Art by numbers…. letters, and colours

Some of us can’t conceive the idea of numbers or letters without a colour associated to it – Arthur Rimbaud himself wrote about the images that, through colours, were evoked by letters in his poem Vowels. But while this is one of the most common forms of synesthesia, the awakening of a sense through another can occur in surprising ways; seeing music, smelling touch, hearing taste… Undoubtedly, such unique merging of sensations have led to the creation of surprising and beautiful artwork.

Take the artist Melissa McCracken, who, experiencing synesthesia herself, paints the music she hears with explosions of colours. As she listens to them, the painter gives bold and bright pink, white and green to Radiohead’s All I Need, burning orange and blue brushstrokes to Pink Floyd’s Time or pastel and soft pink tones to John Lennon’s Julia. Equally, the acclaimed Russian artist and father of abstract art, Wassily Kandinsky, evoked music visually through his geometric compositions. A synesthete himself, he is quoted saying “colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

With experimental art on the rise and abstraction not limiting itself to visual arts but also film or even music, sensations and emotions are of the main subjects art has attempted to represent, interpret and evoke. Texture, hearing, sight, smell or taste occasionally come together to make the audience feel, or to best allow the artist to express the way in which their own sensations relate to one another. Many artists focus on the stimulation of the audience’s multisensory emotions in their artworks. A couple of years ago, for instance, an exhibition at Tate Britain, Tate Sensorium, focused on smell, touch, sound and sight to engage its visitors into an immersive artistic experience; not exclusively, however. Many more galleries, in and outside of London, have been putting on multisensory spaces for the audience to let themselves feel the art in the most mesmerizing manner.

But despite visual art being often the protagonist in synesthetic experience, literature and its poetic devices alone have truly mastered the art of synesthesia. From the “yellow cocktail music” at Gatsby’s parties, where synesthesia is used as a rhetorical figure itself, to the highly impressionistic writing of Italo Calvino or Virginia Woolf that immerse us in worlds of sensations, literature has proven its poetic ability of awakening our senses. Many artists, too, explore how words can work with other disciplines to create unique combinations that express unique feelings – music is, in fact, its most extended example, merging sound and lyrics that best express the message of a song. However, photography or paint are very often combined with poetry by artists that choose not to limit themselves to one discipline – in that way, not one, but many of our senses are appealed to by their art.

To evoke, present, suggest, rather than describe or naturalistically paint and draw is probably one of the key features, controversial at the time, that released art from its academically imposed norms. From impressionism to abstract painting, visual art has increasingly committed itself to raw and true feeling rather than the representation of such. As freedom of sensation has conquered the artists of many other disciplines, expressing truthful emotion has become one of art’s most beautiful achievements.


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July 2021
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