken by painter Gabriele Münter show walls draped in dark fabric, an easy chair here and an end table there, giving the impression more of a living room than an art exhibition. The gravely austere atmosphere of the European state art museum at the time stood in stark contrast.

So where are we today? After a pause of a century, the art world appears to be taking baby steps toward reincorporating color music into the art historical canon. Three exhibitions since 2003 and a non-profit organization in Los Angeles, the Center for Visual Music, suggest that a rebirth might be underway. But museum practice is profligate with borrowers who are content to regurgitate history, not with original thinkers like Kandinsky and Marc who were spurred to illustrate disparate connections in uncommon displays. I would remind museum curators and art history scholars that abstract art and abstract music deserve to reappear together in the contemporary art canon. When you’re viewing Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle at the Guggenheim, try to recall the ferment in which the synesthete worked and that his goal was for the spiritual in his art to transform both you and the society you inhabit.

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