What do Colors Sound Like? (According to Wassily Kandinsky)
An exercise in abstraction, the Russian painter describes the sound of each of the colors...
Can it be said what the colors of red, blue or violet sound like? Only a mind with an extraordinary capacity for abstraction, like that of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), could possibly answer. During his career, as a pioneer of abstract art, Kandinsky developed an important theoretical body of written work. Among the most outstanding texts are Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) and Point and Line to Plane (1926). And amongst his many explorations in the field of painting and of art in general (some of which might even be considered tips for better living) are, of course, important reflections on the composition process, and several works devoted to his own theory of color. It’s a theory, like Goethe’s, linked intimately to both the emotional and the intuitive.
If one were to define the Russian’s artist work in just two words, these might be “sound and movement.” Perhaps this is because of the melodies intuited in so many of his works. In a good number of his paintings, it’s possible (at least to the mind open to a revolutionary crossing of disciplines) to find ourselves confronted with a similarity to musical composition, specially in works made when Kandinsky was part of the Bauhaus and in many works thereafter.
In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky defined the antinomies or oppositions of colors: “As a great circle, or a serpent biting its own tail, (the symbol of eternity and endlessness) these six colors stand before us, while forming the main antitheses of three pairs.” Of a sensibility both profound and visionary, Kandinsky seems endowed with a magical conception of the universe and an undeniable acceptance of a relationship between visible and invisible. The artist defined the sound of each color thus:
Red is a fiery color of an immaterial and restless character. It recalls youthful joy, but in its dark tones it symbolizes manly maturity and resembles the light tones of a violin.
The color has a serious, radiant sensation which emits health and life. Its sound is similar to that of a bell announcing the Angelus, a baritone, or a viola.
This color radiates from the center. It seems that it approaches the spectator, or that it leaves the picture. It’s disturbing and evokes delirium. Its sound is that of a trumpet or a bugle.
Green lacks dynamism, as it evokes calm and passivity. Its sound is like the calm, deep tones of a violin.
This color moves concentrically, like a snail in its shell. It seems that it moves away from the viewer. A pure and immaterial color, its sound resembles that of a flute, a cello, or an organ.
Violet is conceived as a slow, dull color. It has a sick feeling associated with mourning and old age. Recall the sound of the English horn, the bagpipe, or the bassoon.
White represents a world where material color disappears. It gives a feeling of pure joy. It is a silence full of possibilities, a musical pause.
It is the color of purest sadness, so it is dull and immobile. It evokes death, and nothingness after the sun goes down. It is silence, a complete pause after which another world begins.
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