Burchfield and synesthesia

Burchfield's "Midsummer Caprice" (detail), 1945

Burchfield’s Midsummer Caprice (detail), 1945, Burchfield Penney Art Center

In the paintings of Charles Burchfield, the trees vibrate, the air pulses with rhythmic patterns, and birdsong takes on shape and color. Everything is alive, even a dead branch, even a house. At the major exhibit of Burchfield’s work at the Brandywine River Museum, up through November 16, you can see the early and later paintings in which he worked full-out to translate his visionary experience of the natural world.

Burchfield lived from 1893-1967, in Ohio and upstate New York, away from the centers of art-world activity. But he kept up with the currents of modern art. It’s possible that learning about the daring art of the 1913 Armory Show helped him make his own breakthrough work in 1915, when he first began to make connections between his own intense responses to nature and music, and his painted landscapes. In the 1930s he became known for sometimes brooding portrayals of small towns and industrial scenes. Then, in the midst of World War II, he returned to his earlier desire to convey the strange aliveness of nature.

Burchfield's "Early Spring," 1966-67

Burchfield’s Early Spring, 1966-67, Burchfield Penney Art Center

Birds transforming into air currents, the sound of cicadas appearing like jagged leaves around a tree—was there some hallucinogenic stimulation involved here? Very unlikely. Nancy Weekly, who co-curated the Brandywine exhibit, has highlighted the idea that Burchfield had synesthesia—the ability to experience trans-sensory perceptions, such as sound as color or vice versa. It may be that I love his work so much because I have synesthesia too—along with many others in my family, from my father, my sister and brother through nieces and nephews. We have the most common type, seeing numbers and letters as specific colors. Although it’s relatively rare, at least one study has shown that synesthesia is more common among visual artists, and I suspect that may be true of poets, musicians and composers too.

Synesthesia runs strongly through early modern art: Kandinsky wrote about trying to achieve color-sound consonances through painting, and it can be seen as a motivator toward abstraction in his work and others, including artists of the Blue Rider school. Burchfield was aware of all this, yet he didn’t follow the path of pure abstraction. For him, those sensory correspondences were inextricably linked to the blooming, buzzing profusion of the natural world. He persisted in making pictures showing how, for him, everything around us vibrates along many interconnected spectrums—sound, color, energy.

Does any of this strike a chord? If so, what color is it?

 

Charles Burchfield: Exalted Nature

Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, PA – through November 16

 

 

 

About Miriam Seidel

Writer and librettist. Love Nikola Tesla, adventurous fiction, art and music.
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8 Responses to Burchfield and synesthesia

  1. merilynjj says:

    I have color/sound I guess. Close my eyes when I’m listening to music and see colors swirling, spiking, shooting up or down. probably why I always understood why terms like chromatic or coloration are used to describe music. I didn’t know about the numbers/color thing very interesting.

  2. louis greenstein says:

    That is great, Miriam. It got me thinking that synesthesia is sort of like ADD – a condition often seen as a disability that turns out to give a creative edge to those who live with it. Laura Nyro had synesthesia. She once famously told bassist Will Lee to make a certain passage of a song sound like a chair. She once asked studio musicians to make it sound “more purple” which left them baffled until Janis Ian stopped by the studio and “translated.”

    Not sure I can make it to the Brandywine in time to catch Burchfield there, but I’ll keep a (color-blid) eye out for his work. Thanks for this!

    • mirseidel says:

      Fascinating, Louis – I didn’t know that about Laura Nyro! Sound-color synesthesia is apparently more rare than the kind I have, which is associating numbers and letters with colors. Yes, keep an eye out for Burchfield!

  3. Wonderful essay! And I must speak up for those of us who respond deeply to (and express ourselves through) music, art, sounds, movement, dance, poetry — and have no visualized color associations to these experiences. Numbers have always been foreign elements for me — maybe if I’d been gifted with colors for them they would have become more friendly. All truly interesting!

    • mirseidel says:

      Of course you’re right, being a shining member of that group! And I don’t think having synesthesia makes you better at math – at least it didn’t for me…

  4. peterckinney says:

    Nice post Miriam, I will get to the Birchfield show. I have been facinated by his work. and have given thought to how to capture sound , music and other vibrations and invisible things into visiual forms. Peter

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