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





8 thoughts on “Burchfield and synesthesia”

  1. 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.

    1. OMG, Mer­i­lyn, yes you do! I’m jeal­ous! Fun­ny isn’t it, how it’s such an inward expe­ri­ence that you usu­al­ly don’t get a chance to talk about it.

  2. 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!

    1. 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!

    1. 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. 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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