Discovering New Worlds of Experience with Synesthesia in Art

New Media

January 18, 2017

The age-old creative views on what synesthesia art truly means overlap with major scientific and neurological synesthesia research. Historically referred to a wide variety of artists’ experiments that explore the co-operation of the senses, synesthesia art is best described as the union of the senses, where one sensory experience involuntarily and consistently prompts another. Even though the most common field of research in the visual arts was based on the connection between seeing and hearing[1], there are over 70 different types of synesthesia. From tasting time and smelling a music symphony, to understanding the days of the week through certain shades of color, for the four percent of the world population defined as synaesthetes this is both a gift and, in extreme situations, even a curse. Yet, for some major artists of the past, synesthesia art was a magnificent playground, an arena of experimentation where forces of visual, music, literature, and theater arts all come together.

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Fragment of the Video Installation Collide. Image via

The Brief History of Synesthesia Art

Dating back to the times of the Ancient Greece, many philosophers concerned themselves with the question whether or not color and music were physical qualities that could be quantified. How we perceive color, how we perceive sound and if there is a link between the two, prompted many to investigate. The first experiment that examined the correlation between music and sound occurred in the 16th-century. It was the Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, also famous as the author of magical and surrealist-style portraits, who was the first to carry out the experiment attempting to define how colors accompany various sounds. Consulting a musician at the court of Rudolph II in Prague, the artist placed different colored strips of painted paper on a keyboard instrument. A century later, the famous physicist Isaac Newton, understanding that both color value and musical tones have common frequencies, connected the world of science and art even further.

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Fragments of RGB Color Scale, detail. Image via

Sound and Color in the Visual Arts

In the world of visual art, many artists attempted to understand the connection between sound and color. In the 19th-century, a tradition of musical paintings started to appear and, in return, it influenced symbolist artists. At the beginning of the 20th-century, the period of major shifts and changes in art, one of the many avant-garde groups introduced the German term gesamtkunstwerk to the history of art. The German artist group The Blue Riders carried out numerous synesthetic experiments involving painters, composers, dancers and producers. Helping to shape the ground for their experiments, which focused on the unification of the arts, was the book Concerning the Spiritual in Art written by Wassily Kandinsky.[2] Kandinsky was also a crucial figure in using the ideas of sound as the basis in the production of many of his abstract paintings. Linking line, shapes and color to various musical instruments, many of his images not only carry musical phrases such as composition as their titles, but are the result of artist experiencing a certain melody, note, or composition in a concert hall.

Collide - Synestesia in Art

The Importance of Synesthesia for Art

Many artists understand that even though the two-dimensional art production is restricted to the static frame of the canvas or piece of paper, their images need to catch the eye of the public and force it to move. Because of this, many play with rhythm and movement within their images. The two terms, frequently associated with music, entered the arena of the visual art field thanks to the research of synesthesia in art.[3]

Next to the famous examples of synesthesia art of the past, such as the celebrated animated movie Fantasia by Walt Disney, or the numerous paintings by Kandinsky, Van Gogh, or even Henri Matisse, who linked the intensity of the blue shade used in Blue Nude to the stroke of a gong, the growing world of technology and the digitally based art techniques are offering exciting and original examples of synesthesia in art. Presently, many examples of installation art pieces fuse the world of music, sound and movement. Abandoning form, video installations are known to use motion data from various dance genres and turn it into moving colors and forms which are the dominant factors of the pieces. Such works not only expand the definition of art but also explore the audience’s perception and force the re-examination of both the definition and nature of art and of the world.

Historically, two very different distinction definitions of synesthesia in art were born. The first prompted artists to attempt to evoke synesthetic associations with their work, as it is evident in the early examples of paintings. Presently, and with the help of the scientific research that confirmed the fact that the brain in the four percent of the population for sure perceives the world in a unique way, uses such personal synesthetic perceptions to create works of art and the other stream attempts to evoke synesthetic associations with their work. In the end, regardless of the origin of that main spark which prompts the artist to fuse various sensations, contemporary art production continues to merge technology, science and imagination thanks to the ideas of synesthesia in art.

Editors’ Tip:The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science (Leonardo Book Series)

In this book Van Campen investigates just what the function of synesthesia might be and what it might tell us about our own sensory perceptions. He examines the experiences of individual synesthetes -- from Patrick, who sees music as images and finds the most beautiful ones spring from the music of Prince, to the schoolgirl Sylvia, who is surprised to learn that not everyone sees the alphabet in colors as she does. And he finds suggestions of synesthesia in the work of Scriabin, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Nabokov, Poe, and Baudelaire. What is synesthesia? It is not, van Campen concludes, an audiovisual performance, a literary technique, an artistic trend, or a metaphor. It is, perhaps, our hidden sense -- a way to think visually; a key to our own sensitivity.


  1. Brougher, K.; Mattis, O., Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900, Thames & Hudson, 2005
  2. Rosenstock, B., The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art, Random House, 2005
  3. Cavallaro, D., Synesthesia and the Arts, Random House, 2005

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Wassily Kandinsky - Artwork. Image via

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