Listening to a Painting: The Artist as Synesthesiac
…and the sunset tasted of august peaches.
The chiaroscuro of Caravaggio Smells Like Teen Spirit. Indigo impasto can sound like bare feet skipping through dew-bedappled clover at Dusk. La Belle Époque salon music plays endlessly on the gramophone in Magritte’s, The Menaced Assassin, while nothing continues to happen, since everything is latent. Just as a work of fiction doesn’t necessarily have a traditional story arc, so a painting or song doesn’t necessarily tell a clear tale. There could be clues to the hidden meaning, but the best mysteries are the unsolvable ones, or the ones with as many meanings as there are minds to perceive them. The paint on a canvas will never sing on its own, but neither will a singer, unless she’s inclined to do so. A sunset can taste like ripe peaches, but peaches will never enchant the entirety of the firmament. Whether or not salon music was playing on a gramophone when Magritte painted The Menaced Assassin is beside the point. Through those philosophical brushstrokes, the music was painted into eternity.
Hie thee hither that I may pour my spirits in thine ear and chastise with the valor of my tongue…
— Lady Macbeth
Beyond the musicality of his language, Shakespeare imbued his characters with attributes that entangled sensory organs. Speeches become tonics and hands can turn the green sea red. Songs make the gillyvors dance and the violets spring. Van Gogh painted light into his Haystacks while Rembrandt bottled up the tempest in his depiction of The Storm on the Sea of Galilee. To look at these paintings brings the sunlight into the fluorescent room, makes the marble floor of the museum turn to the oak planks of a ship, creaking, groaning, as the brine finds the palette. Every art form comes at a cost, since a particular mode of representation diminishes others. But there are ways for a painter to create sound, or a dancer to dance a poem in rhyming couplets. Sensations that seem to be confined to waves and liquids can be willed into one another through the kind of magic no amount of technique or talent can conjure.
Let the mystery writ upon the jaguars die with me.
— Jorge Luis Borges
When sight fails us, our ears might become more receptive, to a point where sound has texture and the spaces between begin to speak. A feverous mind is often visited by kaleidoscopic hallucinations, haunted by electric faces in rouge darknesses. When the painting sings, the witness has no choice but to listen. A mouthwatering sunset is enjoyed alone, even on a crowded street. Just as Magritte’s painting are everything and nothing — since they point to a destiny in a multiverse of his own creation — so the synesthesia that comes with certain arts is absolutely solitary, a solipsistic moment in a non-private world. The synesthesiac is the artist who hides the writing in the markings of the jaguar, knowing full well, nobody will read what it truly says but her, no matter how many others read it, too.