Wassily Kandinsky: Synesthesia & Abstraction

kandinsky synesthesiaLong have I appreciated the obfuscation of reality brought forth in abstract art. As a kid, I was drawn to it. It’s careful, but it’s not too careful. The father of abstraction, Wassily Kandinsky, was a synesthete. He, like few before him and John Burke after him, sought to evoke sound through vision – pitch through color. His abstract paintings are pleasantly intricate and (perhaps literally) resounding. He was a pioneer, a teacher, a cellist, a painter – the quintessential artist. And, again, dear Wassily was a synesthete. Above-left is pictured his Composition VII, painted in Munich, Germany in 1913.

Kandinsky’s Synesthetic Experiences

Born in Moscow, Russia in 1866, Kandinsky grew up a boy fascinated by color. Eventually, he would liken the painting process to that of orchestrating a musical composition. He wrote:

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.

Needless to say, Kandinsky also believed in the spirituality of artwork. It is something that he would write about in length in his 1910 book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. While skeptics have long debated the legitimacy of Kandinsky’s synesthesia (much as the mere existence of synesthesia has been debated), it seems to have played an undeniable, integral role in his life and artwork. He once described his discovery of the phenomenon – something that occurred during an opera performance in Moscow:

I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.

A young Wassily is said to have heard a peculiar hissing sound when mixing different colored paints in his childhood paintbox. From what I can gather, this man was indeed an authentic synesthete. He evidently had quite the imagination; this, however, was not a figment of unreality.

Read more about Kandinsky’s experiences.

The Qualities of a Color

It’s clear that this man saw more in color than the common man or woman. To him, color was more than a quality of an object, more than an adjective. Color had its own meaning, its own depth, its own purpose in our world. His description of his favorite color, blue, included “it calls man towards the infinite” – a spiritual reference, no doubt, but an honest perspective, I believe.

It’s difficult to put yourself in Kandinsky’s frame of mind. It’s neat to think about, though. Let’s give it a try. Think about your favorite color, be it Tomato red, Holly green, Sienna orange, Caribbean blue, etc. Beyond its appearance, or how it appears when manifested physically, what does it mean to you? What does it represent? What is its purpose?

If I get some good responses, I’ll chime in with my thoughts on black, which isn’t as much a color as it is a shade, but it’ll do. Don’t be shy, people. Synesthete or not, I’d love to get some abstract thinking going. Do it for Kandinsky!


Leave your comments below, and I’ll respond promptly. ๐Ÿ™‚ Check out some more of Kandinsky’s artwork here.

23 Comments on “Wassily Kandinsky: Synesthesia & Abstraction”

  • Thank you so very much for this post! It has provided so many answers for me!

    I’m an artist, and I rarely paint without music, because it provides me with the color, the strokes, the way I move with my paint, the composition of what I’m trying to express.

    Every concert I’ve attended and every time I listen to music, I close my eyes, because I see vivid colors, lines, circles, explosions, dancing, transcending with every single sound.

    The most recent concert I attended I had multiple people ask me if I was ok, or if I had any acid for them? At one point after the third time someone asked me for drugs I said frustrated, “I don’t do drugs! The “drugs” are up on stage and they are composing the high and pumping it right into my soul! Just listen!!!”

    I do know that it looks like I dance like a mad, hippie, musical composer, on LSD, because I see these beautiful things just like Kandinsky described. It’s so nice to know that someone else has experienced this and is a fellow artist.

    Thanks for blessing me with this article!


    • by Travis

    Hey PJ,

    Thanks for the comment! Checked out some of your art on Tumblr. Awesome, awesome stuff! Your use of color is marvelous.

  • Thank you so much… I’ll be on this site frequently,
    most definitely.


  • I have to agree with Kandinsky. My color is brown. Not very romanic, but it has been very dear to me for 31 years. When I was 9, (a brown number) in my mind…a lot of really intense medical catastrophes happened in my family. My mind was starting to become self-aware, I was beginning to see myself as an artist, to recognize when letters & numbers were colored correctly. I see myself as the color of my age. So that was a “brown” year for me. I spent a lot of time alone, and I spent a lot of time experiencing the comfort of brown. Like a cave, like a secret spot. Brown is being true to yourself. Brown is being honest at the very deepest level. No layers, no decoration. In one sense you can’t go any lower than brown. But when I am on the right path – I envision myself with a brown color. If I find myself in orange, pink, or yellow colors I know I am far off and will be tiring fast. These are showy and superficial. Brown is my soul. After three decades I have learned to instinctively trust my colors and what they say about the environments I am in and choices I am making. The older I get, the more idealistic I am choosing to live, to follow the brown.

    • by Travis

    Laura, I’m not sure any reply I could conjure up would do your comment justice. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • by emma

    This reminds me of a book called a mango shaped space. It mentions kandinsky a little bit and the main character, mia, who is also a synesthete, has a similar art style. I am a very artistic person and have started to take to abstract because i see extra colors and textures throughought my life. When i listen to music, i see colored lines and splats depending on the music. When i am writing, for example, numbers or individual letters, i see the colors of the numbers and letters. A is red. B is blue. C is yellow and d is green. 8 is idigo and 4 is red. Most words seem to be the color of the first letter with dashes or streaks of the second or last letter. Suprisingly, i am great at math. I am a year above the average 7th grader. Another example is my beloved cat, oreo. He is an orange and white tiger stripe but when i see him or hear his meow, i see an orange cloud with light blue flecks. The texture is soft andd fluffy. I hope you enjoy me sharing this.

    – Emma

    • by Travis

    Thanks for sharing, Emma!

  • Kandinsky was always one of my favorite painter, it started when I wasn’t even aware of having synesthesia myself and that Kandinsky was a synesthete. It all makes sense now to me. I developed my own style of painting, I paint what I see. I like to paint names and inspirational words because I found out that people find themselves in the paintings of their names and that they feel an energy emanating from my paintings. This is so fascinating! Thanks for your post.

  • Hi there,
    I always paint with music in the ear, recently had two solos in two different cities, Pune and Mumbai, with loads of appreciation along with sale,
    I am just recollecting Kandinsky’s lines here, which I loved the most and felt connected, because I am a musician too, painting while listening to my favorite tracks, suddenly beautiful peace of flute, guitar, sarod, or strings deep in the background, is noticed, though you have listened to it 100 times earlier, yet it can happen, I feel like rewinding it and relive the experience with my flute or whichever instrument is available, even if there is no instrument, I can share the rhythm with my two big and small brushes as bass and treble, in short it is the urge that you try to merge in your creative journey, it is kind of rewriting the Trance-Verse….

    • by Elizabeth

    I like to write fiction and sketch people, and I find that if I listen to music at the same time, it can affect what I write or draw. If I listen to classical music, the drawing often ends up elegant, lightly drawn, and “loose”. But when I listen to other music, like the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, my drawing or stories become very dark, heavily sketched, and whatever features I put on the person (I draw exclusively from memory) are very small. Oddly, I can often tell what I was listening to at the time when I look back at the drawings.
    Like Laura a few comments ago, I have an age and color that is very special to me. I will always tell people that my favorite age was 12, even though I can’t remember anything that I did that year anymore. After I read Laura’s comment, I wondered if it was because I saw the number twelve as green, a color that comes up in my drawings whenever I have colored pencils handy, and in every one of my stories. All of my favorite (fictional) characters have green eyes, and I can’t quite explain why.
    Hopefully this is helpful to someone–I am just learning about synesthesia and I’m just glad to know that I’m not crazy. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Hello,
    To explain the relation between music and visual art to my audience, I have developed software that analyses images and generates melodies based on objects found in the image.
    The software is a performance tool/instrument. We always have music at art exhibitions, and the music is made of art works at the exhibition.
    The software is free. Join the orchestra!

  • I’ve done quite a bit of reading on Kandinsky in the course of writing my novel, Saving Kandinsky, and I have no doubt he was genuine in his association of sound and color. What I have a harder time with, though, is his ideas on spirituality of art. I read “On the Spiritual in Art” twice without understanding much either time (maybe a poor translation?). It’s not that I don’t think art speaks to us in a word-less language or that we don’t respond with something other than cognition. But I can’t quite get what Kandinsky means about the “spiritual.”
    As for thoughts on color. Well, here now is what DOES seem to verge on the spiritual. In Wisconsin, where I live most of the time, sometimes the air is clear and the sky is a kind of blue I’ve only seen in Wisconsin — that is, bluer than you thought possible, bluer than your imagination can conceive. On those days, I often do feel a kind of soaring of spirit, as though a part of me wants to seek out the sky, reach out toward it, imbed myself in its blueness. Could that be what Kandinsky felt, too, in Murnau, where he and Mรผnter wandered the moors and the foothills of the Bavarian Alps? Might the sky there be almost Wisconsin blue? (And maybe Wisconsin blue should be a shade, like navy or even azure.)

    • by Annah

    I can’t see the actual colors in front of me when i listen to music but I can see them in my mind and if I had paints around here somewhere I would definately paint them!

  • I love purple, violet really I suppose people would call it although basically any shade not too dark will do and when i think of it, I feel like it would open up and i could jump into it and swim.

    • by AJ

    Annah, that is exactly how it is for me too. I can’t see the colours in front of my face, but rather in my mind. But I could find the right colours if I had them in front of me.

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    • by Ruth

    Your article is misleading. Have you read The Man Who Tasted Shapes on Synethesia? It’s not a matter of anyone – Kandinsky or other people, artists – using music, being inspired by music to create art. The book explains the different synethesia senses. They are outside our “norm”. It’s not a matter of direct correlation. The example you used to show how Kandinsky could be a synethesete is not why or how it is hypothesised he may have been. Thousands of artists use music for creation. That is still within the realm of the “norm” when it comes to the usual well known documented senses. Synethesia is entirely different.
    Haven’t read this book since it was first written. But author clearly explains unusual synethesete senses and also clearly explains what you have informed is synethesia at work is not. You are talking about right hemisphere creativity. Albeit that is simplistic response from me it’s still apt. What you describe is not synethesia. It’s perfectly normal sense experience although of course not everyone has or uses this in daily life or creation. Haven’t even read all the comments here. Artist gave me this link. She and also some commentators here now think they are synethesetes. They aren’t. The senses of synethesetes are very rare. Although I suspect not as rare even as the author thought when he first encountered a synethesete in the 90s. He made sure to explain what you have put up as synethesia is not. The gift, talent, skill, methodology – call
    It what you will – you describe has been accepted as a “norm” for centuries. Can’t be superimposed on top of true synethesia. I’d cut and paste reference if had book
    handy but I don’t. I was asked if I was a synethesete and referred to
    this book. I’m not. No more than people inspired by music to create are. If they read the book they will know that.

    • by Marysa

    Hi! I am doing some research for a videoart about panting the emotions through music and I ended up here. Very inspirational information, I will go deeper in the figure of Kandinsky.

    I didn’t consider myself to be sinesthesic, but very recently I had a very exceptional experience. Lately I am able to see whole paintings while having orgasms. It happened more than once, and they are abstract compositions in white, purple and black.

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    • by Joseph Troncale

    Just saw this today. I have been doing papers on Kandinsky for my MFA for a couple of years. I know that research has been done on Kandinsky’s work attempting to replicate some of the “color/emotion” propositions of his without being able to replicate them, but at the same time, the research was not conducted on synesthetes.
    I still have red as aggressive and passionate, blue as calm and yellow as hopeful. I would love to be able to “see” music as Kandinsky did, but it’s not in my repetoire. I do appreciate his desire to codify abstraction, but the more I study him, the more I see the fruitlessness of the task. I think it is a bit oxymoronic to set rules on things that are spiritual, but we are all human.
    Thanks for posting this.

    • by clara

    My favourite colour’s warm yellow. It’s the colour of H, who is a warm and loving mother ( I have personification synesthesia as well as grapheme-colour) it is also the colour of A chords, Am, and Ab/Abm and is the colour of the sound of a stage piano ( that really rounded feeling). Sometimes when I’m playing paino all alone it all is just so golden, I can’t even describe it, although sometimes what I play is so vividly green, and blue, rolling hills, or chinese tapestry, or climbing ivy on greek gardens, or two french sisters bickering. You know what a weird thing is, I sometimes get synesthesia for different pains- I had this pain in my head last year who was a young turkish student named Elijah, who wore really beige clothing! It was so weird. But that little image just kept coming up-another pain, a more muted version of Elijah was these two Polish sisters who were like light-red-ish, with long flowing hair.
    Anyway, back to yellow. I have a bit of a connection with it also as the walls of me and my twin brothers room as babies was warm yellow, I guess I’ve just grown up with the colour as always having positive connotations?
    But you know, it is the colour of 6, who’s a little brat to his big sister, respectable and well-behaved green five!

    • by clara

    Also, something i had today:
    my dumb-ass synesthete self was drawing a graph in biology at school, and I suddenly realised that all my points on the graoh had different names and personalities loll. In my mind I was going White E, stop being so selfish, she was the matriarch- it was just a goddamn cross on a graph ๐Ÿ˜€ There was also a vomit-coloured one, a girl, who was a bit faraway from the rest, and two little siblings down below, a magenta one and a turqouise one, they were so mischeivous lmao.

  • […] Kandinsky, Wassily. Source and Date Unknown. Travis (2012) Available at: https://www.synesthesiatest.org/blog/wassily-kandinsky-abstraction […]

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