Synesthesia and Pamela Colman Smith
When Pamela Coleman Smith was attending the Pratt Institute of Art, she realized that she possessed a high degree of sound-color synesthesia, i.e., she was able to visualize colors and forms while listening to music and could transmit those visualizations into tangible works of art. Modern psychologists define synesthesia as a crossing-over of sensory input. Depending upon the type of synesthesia, individuals are able to hear colors, see music, smell words, etc. Many people, particularly artists, possess this phenomenon to some extent; however, Pamela possessed sound-color synesthesia to an exceptionally high degree. She was able to create sound paintings just by unconsciously drawing while listening to passages of music. She embodied the Symbolist ideal in this area. Many examples of her work in this area have survived, including three watercolors in the possession of the Stieglitz/Georgia O'Keeffe Archive.
In July 1908, an article appeared in The Strand Magazine entitled "Pictures in Music." The article included six black and white images of her music paintings (see below) and provided a long quotation by her which described how her art was created. A pertinent excerpt from that article is as follows:
Do you see pictures in music? When you hear a Beethoven symphony or a sonata by Schumann, do mystic human figures and landscapes float before your eyes ? It is by no means new or uncommon for a composer to have a distinct picture in his mind when he sets himself to create a work. Schumann saw children at play in an embowered wood, dancing merrily until, lo ! the sudden advent of a satyr sent them shrieking to their homes.
Few, however, have been able to delineate their hallucinations born of music.
Mendelssohn, who was no mean draughtsman, was often asked to do so, but always refused. "It is like asking a sculptor to paint a portrait of his statue," he once said. " All art is one, just as the human body is one, but each of the members has its functions. It is the function of music to hear, not to see." Nevertheless, it is highly interesting to see music translated in the terms of a sister art, and this is what a clever artist, Miss Pamela Colman Smith, has done, in pictures which are published now for the first time in The Strand Magazine.
Many of the compositions selected by the artist will instantly be recognized as conveying, in quite a surprising way, a vivid idea of the music as a whole. Every reader can ascertain for himself whether he possesses this peculiar psychic gift—this power of conjuring up music pictures. When you next hear a famous sonata, close your eyes and see what, if any, "pictures" pass before the eye of your brain. Under the magical influence of music the soul has glimpses of wondrous shapes, lit by the light that never was on sea or land.
"You ask me how these pictures are evolved," said Miss Colman Smith. "They are not pictures of the music theme — pictures of the flying notes—not conscious illustrations of the name given to a piece of music, but just what I see when I hear music—thoughts loosened and set free by the spell of sound.
"When I take a brush in hand and the music begins, it is like unlocking the door into a beautiful country. There, stretched far away, are plains and mountains and the billowy sea, and as the music forms a net of sound the people who dwell there enter the scene; tall, slow-moving, stately queens, with jewelled crowns and garments gay or sad, who walk on mountain - tops or stand beside the shore, watching the water - people. These water-folk are passionless, and sway or fall with little heed of time; they toss the spray and, bending down, dive headlong through the deep.
"There are the dwellers, too, of the great plain, who sit and brood, made of stone and motionless; the trees, which slumber till some elf goes by with magic spear and wakes the green to life ; towers, white and tall, standing against the darkening sky—
Those tall white towers that one sees afar,
Topping the mountain crests like crowns of snow.
Their silence hangs so heavy in the air
That thoughts are stifled.
"Then huddling crowds, who carry spears, hasten across the changing scene. Sunsets fade from rose to grey, and clouds scud across the sky.
"For a long time the land I saw when hearing Beethoven was unpeopled; hills, plains, ruined towers, churches by the sea. After a time I saw far off a little company of spearmen ride away across the plain. But now the clanging sea is strong with the salt of the lashing spray and full of elemental life; the riders of the waves, the Queen of Tides, who carries in her hand the pearl-like moon, and bubbles gleaming on the inky wave.
"Often when hearing Bach I hear bells ringing in the sky, rung by whirling cords held in the hands of maidens dressed in brown. There is a rare freshness in the air, like morning on a mountain-top, with opal-coloured mists that chase each other fast across the scene.
"Chopin brings night ; gardens where mystery and dread lurk under every bush, but joy and passion throb within the air, and the cold moon bewitches all the scene. There is a garden that I often see, with moonlight glistening on the vine-leaves, and drooping roses with pale petals fluttering down, tall, misty trees and purple sky, and lovers wandering there. A drawing of that garden I have shown to several people and asked them if they could play the music that I heard when I drew it. They have all, without any hesitation, played the same. I do not know the name, but— well, I know the music of that place."
Probably the most complete commentary regarding Pamela's unique type of synesthesia was published in the October 1912 issue of The Craftsman. In that issue appeared a 14 page, illustrated article by the American writer, M. Irwin MacDonald, entitled "The Fairy Faith and Pictured Music of Pamela Colman Smith." The article is available on the Internet here and I recommend that everyone interested in Miss Smith's art peruse it. MacDonald provides enthusiastic support for Pixie Smith's artistic style and work. Unfortunately, it is the last published reference to her work of which I am aware. The fundamental problem was that the Arts and Crafts Movement, of which Pamela was a member, was undergoing a rapid decline in popularity. World War I was only two years away. With the coming of that terrible war and the rise of that schizophrenic disease called Modernism in the post-war era, sweet little Pamela Colman Smith became obsolete!
As a final comment re Pixie Smith's plight, I'd like to quote some remarks of Stuart R. Kaplan given during a recent interview with Malcolm Muckle:
Malcolm Muckle: "In reviewing what I know and have read about Pixie, I can't help but be struck by a sense of sadness at her life; she seemed to have such extraordinary gifts, and yet her life seemed to have gone into reverse after about 1908/9 with her art undergoing enhanced inappreciation, if I can put it that way, despite the superb artistic reviews she had received earlier in New York. There was almost a long, slow retreat from the world and from people. Why do you think that was?"Stuart Kaplan: "I believe that after her exciting life with Ellen Terry, Pamela was very lonely. Her poem, Alone, is a sad commentary to her feelings of inadequacy and lack of recognition. In 1914 she gave away her personal Visitors Book with the sad inscription inside the back cover stating that she didn’t like people any more. She withdrew because people did not appreciate her. She didn’t really fit into the British life as we imagine it. She would sit on the floor before a group of her friends and tell Jamaican stories. She was very esoteric in her life style."
Malcolm Muckle: "In common with many people who have had a childhood in more than one country, PCS seems to have experienced a sense of dislocation from ordinary life. Was art a way of assuaging this?"
Stuart Kaplan: "Actually, I think for a while Pamela thrived in her unusual life style. She would hold soirees with intimate friends, sitting on the floor and was, for a short period of time, the center of attraction for a small group who found her different, childlike, amusing, talented, but it all eventually faded. For a time, art was an escape, a way for her to express herself, but it could not carry her into a happy life."
References: 1) Stuart R. Kaplan, The Artwork and Times of Pamela Colman Smith (2009), pages 73-75.
2) "Pictures in Music," article (no author stated) in The Strand Magazine, July 1908, pages 648-652.
3) M. Irwin MacDonald, "The Fairy Faith and Pictured Music of Pamela Colman Smith," The Craftsman, Volume XXIII, Number 1 (October 1912), pages 20-34.