When the sensory lens is an artistic prism: the brain, Kandinsky, and multisensory art

Gregory W. Rutecki, MD
Cleveland, Ohio, United States

 Image of Wassily Kandinsky seated before one of his paintings
Wassily Kandinsky seated before one of his paintings

In 1812 an Austrian physician named Georg Sachs published a medical dissertation about his family’s albinism.1,2 Conspicuous by inclusion, Sachs claimed to simultaneously hear and see colored music. His claim of a sensory duality is considered the first explicit mention of what would be later identified as synesthesia (from the Greek syn [together] and aisthisis [perception]). What is synesthesia? It is, ostensibly, a cerebral, cognitive process wherein a single stimulus (such as musical notes) recruits two pathways—eliciting a typical sensory perception and concurrently merging with a disparate sensory experience (such as seeing colors). This duality of senses is said to be internally consistent for a given synesthete, with the same inducer-concurrent pairing(s) persisting over a lifetime.3 As described by Jamie Ward,

Synesthesia is a remarkable way of perceiving…
One attribute of a stimulus may inevitably
lead to the conscious experience of an additional
attribute…the word “Phillip” may taste of
sour oranges, the letter A may be luminous red,
and a C# note on the violin may be a brown fuzzy line.”4

Synesthesia has been attributed to prominent artists—as the examples of Baudelaire and Mozart attest. In 1857, Baudelaire reveled in the interrelatedness of colors, perfumes, and sounds (Correspondences,“Les parfums les couleurs et les sons se reponde).5 Mozart wrote musical notes in red, green, blue, and black for his Horn Concerto #4.6 Since synesthesia may augment visual and auditory messages, artists have suggested that it is a coveted creative synergism or at least a valuable muse.

This author must confess his initial skepticism regarding synesthesia. Is it a verifiable scientific entity or a merely subjective phenomenon? In this regard, there is robust science demonstrating loci responsible for sensory dualisms. In 1990, area V4 (fusiform gyrus) was identified as the site for human color perception. Soon after, it was discovered that V4 is consistently activated in individuals with phoneme-color synesthesia (words inducing color) upon hearing spoken words—even when subjects’ eyes were closed. Since that discovery, a V4 “Pandora’s Box” has been opened by advanced imaging techniques.7 BOLD MRI and PET imaging have documented that linguistic-color synesthesia tracks along occipital-temporal-parietal lobules. The work validated what was previously suspected—the loci for synesthesia can be identified and match subjective descriptions of concurrent sensory perceptions. Along these tracts, synesthetes possess a greater volume of white matter compared to controls.8 Other investigators have probed inducer-word—color-concurrents with high-resolution magneto-encephalography (MEG)—a technique with millisecond time scales and spatial resolution characteristics capable of distinguishing V4 activity from posterior temporal grapheme processing areas.9 MEG has elucidated 100-150 msec. word-color stimulation in synesthetic individuals upon their sight of graphemes or hearing words. MEG has verified communications among relevant brain areas consistent with subjective claims of synesthesia.10 On an “artistic” level, synesthetes have even connected musical pitch to their concurrent sense in contrast to controls.11

Since it appears synesthesia is a veridical cognitive construct, what is its role as an intellectual-emotional bridge between medicine and the arts? First, there are many presumed artist-synesthetes. Rimbaud, E.T.A. Hoffman, Goethe, and Nabokov to name only a few. Unraveling the mysteries of neural networks responsible for their genius may unlock the gifts that led to some of the most compelling artistic creations in Western culture. Furthermore, to study medical humanism presupposes a bridge between medical science and medicine-as-art. From synesthesia’s inception, it has been intimate with both science and art. In the late nineteenth century, Sir Francis Galton and Ernest Bleuler studied it.12 It has also been documented that there were 120 publications addressing synesthesia in the 1890s! 13 But science’s fascination with synesthesia did not occur in a vacuum. Richard Wagner conjoined myriad senses in his operas. Another artist, Wassily Kandinsky, bequeathed a remarkable legacy that continues to resonate with the allure of sensory concurrencies today. Kandinsky’s age was a time when science first began to study the brain. It was also a time when the arts sought a “Total Work” replete with powerful perceptions for all the senses.

Synesthesia and the Gesamtkunstwerk: a grail for both arts & sciences

If there was an era that embraced synesthesia, it was the generation of Wagner, Galton, Bleuler, and Kandinsky. For the arts, it was the era of Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art. It was an attempt to fuse arts (and their myriad sensory messages) into a seamless creation. At the time, Alfred Binet said synesthesia sprang up from a diverse system of expanding roots, prospered by the “daily press, literary and scientific reviews, medical theses, poetry, romance and even… theater” (italics added by the author).14 A visual artist, Kandinsky, was enticed by a potential symphony of multi-sensory art, surfeit with visual and harmonic confluences.

He was born in Moscow on December 4, 1866. Early in life, he was attracted to music. He wrote, “my mother’s elder sister, Elizaveta Tikheeva, exerted a great, ineradicable influence upon my whole development…it is to her I owe my love of music,”15 and later, “the richest lessons are learned from music…(it) has…been the art that uses its resources not to represent natural appearances, but to express the inner life of the artist.”16 He was musically versed from childhood as both a cellist and violinist.17

He confessed two artistic epiphanies (1903). Note that the latter has led to suggestions that Kandinsky was a synesthete himself,

I experienced two events that stamped my
whole life…The Haystack, by Claude Monet
—and a performance of…Lohengrin (1896)
suddenly, for the first time, I saw a picture.
I didn’t recognize it. I found this nonrecognition (sic)
painful and thought the painter had no right
to paint so indistinctly…the picture…
impressed itself ineradicably upon my memory.
Lohengrin…The violins, the deep tones of the basses…
stood before my eyes…Wild lines verging on the
insane formed drawings before my very eyes.18
(italics and boldface added by the author)

Another example of the inseparability of color and music for Kandinsky,

The sun melts all of Moscow down to a single
spot that, like a mad tuba, starts all of the heart
and all of the soul vibrating. But no, this uniformity
of red is not the most beautiful hour. It is only the
final chord of a symphony that takes every color
to the zenith of life…like the fortissima of a great
orchestra is compelled…by Moscow to ring out19

Ironically, Kandinsky came late to the vocation of painting,

Up to my thirtieth year I longed to be a painter…
it appeared to me at the time that art was an
unallowable extravagance for a Russian…
At the age of thirty, the thought overcame me:
now or never…I had every right to be a painter.”20

Kandinsky wrote often to express his artistic philosophy. Without a narrative oeuvre, his synthesis of sensory experiences into art might have been lost. He himself admitted he was “working…on a precise method of translating the colors of nature into music, of painting the sounds of nature, of seeing sounds in color and hearing colors musically.”21 An example of his artistic genius is his tribute to Victor Hoffmann’s and Modest Mussorgsky’s visual and musical creations through a staging of “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

Kandinsky, Mussorgsky, and Hoffman: greater than a sum of their parts

 Image of Kandinsky’s rendering of the Great Gate of Kiev for his Dessau Production (1928)
Fig. 2. Kandinsky’s rendering of the Great Gate of Kiev
for his Dessau Production (1928)

Theaterwissenschaftliche Sammlung der Universität zu Köln, Cologne, Germany

Although Kandinsky’s wife Nina said he sought to create a Gesamtkuntswerk ballet, he did not accomplish that goal.22 He did stage a production of “Pictures at an Exhibition” (April 4, 1928, Dessau Theater) however, combining music, stage movement, lighting, dynamic images, and decoration. Extant examples of this opus have not survived. However, Kandinsky’s notes have. In his words, “I too did not proceed in a programmatic way, but rather used forms that swam before my eyes on listening to the music.”23 Again, a concurrent sensory tapestry stands out in his narrative.

How did this “three-tiered” enterprise transpire? Hartmann, close friend of Mussorgsky, painted first. The music expressed a promenade and eleven pictures. It has been said “that although Hartmann’s pictures are skillful, they are far from extraordinary.”24 We move on from Hartmann’s visual expression to the auditory portion. The music was created by Mussorgsky after Hartmann’s untimely death. His contributions led to a more generous critical evaluation, “The pictures complimented by Mussorgsky’s music however “provide insight into the imaginative and creative processes whereby the visual conceptions of a man of talent may be turned into the tonal conceptions of a man of genius.”25

After Hartmann’s death, these paintings were displayed in a memorial exhibition. Mussorgsky’s grief expressed itself through his piano music. Mussorgsky transcended the visual impact of Hartmann’s brush as he fortified a single sensory dimension of sight with accompanying tones. For example, the music of the Promenades is meant to depict Mussorgsky as he walks from picture to picture. The rhythmic alteration between 5/4 and 6/4 time reflects Mussorgsky’s awkward gait, a consequence of a portly body.26 Another painting, the Catacombs, “symbolize(s) death…the slow, sustained chords that alternate between ff and p give the effect of an echo in the cave.”27 Kandinsky extended their sensory combination by adding his synesthetic tonal “colors.”

Mikhael Rudy attempts to recreate Kandinsky’s Gesamtskuntswerk

A contemporary pianist, Mikhael Rudy, has been fascinated by Mussorgsky and Kandinsky since childhood. He has said,

Kandinsky is one of my favorite painters
and I have played Pictures since my youth.
I started to search for a way to bring both
painting and music together and add a
different perspective to this work. But how
was I to achieve this? All that remain are
17 watercolors and drawings. There is also
a detailed manuscript by Kandinsky…
Through this process, I came up with the
idea of creating a video adaptation…
to achieve the idea of ‘Total Art.’ ”28

Fig. 3. Yellow-Red-Blue by Kandinsky, 1925
Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France

Rudy’s adaptation is available for hearing and viewing.29 It can transport the viewer-listener to Kandinsky’s time. The ensemble—exquisite piano music and visual concurrencies—is based on “geometric shapes, colors, lines, and colored lights, presented in series to the rhythm of the score, in an ensemble that is now considered to be a masterpiece of ‘total art.’”30

Rudy fills the role of a contemporary “interpreter…to work in exactly the same way as (he) would address a piece of music.”31 As he read Kandinsky’s texts, he said, “the words seemed like music,” and when he played piano, he said he “could see the pictures in his mind.”32 (Emphasis added by the author.)

One of Kandinsky’s images is the Great Gate of Kiev. (Fig. 2) For Rudy, “pictorial elements come together in a single painting. One sees the evocation of Russian bells, the towers of the Kremlin, the porch of the great gate of Kiev, figures crowding together in mass, clouds, the moon and the sun. We are reminded of the ‘Ballet Russes,’ Rimsky-Korsakov, and Starvinsky.”33

Although Rudy had to use his intuition, attempting to reproduce Kandinsky’s only attempt at a Gesamtkuntswerk, his effort is to be applauded.

Synesthesia, science and the arts: a coda

Although Kandinsky never admitted he was synesthetic, this author agrees with Ione and Tyler that, “VK is perhaps the best-known synesthete, no doubt because his paintings have a dynamic, musical feel to them and his writings often speak about relationships between music and art.”34 One Kandinsky painting evokes at least a degree of certainty about his synesthesia is Yellow-Red-Blue (1925). It has been said the painting is “evocative of…a person experiencing vivid ‘synesthetic’ imagery”35(See Fig. 3).

Although we cannot be sure that Kandinsky was synesthetic, we can be certain that synesthesia has a history of building bridges between science, medicine, psychology, and the humanities. In Kandinsky’s words, “the realms of those phenomena we term art, without knowing what art is which yesterday were clearly divided from one another, today have fused into one realm, and the boundaries separating it from other human realms are disappearing.”36 The authentic physician transcends the realm of medicine-as-science to occupy the realm of the humanities within medicine in an ineffable and mysterious synthesis. Like synesthesia, the sum is far greater than its individual parts.



  1. Ione A., & Tyler C., Neuroscience, History and the Arts Synesthesia: Is F-Sharp Colored Violet? Journal of the History of The Neurosciences 2004; 13:58-65, page 59.
  2. Jewanski J., Day SA., Ward J. A colorful albino: The first documented case of synesthesia, by Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs in 1812. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 2009; 18: 293-303. (Manuscript provided a limited translation of Sach’s dissertation from the original Latin into English).
  3. Cytowic RE. Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology: A Review of Current Knowledge. Accessed at http://psyche.cs.monash.edu.au/v2/psyche-2-10-cytowic.html.
  4. Ward J. Synesthesia. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2013; 64:49-75, page 50.
  5. Marks L.E., On Colored-Hearing Synesthesia: Cross-Modal Translations of Sensory Dimensions. Psychological Bulletin 1975; 82:303-331, page 327.
  6. Poast M., Color Music: Visual Color Notation for Musical Expression. Leonardo 2000; 33:215-221, page 217.
  7. Mulvenna C.M. Synaesthesia, the Arts and Creativity: A Neurological Connection in Bogousslavsky J., Hennerici M.G. (eds): Neurological Disorders in Famous Artists—Part 2. Front. Neurol. Neurosci. Basel, Karger, 2007, Vol. 22, pp 206-222, pages 212-214.
  8. Rouw R., Scholte HS., Colizoli O. Brain Areas involved in synaesthesia: A Review. Journal of Neuropsychology 2011; 5:214-242.
  9. Neufeld J., Sinke C., Dillo W., et. al. The neural correlates of coloured music: a functional MRI investigation of auditory-visual synaesthesia. Neuropsychologia2012; 50:85-89.
  10. Brang D., Hubbard E.M., Coulson S. et. al. Magnetoencephalography reveals early activation of V4 in grapheme-color synesthesia. NeuroImage 2010; 53:268- 274.
  11. Linkovski O., Akiva-Kabiri L., Gertnre L., et. al. Is it for real? Evaluating authenticity of musical pitch-space synesthesia. Cogn. Process 2012; 13: S247- S251.
  12. Harrison J. & Baron-Cohen S. Synaethesia: reconciling the subjective with the objective. Endeavor 1995; Elsevier Science Limited, page 157.
  13. Van Campien C. Artistic and Psychological Experiments with Synesthesia. Leonardo 1999; 32:9-14, page 11.
  14. Ibid., Mulvenna CM., page 206.
  15. Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art. (ed.) Lindsay K.C. & Vergo P. Da Capo Press, 1994, page 887.
  16. Ibid., page 154.
  17. Ione A. & Tyler C. Neurohistory and the Arts: Was Kandinsky a Synesthete? Journal of the History of the Neurosciences 2003; 12:223-226, page 224.
  18. Ibid., Kandinsky page 363.
  19. Ibid., Kandinsky page 360.
  20. Ibid., Kandinsky, page 343.
  21. Ibid., Kandinsky, page 159.
  22. Ibid., Kandinsky, page 749.
  23. Ibid., Kandinsky, page 750.
  24. Moussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition for the Piano. (ed.) Bricard N. Alfred Publishing Company, U.S.A., 2002, page 9.
  25. Ibid., page 9.
  26. Ibid., page 11.
  27. Ibid., page 14.
  28. Moussorgski, Kandinsky: Pictures at an Exhibition—an animated film devised by Mikhail Rudy. Based on the Performance designed by Wassily Kandinsky in 1928 at the Friedrich-Theater in Dessau. Centre Pompidou at: www.centrepompidou.fr.; Paris, 2010.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid., Ione A., & Tyler C., 2003.
  35. Ibid., Ione A. & Tyler C., 2004, page 62.
  36. Ibid., Kandinsky, page 479.

GREGORY W. RUTECKI, MD, received his medical degree from the University of Illinois, Chicago in 1974. He completed Internal Medicine training at the Ohio State University Medical Center (1978) and his fellowship in Nephrology at the University of Minnesota (1980). After 12 years of private practice in general nephrology, he entered a teaching career at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, and the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama. While at Northwestern, he was the E. Stephen Kurtides Chair of Medical Education. He now practices General Internal Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.