The color of silence: art, failures and synesthesia

In an essay for TheArticle published on December 7, Jay Elwes posed a provocative question here: who was the greatest artist of the 20th century? Ella Fitzgerald was Jay’s answer. I would prefer to name Marcel Duchamp, who I also talked about earlier in this column. Duchamp’s reputation rests on both his art and his chess, and the key link between the two was the incorporation into his art of a maxim by the sublime chess strategist, Latvian grandmaster Aron Nimzowitsch: that beauty resides, not in optical appearance, but in the pressure of thought behind what is openly visible, audible or perceptible by any of our senses.

This brings me to this famous poem by Charles Baudelaire, in which he exalts the possibility of trans-sensory perception, in other words: synesthesia. I have examined various translations of Baudelaire’s “Correspondences”, without finding any particularly adequate to convey his message of a carnival with colorful, intertwined sensual resonances, free from borders or barriers.

So here is my own attempt to capture the spirit of the original.

Correspondences of Baudelaire

Of living pillars is all nature made
This temple resonates with words we find confusing
Symbolic forests border our strange parade
The trees look at us, not hostile, not perplexed.

Then mixed echoes reach us from afar
A dark chasm, a mystical unity
Vast as darkness, but shining with the clarity of light.
Scents, colors, sounds, converse without bars.

Fresh scents, like caressing a baby’s skin
Soft oboe tones, verdant like the plains
And others, rich, triumphant, corrupters
Infinite expanse tempts us at no cost
Amber, musk, frankincense, balsam and, yes, myrrh
All song in the transport of the spirit and the senses.

John Cage, the avant-garde composer of the totally silent piano piece “Four Minutes Thirty Three Seconds”, learned chess so that the man of silence could better communicate with Duchamp, the artist of invisible thought. In 1968, Cage and Duchamp played chess, with a wired chessboard, connecting chess to music, to reflect every move like a musical note. The demonstration was called “La Réunion”. I knew Cage well, and together with Barry Martin, I organized a birthday party for him at the Chelsea Arts Club. Teeny Duchamp, Marcel’s widow, was the guest of honor and the cake was created in the shape of “La Fontaine”, Duchamp’s famous inverted urinal (pictured above). One of the wittiest cartoons I’ve ever seen was an image of a public restroom, with the urinal missing, having been violently ripped from the wall. The caption proclaims: “Duchamp was there!

For a man of silence, Cage was constantly accompanied by loud, loud and dramatic events. Once, while I was playing chess with him in my flat in Kensington, a burglary took place in the flat below us, during which the front door was opened with an axe. On another occasion, during a performance of the String Quartet at the Tate Gallery of Cage, the cellist suffered an epileptic fit. I then interrogated Cage. Wasn’t this a duchampian coincidence, required at some point by the musical score? Cage denied this and attributed the incident to pure chance.

I later had the chance to acquire a recording of the music created in “La Réunion”. When trying to read it, the disc was completely silent. I should have seen this coming.

Who now carries Duchamp’s banner both in art and in chess? I can think of two contemporary artists who do. Patrick Hughes combines the two and it is impossible to avoid detecting checkerboard patterns in his reflection causing Renaissance perspective inversions.

Then there is Barry Martin (above left), official performer of the 1993 and 2000 World Chess Championships, involving Garry Kasparov, Nigel Short and Vladimir Kramnik, acquired an official FIDÉ rating (World Chess Federation chess) and even thought in the void between his works. Some of his works depict the protagonists of chess championships, others flood the canvas with abstract, pyramidal, vertical shapes, evoking both nature, the passing of the seasons, even cities, such as Venice, and monumental human constructions.

Barry describes his own work thus: “The rhythm, the feeling of color, the application, the quantity, the proportion, the composition all play their part, but against the theory comes the ‘felt’! It is here that the unknown begins to form and the artist’s conduit begins to unmask the amorphous forms of shadow; the rhythms create a contrapuntal movement, as in music. Colors that stand out, such as dizzying green, resonate with a distinct chord that gives a key to how other colors in juxtaposition seem to inform and enrich the viewer’s experience. Peripheral vision plays an important role in maintaining this dialogue! »

In keeping with Baudelaire’s cross-sensory celebration and in the Duchamp/Cage tradition, Barry has now teamed up with chess-loving concert pianist Jason Kouchak (above right), creator of the giant outer chessboard at Holland Park, to create a combined chess/music collaboration. Jason writes:

“Barry Martin’s paintings, which I first saw at the Waterhouse Dodd Gallery in Savile Row last year, were a source of deep inspiration to me. Imagine four seasons in one day as an opportunity to combine color and music as an artistic performance. When I first saw Barry’s work, I felt lost between the spaces of a chromatic keyboard. A feeling of being suspended between the colors while seeking an invisible light on the dark keys.

He continues: “In my accompanying score, I look for colors in a black and white musical framework. The concept of chiaroscuro, the contrast between light and dark, is present in all musical pieces incorporating changes in tone, texture and timing, as the piano moves from major to minor chords: a journey adventure, discovery and individual expectations. through color and music. The use of silence in all piano compositions demonstrates that the spaces between colors, or notes, are as important as the colors/notes themselves.

To conclude, here is the Correspondences of Baudelaire in original synesthetic French. It is a somewhat mystical creation of the artist’s lawyer as a portrayal of modern life, a critic who so enthusiastically predicted Manet’s bourgeois pleasures, Monet’s steam trains at St Lazare, or the weekends -plebeian ends of holidaymakers from Renoir to La Grenouillère.

Excerpt from: The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire


Nature is a temple where living pillars
Sometimes let out confused words;
The man passes through forests of symbols
Who observes him with familiar looks.
Like long echoes that merge from afar
In a dark and deep unity,
Vast as night and as light,
Perfumes, colors and sounds respond to each other.
There are fresh scents like children’s chairs,
Soft as oboes, green as meadows,
— And others, corrupt, rich and triumphant,
Having the expansion of infinite things,
Like amber, musk, benzoin and incense,
Who sing the transports of the spirit and the senses.

Our game of the week came from Round 2 of the Tata Steel Masters, in Wijk aan Zee in Holland, between world champion Magnus Carlsen and his usual opponent, Anish Giri, which started on Saturday the 15th.

Raymond Keene’s latest book “Fifty Shades of Ray: Chess in the year of the Coronavirus”, featuring some of his best pieces from TheArticle, is now available from Blackwell’s.

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