Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky is widely credited with making the world’s first truly abstract paintings, but his artistic ambition went even further. He wanted to evoke sound through sight and create the painterly equivalent of a symphony that would stimulate not just the eyes but the ears as well. A new exhibition at Tate Modern, Kandinsky: Path to Abstraction, shows not only how he removed all recognisable subjects and objects from Western art around 1911, but how he achieved a new pictorial form of music.
Kandinsky is believed to have had synaesthesia, a harmless condition that allows a person to appreciate sounds, colours or words with two or more senses simultaneously. In his case, colours and painted marks triggered particular sounds or musical notes and vice versa. The involuntary ability to hear colour, see music or even taste words results from an accidental cross-wiring in the brain that is found in one in 2,000 people, and in many more women than men.
Synaesthesia is a blend of the Greek words for together (syn) and sensation (aesthesis). The earliest recorded case comes from the Oxford academic and philosopher John Locke in 1690, who was bemused by “a studious blind man” claiming to experience the colour scarlet when he heard the sound of a trumpet.