What Color is Five? Synesthesia in Art

What Color is Five? Synesthesia in Art

Posted: August 30, 2013

Some people experience the world in a kind of sensory stereo. Letters and numbers may be perceived as colors, or a minor chord is not only heard but also experienced as a bitter taste. This condition is called synesthesia.

“Most synesthetes believe that Charles Burchfield was synesthetic,” said Nancy Weekly, the world’s leading scholar on Burchfield’s work. “There is some evidence to suggest that his daughter, Catherine Parker, also had synesthetic tendencies.” She presented that evidence at the annual meeting of the American Synesthesia Association in Toronto in June 2013.

Weekly is the Burchfield Penney instructor in the museum studies program at SUNY Buffalo State as well as head of collections and the Charles Cary Rumsey Curator for the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Early in her 32-year-career at the Burchfield Penney, Weekly became fascinated with Burchfield’s art. “It’s alive,” she said. “You always see something new.”

In 1993, she wrote Charles E. Burchfield: The Sacred Woods, a book that served as the catalog for a touring exhibition of his work. As she delved into aspects of his work that hadn’t been explored before, she learned about synesthesia. She started to research the phenomenon and its manifestation in Burchfield’s work, and she has been presenting her findings to art historians, neuroscientists, and synesthetes ever since.

“Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation in one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experience in a second sensory or cognitive pathway,” she explained. As a result, a single trigger —naming a day of the week, for example—triggers not only the understanding of “Wednesday” but the color blue, as described by Daniel Tammet in Born on a Blue Day.

Synesthesia can take many forms. Grapheme-color synesthesia is believed to be the most common. Grapheme-color synesthetes perceive numbers and letters as colors: a five may be a blue number, while the number two is green. Composer Oliver Messiaen, whose synesthesia is well-documented, perceived sounds as color, and wrote music that depicted the colors he saw.

“For Burchfield, his journals suggest he saw sounds and smells, and his paintings depict the sounds and smells of the natural world he explored,” said Weekly. “He also depicted emotions as shapes, which he called conventions for abstract thoughts.” Particular shapes depicted brooding, the fear of loneliness, and morbidness, among others. His art, especially the work he created in his later years, is often described as fantastical, but it may simply depict the world as he experienced it.

Weekly’s presentation, “A Secret Link: Signs of Synesthesia in the Art of Charles E. Burchfield and his daughter, Catherine Parker,” introduced as yet unpublished research into Parker’s work. “While some members of the audience were familiar with Burchfield’s work, most of them were not familiar with Parker’s,” said Weekly.

One reason that Weekly speculates about Parker’s experience of synesthesia is that she chose to use Olivier Messiaen’s music to inspire her art. “She said she was inspired by it,” said Weekly, “but it’s possible she also experienced it in ways she depicted in her work. I wanted to present her work to synesthetes and scholars of synesthesia to see if they think it reveals characteristics of synesthesia.” Parker, who was a cellist, often responded to the music of Messiaen, who was known for his spirituality, love of nature, and synesthetic perceptions in which he would simultaneously hear musical chords as specific colors.

Another aspect of synesthesia is that it sometimes has a genetic component, which increases the possibility that Parker shared a form of synesthesia with her father.

The purpose of the American Synesthesia Association is to “provide information to synesthetes and to promote research into the area of synesthesia.” With the advent of the Internet, people who experience synesthesia—about four percent of the general population— can share their experiences with each other and with neuroscientists and scholars. Advances in medical technology, such as MRI, have enabled researchers to see the dual brain activation that reveals the dual perceptions synesthetes experience in response to a single trigger.

While Weekly was the only person presenting a visual artist, music was well-represented at the conference. “One theme that emerged is that art and science are not diametrically opposed,” she said. “Synesthesia is on the cusp of exploring what may, in fact, be a deep connection between the two.”

Pictured: Charles E. Burchfield (1893-1967), Untitled (Camouflage design), 1918; watercolor and graphite on paper mounted on black paper, 10 3/4 x 12 5/8 inches (Mount: 13 1/8 x 15 7/16 inches); Charles E. Burchfield Foundation Archives, Gift of the Charles E. Burchfield Foundation, 2006

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