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Nov, 01, 2008
Leonardo On-Line Reviews
Synesthesia: Art and the Mind
written by Amy Ione

The McMaster Museum of Art (in collaboration with the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behavior, McMaster University, and the 7th Annual Meeting of the American Synesthesia Association (ASA).

by Amy Ione
Berkeley CA 94704 US

The extraordinary Synesthesia: Art and the Mind exhibition at the McMaster Museum of Art highlights artists who are known synesthetes (David Hockney, Joan Mitchell, Marcia Smilack, and Carol Steen) and works by artists thought to be synesthetic (including Charles Burchfield, Tom Thomson, Wassily Kandinsky, and Vincent van Gogh). Presented in one room, with each artist’s contributions grouped together, the exhibit both allows a visitor to focus on the unique attributes of each artist and to see the overlapping dynamics among them. Had the exhibition merely provided a rare opportunity to explore the high-quality work synesthetic artists, it would have made a tremendous contribution.

Fortunately, the co-curators, Carol Steen and Greta Berman, went one step further and incorporated the historical research of Heinrich Klüver’s (1897-1979) on “Form Constants” and reproductions of artwork by several early twentieth century synesthetic artists studied by another scientist, Georg Anschütz (1886 -1953). In addition, and much to the credit of all involved, a catalog featuring six scholars and several color reproductions accompanies the exhibition. This book make Synesthesia: Art and the Mind available to those unable to attend and will provide historical documentation for later generations.

Synesthesia is an involuntary joining of senses in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. Older views that this form of perception was either abnormal or metaphoric have been replaced with a growing understanding that, while idiosyncratic, the synesthetic experience is quite real and more pervasive than formerly thought.

Research that has confirmed the reality of synesthesia has also led to a re-evaluation of the symbolic, metaphoric and associative approaches to art that have long aimed at weaving the rich and resonant relationship among the senses together.e.g., an opera or a ballet, etc.). What this means is that synesthetes have a life-long, seemingly automatic ability to combine sensory experiences that accompanies all aspects of their lives. More specifically, we now know that the experiences of genuine, genetic synesthetes are qualitatively different from the type of cross-modal intensification we have when engaged with an approach to art that is intended to stimulate multiple senses (

Research has confirmed these combinations (e.g., color and sound, colors and letters, etc.) and found that they are both involuntary and consistent over time. We also know that about 5% of the population has one of approximately 54 kinds of synesthesia and that creative people are more likely to be synesthetes (or at least to acknowledge their synesthesia).

Since cross-modality has many associations with art historically, the Synesthesia: Art and the Mind exhibition offers a priceless opportunity to think about what artists with synesthesia add to our understanding of art per se, how the brain of an artist with synesthesia differs from that of a non-synesthete (and from the brain of individuals of the general population), and how our individual endowments are harnessed in creative pursuits. While this review can hardly cover the impact of the McMaster show on my thinking, I will attempt to capture its essence in some overly abbreviated thoughts on the exhibition and the themes that accompanied it.

First, I was quite impressed by the display as a symphonic whole. For example, Carol Steen’s Runs off in Front, Gold, 2003, although off to the side of the entrance, was the first piece I noticed upon entering the room. Somehow, its powerful statement immediately brought out the quality of all of the work on display.

One of the curators of this exhibition, Steen has had a major role in bringing synesthetes together, educating the public about the reality of the synesthetic experience, and highlighting how synesthesia can aid an artist in capturing the ineffable. Steen is a visual artist who paints the brilliantly colored images she sees when she listens to music. [Some of it is available at http://www.synesthesia.info/slides/.]

Although her abstract pieces are expressive and essentially indescribable, suffice it to say that there is a freshness, fluidity, and musicality to Steen’s work; she has said that she To oversimplify, the layering and rhythm of the paint had an energy that is reminiscent of aspects of the work of Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko, who were not synesthetes, but are known for the way their paintings often trigger complex sensory and perceptual experiences for the viewer. What really stayed in my mind as I observed Steen’s art, and what I wish I could convey in this review, is how the strength of her work is simply lost in web reproductions and publications.

The placement of Steen’s artwork nicely played off of the abstractions in Joan Mitchell’s paintings on the one side and the more figurative work of the Canadian painter Tom Thompson on the other. The Runs off in Front, GoldBrown Bushes, Late Autumn (1914), a small oil on wood from the National Gallery of Canada collection that has similar colors and energy. A largely self-taught artist who began to paint seriously in his thirties, Thomson’s figurative work contains a tension between abstraction and landscape that also brings to mind Cézanne’s late paintings and watercolors, which often dissolve into color geometries. In terms of synesthesia, there was an uncanny resemblance between the Steen abstractions and the more representational Thomson, who also brought to mind the way van Gogh’s strokes added expressive elements to a figure or scene.

This reference to van Gogh is not an arbitrary one as it is said that van Gogh maddened his music teacher by stubbornly testing his ideas on tone-color correspondences during piano lessons. This remark (and others) has led some to say that van Gogh was a synesthete. To highlight the connection between a van Gogh and synesthesia, a van Gogh from the McMaster collection was included in the show next to the Thomson piece. piece, for example, had an extremely close resonance with Tom Thomson’s

Second, because each artist had several pieces grouped together, except van Gogh who was represented with only one painting, the display permitted the pieces to echo one another and allowed the viewer to easily see the style and personality of each individual artist. I particularly appreciated this arrangement when looking at Marcia Smilack’s five pieces. Smilack, who calls herself a “Reflectionist,” photographs reflections on water as she hears them. The tantalizing results have a painterly quality that is unlike the work of any other artist I know. Writing about one piece, “Kandinsky-ish,” Smilack says:

“I watched the reflection on water until the pink turned to satin against my skin. As I watched the concentric circles dilating as they formed and reformed, I soon felt myself become one with the motion. Free of thought, I felt myself become what I was looking at and clicked the shutter. A few days later, I was in a store looking for an art postcard when I came upon one that startled me and gave me a jolt of excitement, for the painting looked just like my new image (to me).

I can only say that my sensation of recognition was unmistakable and unshakeable and remains so to this day. When I turned it over to find out who had painted the image, I discovered it was Wassily Kandinsky. The painting was “Squares with Concentric Circles.” My only question, then and now, was whether Kandinsky had the same form of synesthesia that I have.”

Smilack’s works were hung next to the three Kandinsky’s in the show and I was drawn to the way the abstractness of his work seems more formally developed than Smilack’s repertoire. Indeed, what I find most appealing about Smilack’s work is her ability to mix abstraction with representation and fluidity with form.

Thinking about her results, (viewable at marciasmilack.com/),I am tempted to say that the photo-paintings are so sensitively seasoned that they just taste right, although I am not a synesthete. What my comment means is that the work has the flavor of a properly prepared gourmet dish comprised of ingredients that one might not be able to identify precisely, but whose combination one will never forget.

Ironically, the painterly quality of Smilack’s photographs brings David Hockney’s photocollages to mind because the “look” of his photographs is painterly more than photographic. The irony here is that three of Hockney’s pieces are also on display at the museum. These pieces are representative of how he created opera sets, using his synesthesic color/sounds to inform his artwork.

Finally, in sitting down to write this review, I found my enthusiasm for the artwork was boundless and yet my “reviewer’s mind” kept returning to some of the critical ideas that accompanied the show’s presentation, Heinrich Klüver’s ideas about Form Constants in particular. At the risk of trying to say too much in a limited space, I will nonetheless offer a few thoughts on the historical ideas that were brought into the show.

Briefly, early in the twentieth century, Klüver, a scientist, systematically studied the effects of mescaline (peyote) on the subjective experiences of its users. His investigations showed that the drug produced hallucinations characterized by bright, highly saturated colors and vivid imagery. In addition, Klüver found that mescaline produced recurring geometric patterns in different users. He called these patterns 'form constants' and categorized four types: lattices (including honeycombs, checkerboards, and triangles), cobwebs, tunnels, and spirals.

This work also pointed to what is now called a “geometry of the mind” and is common to synesthesia, illusions, hallucinations, migraine auras, ordinary perceptions, and can be seen in primitive art. Richard Cytowic, a neuroscientist who studies synesthesia, has said that Klüver showed that a limited number of perceptual frameworks appear to be built into the nervous system and that these are probably part of our genetic endowment.

Klüver’s work with Form Constants was expanded in the 1970s by Jack Cowan and others, who recognized that the kind of experience Klüver studied is not just a trait we can associate with hallucinogenic experiences, but is in fact a general property of brain structure, more specifically the region known as the primary visual cortex or V1. Since many of the recent studies I am acquainted with that look at color hearing seem to use spoken words in testing subjects, and stress relationships between colored hearing and cortical area V4, the introduction of form constants in connection with synesthesia raised several (hard to articulate) questions in my mind. A short review can hardly address my musings.

The case a Jonathan I., the color-blind artist studied by Oliver Sacks and others is among the few reported cases on individuals who have lost their ability to see color but retain their ability to see form and movement. What makes him relevant here is that he was both a painter and a synesthete. Briefly, Jonathan I. lost his ability to see and even imagine colors after a minor car accident. He also lost his color-hearing synesthesia after his accident. Oliver Sacks’ diagnosis was that Jonathan I. had cerebral achromatopsia, a loss of color sensation throughout his entire visual field caused by damage to the cerebral cortex.

Ronald Hoffman’s Visual Intelligence notes that Louis Verrey 1854-1916, a Swiss ophthalmologist, discussed a patient with a similar kind of neurological event in 1888. Verrey’s clinical and postmortem observations of his patient found damage to the most inferior part of the occipital lobe, in the lingual and fusiform gyri, which are located near the primary visual area, V1.

Although no reliable anatomical information is available on Jonathan I., John Harrison has written (2001) that it is assumed Jonathan I., too, suffered damage to the lingual and fusiform gyri of the brain. The larger point here is that when Mr. I. his lost his ability to see color, he also lost his color hearing synesthesia.

When Verrey made his proposal, at the end of the 19th century, his conclusions were hotly contested. Hoffman’s discussion points out that the full implications of Verrey's work became clear in 1973 when the neurologist Semir Zeki discovered the “color center,” the area in the brain of the rhesus monkey that is specialized for seeing colors. When this area is destroyed in the monkey or human brain, neither the monkey nor the human can see colors. Based on this, color vision increasingly was associated with V4.

At the time of Zeki's discovery neurophysiologists were beginning to establish the outlines of a new view of the visual cortex, suggesting that there are specific functional units for seeing form, motion, and colors.[His work has also talked about abstract art activating principally two areas of the visual cortex of the brain (V1 and V4) and suggested that different schools of art have their own neurological basis.]

Further research on synesthetic artists might consider V1 to a greater degree, particularly in light of recent tests that have found that have found if researchers stimulate the lingual and fusiform gyri in human subjects by means of magnetic fields, the subjects report seeing chromatophenes---colored phosphenes in the form of rings and halos, much like some of historical work included in this show.

Since Carol Steen has the kind of synesthesia that evokes a perceptual experience within the mind’s eye (as compared to a projective synesthete who would place the synesthete experience within the world itself), her visual art, while clearly including a visual component, is also a reflection of the images she sees in her mind when she listens to music.These comments, while somewhat free form, bring to mind that the relationship among form constancies, synesthesia, and creativity is a complex one; as are the operations of the brain. I am drawn to ask whether the linking of synesthesia with creative production informs the brain in a way that both harnesses the synesthesia and reaches beyond it.

Perhaps a kind of hypersensitivity inherent in the creative process brings the synesthesia into the process in a way that might integrate it with creativity and general and elevate other forms of visual experience.

This kind of hypersensitivity hypothesis, I would think, could also explain why artists who are not synesthetes, Paul Klee for example, produced works that are sometimes coupled with synesthete artists due to their stylistic components and cross-modal intentions. Klee’s associative process offers a fascinating counterpoint because he deliberately sought to bring a musical quality to his visual art, though more in terms of its formal structure than its experiential roots.

Clearly, there is much to learn.Finally, it is worth mentioning that this show is virtually unique in its focus on synesthesia. Aside from the early twentieth century exhibitions that accompanied the conferences organized by Georg Anschütz (in conjunction with his publications of Farbe-Ton-Forschungen), I am unaware of any shows that have focused on synesthesia per se. Indeed, shows classified as such generally have failed to distinguish synesthetes from non-synesthetes, mixing symbolic, associative, and metaphoric efforts to convey cross-modal experience with work that may have been done by synesthetes. These alternative shows, such as the 2005 Visual Music exhibition, where the idea of synesthesia is used as an audience draw, have failed to distinguish among genetic, associative, symbolic, and metaphoric conceptions of synesthesia.

The curators of the popular Visual Music show, in my view, missed an opportunity to educate the public about what new research in synesthesia has revealed to us. The McMaster effort does not make this mistake.Co-curated by Carol Steen, a synesthetic artist, and Greta Berman, a professor of art history at The Juilliard School and a researcher in this area, and coordinated by Prof. Daphne Maurer, Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behavior at McMaster University and Carol Podedworny, the Director of the McMaster Museum of Art; this is an exceptional show. Unfortunately, the McMaster show will not travel. The catalog, to some degree, allows scholars and the public to continue to savor it after it closes.

Information about the purchasing the catalog is available at:  http://www.mcmaster.ca/museum/exhibitions_publications.htm.