Some thoughts after viewing a simple little painting – Upward by Wassily Kandinsky

A while ago I had the opportunity to view first-hand some famous paintings when the Guggenheim collection toured Australia. It was a wonderful opportunity to see some artworks that I had only ever been able to see in books, which isn’t the same thing as seeing a picture displayed on a wall. I probably shouldn’t look at paintings or listen to music while knowing too much about the painter or the composer, because when an artistic creation of a synaesthete evokes a synaesthetic response from my mind, I’m then left wondering if this is due to the power of expectation rather than a discovery that I would have made in any circumstance. I already knew the painter Wassily Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstract art, was a synaesthete, and after looking at Kandinsky’s Upward for a while, it started making noises at me. Why shouldn’t a painting that has a type of movement as it’s title evoke a bit of visual movement -> sound synaesthesia? As my eye followed the curved lines of the painting upward and downward in a bumpy, interrupted cycle, the times when the curved line met an abrupt end against a straight line caused a “bonk” or “boink”  type noise.

This movement synaesthesia wasn’t the only thing about this painting that made me wonder about atypical neurological processes. As I looked at this painting I realised that I was seeing examples of types of things that my mind seems to be unusually good at perceiving, or unusually focused upon. A face can be discerned in this painting, if you use your imagination a bit (blue eye, red lip, black lip). Last year I shocked myself by getting some perfect scores in two face recognition tests. After doing some research, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is due to some hyperconnectivity in my brain and it is surely related to my synaesthesia. In this deceptively simple painting I can also see some letters of the alphabet (graphemes), one inverted. I appear to be the carrier of a gene “for” being unusually capable in the areas of reading, writing and languages, all areas of learning that involve letters and alphabets.

There is something else grapheme-related that I find very interesting about in this painting. I have personification synaesthesia, and one of the two letters of the alphabet in this painting is the one that is the most strongly personified in my mind; the letter “E”. It is also the most commonly used letter in the English language. I’m not sure if this is related. I do know that how commonly a letter of the alphabet is used is in the English language does influence another type of synaesthesia – grapheme -> colour synaesthesia. The most commonly used letters of the alphabet tend to be associated with the more basic and primary colours, while the less commonly used colours of the alphabet like “V” or “Z” tend to be linked to secondary and more complex colours like purple or gray. Anyhow, to me the letter “e” (upper and lower case), the most common letter of the alphabet looks like the happiest letter of the alphabet. In my mind it looks like a face with a big smile that is facing toward the right, somewhat like a smiling face in profile. Do synaesthesia researchers know that personified letters and numbers can have a physical orientation as well as having characteristics like gender, age and personality? If they don’t, they should.  In the painting Upward the capital letter “E” is one half of a platform that the face sits on top of, and the face and the “E” both have bits beside them that balance them out, with the face and the “E” facing in opposite directions, giving the picture a kind of balance. Looking at the way the elements in this painting are arranged, I find it very hard to believe that Kandinsky didn’t see a face in the letter “E” the way I do. Did Kandinsky have ordinal linguistic personification?

Another thing that is noticeable in this painting is the play with colours. There are colours varying in saturation and colours blended in graded adjacent segments and similar colours grouped together. Colour was clearly very important in Kandinsky’s work. When I was a child I was fascinated with colours, and I loved to make pictures with the large metal trays of watercolour paints that I was given. I believe a study has found that synaesthetes have an unusual ability to discriminate colours.

I can see a face, a facial expression, some graphemes and a focus on colours in this painting. Is it just a coincidence that faces, graphemes and colour are things that are processed in one part of the brain, the fusiform gyrus? Was there something unusual about Kandinsky’s fusiform gyrus? We already know that he experienced colour-related synaesthesia, so we know something was “up” with Wassily’s brain. Was Kandinsky more creative because of his synaesthesia? A lot of people believe the two traits are connected. Did Wassily Kandinsky have a mind that was unusually focused on, or perceptive of, or mixed up about colours, faces, visual motion and letters (graphemes)? I’m just not motivated enough to wade through his voluminous writings about art theory to find out. I only know that Kandinsky never tired of writing about his synaesthesia and other esoteric matters. I think we would have had a lot in common.

Upward by Wassily Kandinsky 1929

YouTube video that can evoke hearing motion synaesthesia

Wikipedia contributors Fusiform gyrus. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

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