Listen to the colors in Kandinsky’s paintings


It is no coincidence that the current Guggenheim show Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle places a contemporary sound installation nearby to emphasize 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 was playing. For Kandinsky, deep blue was the sound his cello produced. The fusion of color and sound permeates his work, and nowhere is it more evident than in his groundbreaking work. Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Presented 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 cea+ via Wikimedia Commons)

But despite 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 in 2006 Kandinsky, The Path to Abstraction. Only Independent Curators International have demonstrated how artists today manipulate the visual and the aural and merge them into one with viewer participation in the 2006 traveling exhibition 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 crafting art that expressed the energy and complexity of the new century. Inspired by technological innovation, scientific discovery, a new 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 auditory and visual awareness. heightened they experienced as synesthetes. These pioneering artists and avant-garde composers intend to step out of the realm of performance. They viewed the model of music as a purely abstract form that could push beyond perceived reality into the limitlessness of space and time. It was then the revered end to which visual art could aspire. Their efforts became known as visual music, a term coined by Bloomsbury art critic Roger Fry in 1912 to refer to that area where artists and musicians worked to connect the disparate phenomena of sight and sound.

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

The Blue Rider was the first exhibition to pair the concepts of abstract art and abstract music, two non-figurative forms that will captivate artists and the art world well into 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 push towards this ideal of fusion in the arts or Gesamtkunstwerk was in the air at the time. Composers called their work color experiments; others called it dissonant painting. This term was closer to what Kandinsky, who wrote a treatise on sound and color in the form of a scenic composition, The yellow sound, could have had in mind for The Blue Rider artistic collective.

Fresh and wild, the inviting design of Kandinsky and Marc’s exhibition invited the viewer to engage more intimately with art that was simple but by no means simplistic; spending time soaking in the multi-sensory emanations of the works on display, and in doing so, taking a path that may well lead to higher consciousness. At the time, this Platonic ideal of art was as widespread 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 overwhelming arrangement. The idea behind the deliberate disparities was to express the artist’s primitive and therefore spiritual inner state, to flout the conventions of post-Renaissance Western tradition with his groaning still life plates. Coveralls were surprising bedfellows back then. Photos taken by painter Gabriele Münter show walls draped in dark fabric, an armchair here and a coffee table there, giving the impression of a living room more than an art exhibition. The gravely austere atmosphere of the then European State Art Museum was a stark contrast.

So where are we today? After a century-long hiatus, the art world seems to be taking small steps toward reincorporating color music into the historical canon of art. Three exhibitions since 2003 and a non-profit association in Los Angeles, the visual music center, suggest that a renaissance may be underway. But museum practice is lavish with borrowers who merely regurgitate history, not with original thinkers like Kandinsky and Marc who were enticed to illustrate disparate connections in uncommon exhibits. I would remind museum curators and art historians that abstract art and abstract music deserve to reappear together in the canon of contemporary art. When you look Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle at the Guggenheim, try to remember the effervescence in which the synesthete worked and that his goal was that the spiritual in his art transform both you and the society you inhabit.


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