Influences on the Use of Color by Early Expressionist Painters
In writing this paper I am interested in exploring the works of Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh. When I was introduced to these two painters and their works I was struck by their rich and apparently meaningful use of color, and also by the artists’ respective histories of psychological disturbance. Therefore the purpose of this paper will be to analyze how and why these artists used color in the way they did, whether or not the techniques (especially pertaining to color) of either of the painters influenced the other, and to what extent their selection of colors was instigated by psychological unbalance or other psychological factors.
The psychological phenomenon of synaesthesia is one in which a person’s senses are cross-wired, that is to say, in which a person associates certain symbols, ideas, or sensory perceptions with another sensory experience. Synaesthetes commonly associate certain colors with numbers or letters, or days of the week, though these do not represent the entirety of synaesthetic experience. The fact that synaesthesia is common among creative individuals makes it an attractive possibility in explaining the reason for Van Gogh’s and Munch’s particular choices in color. According to Dr. Ramachandran, synesthesia “is seven times as common in creative people as in the general population.”Munch’s description of the inspiration for his painting, The Scream, is suggestive of synaesthesia.
"I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. I felt a tinge of melancholy. Suddenly the sky became a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, dead tired. And I looked at the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and city. My friends walked on. I stood there, trembling with fright. And I felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature."
However, from reading the above quote, while it is clear that Munch was deriving a secondary experience from the bloody color of the sky that night (or possibly the other way around) the quote does not indicate a secondary color experience, or another association known to be synaesthetic. Generally a synaesthete senses color, or spatial proximity, from a symbol of some sort, or from another sensory perception. Emotion is not included as a synaesthetic experience. In the case of Munch’s quote above we see only the linkage of a color to an emotion, which does not fit the usual pattern for synaesthesia. Additionally, there is scholarly work that refutes that Munch was a synaesthete, directly stating that it is “probable that Munch himself was not a synaesthete.” To the contrary, Sophia Oftedahl, in a 2007 thesis, asserts that social perceptions of the time period in which Munch lived was probably the factor that caused the artist to act as if he were a synaesthete. As she puts it “…the consideration of synaesthetic sensory perceptions as some kind of states of grace and proximity to the divine, linked to Munch’s wish to be seen as an artistic personality in touch with “the beyond”, caused the concept to be clearly present in his art…”
Even if Munch was not a synaesthete, which I agree is likely the case, his contemporary Vincent Van Gogh may have been. In 1885 Van Gogh reportedly began to take piano lessons, and during these lessons he would insistently claim that certain notes sounded like certain colors, and was so vehement and talkative on the point that his piano teacher quit teaching him, convinced he was a madman. Other evidence that Van Gogh mentally linked color and music can be found in a quote from him, in which he states that “Some artists have a nervous hand at drawing, which gives their technique something of the sound peculiar to a violin.” This sort of cross-sensory perception is exactly what synaesthesia describes. Still further evidence can be found in one of his own letters, written to his sister: “I don’t know whether you can understand that one may make a poem only by arranging colours, in the same way that you can say comforting things in music.”
Of the two artists being discussed, Van Gogh is the one generally acknowledged by present day psychologists to suffer from genuine mental illness, though the exact causes are somewhat ambiguous, resulting in over thirty different diagnoses. This is perhaps due to the sheer multiplicity of possible causes, which have been speculated to include Ménière’s disease and lead poisoning. One of the more comprehensive diagnoses is given by Henri Gastaut, who referenced Van Gogh’s medical history and other sources, notably including a photograph of the artist, to bring attention to an asymmetry of the face that suggests an early brain injury that he thinks was exacerbated by the abuse of absinthe, a drink popular with artists of the time period, which may have contributed to Van Gogh’s well documented epilepsy. The fact that this diagnosis takes aspects of Van Gogh’s life such as his abuse of absinthe and his epilepsy into account and also supports the diagnosis of the French doctors who treated him makes Gastaut’s account particularly attractive.
Of course, simply accepting that Van Gogh suffered from mental illness does not necessarily by itself provide an explanation for his unusual use of color in his paintings. In fact, if Gastaut’s diagnosis of temporal lobe damage is taken as true then the case for his illness contributing to his use of color becomes unlikely. Instances in Van Gogh’s history are especially illuminating, suggesting right-sided temporal lobe damage. People with disorders in the right side of their temporal lobes display symptoms such as problems interpreting music or tones, as well as other sensory input; symptoms that I have previously mentioned being associated with Van Gogh. Additionally, such individuals may become excessively talkative due to a lack of verbal inhibition, and indeed, Van Gogh himself can be quoted as saying that “There are moments when I am twisted by enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, likea Greek oracle on the tripod. And then I have great readinessof speech." In reference to a noted incident in Van Gogh’s history, wherein he cut off his own ear after reportedly stalking his fellow artist and sometime friend Gauguin with a razor blade, it can be seen that Van Gogh displayed aggressive rages that are associated with epilepsy of the temporal lobe. Lastly, according to his own admissions, he began to suffer from a decreased sexual appetite, another indicator of right temporal lobe damage. With the case made now, I think, that right temporal lobe damage was at least significantly responsible for Van Gogh’s apparent madness it appears then that his mode of mental illness is inconsistent with any kind of perceptual disorder that might explain his color use. None of the symptoms associated with this kind of brain damage are ones that affect perception of color. However, his abuse of absinthe may at least have been partially responsible for Van Gogh’s obsession with the color yellow, as thujone poisoning is known to cause a person’s eyesight to be tinged with yellow. And of course, the possibility of synaesthesia cannot be ruled out.
For Munch it is much more difficult to establish a history of mental illness, as there seems to be no striking evidence in favor of any sort of physiological basis for insanity, unlike with Van Gogh. Instead, conclusions must be based on his troubled childhood, in which many members of his family died. Such tragedy doubtless had an effect on poor Munch’s psyche, but the exact nature of that effect is not clear. It is likely that the anxiety he reportedly felt and the themes of death and decay evident in his work are the direct result of his childhood trauma, and not some sort of inborn chemical unbalance or physical infirmity. Therefore any altered perception of color on Munch’s part would have been purely subjective, and not due to mental illness.
The impact that Van Gogh had on Munch as an inspirational figure would seem to offer a better explanation of Munch’s use of color. Both artists drew inspiration from Impressionist works, in which the painter sought to capture an immediate impression of his model with quickly daubed swathes of color. This process was especially dependent on the prevailing light conditions, and the artist strove for a non-biased perspective, painting the subject in the colors they actually observed rather than what convention would suggest. Van Gogh states in his letters his love for the Impressionist style, but also comments that his goal was to use the counter-intuitive colors of Impressionism not to portray a vivid and genuine picture of how subjects actually looked, but instead to express how they made him emotionally respond. While Munch is often given the title of Father of Expressionism, he claimed to have taken many of his cues from Van Gogh, and also painted works designed to elicit a particular emotional response via his use of color, making the two of them true forerunners of the Expressionist style.
From the data I have gathered I have come to the conclusion that mental illness may have been a primary factor in the color use of only one of the artists discussed, Vincent Van Gogh. Psychological trauma might certainly be considered to have been a strong motivator and cause for Munch’s choice of subject matter and admiration for Van Gogh’s art, but attributing Munch’s colors to physiological or mental infirmity would be misrepresenting his influences. Importantly, it must be acknowledged that neither artist’s color usage was inspired only by psychological or mental disturbance, and that the most important cause for their artistic choices was their historical antecedents, the Impressionists, and their intrinsic interest in and love of pure color.
Blumer, Dietrich, “The Illness of Vincent van Gogh,” The American Journal of Psychiatry 159, no. 4 (2002): 519-526, http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleID=175449 (accessed April 6, 2013)
Campen, Cretien van, The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science (The MIT Press, 2008), 54.
Gogh, Vincent van, The Letters (Nov. 1888), translated from French, The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery, endorsed by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, http://www.vggallery.com/letters/699_V-W_W9.pdf (accessed April 6, 2013) Letter W09, Arles, c. 16
Loshak, David, “Space, Time and Edvard Munch,” The Burlington Magazine 131, no. 1033 (April 1989): 274, http://www.jstor.org/stable/883836 (accessed March 25, 2013)
Milner, Brenda (1968), “Visual recognition and recall after right temporal lobe excision in man,” Neuropsychologia 6(3): 191-209. doi: 10.1016/0028-3932(68)90019-5 (accessed April 6, 2013)
Oftedahl, Sophia, Monism and Synaesthesia; Two Metaphysical Concepts in the Art of Edvard Munch, Thesis (“hovedoppgave”) in the History of Art, Spring 2007, Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas,Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo, https://www.duo.uio.no/publ/IFIKK/2007/57050/oppg.pdf (accessed March 25, 2013)
Ramachandran, Vilayanur S. and Hubbard, Edward M., “Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes,” Scientific American 288, no. 5 (May 2003): 57, http://cbc.ucsd.edu/pdf/SciAm_2003.pdf (accessed March 25, 2013)
 Sophia Oftedahl, Monism and Synaesthesia; Two Metaphysical Concepts in the Art of Edvard Munch, Thesis (“hovedoppgave”) in the History of Art, Spring 2007, Department of Philosophy, Classics, History of Art and Ideas,Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo, https://www.duo.uio.no/publ/IFIKK/2007/57050/oppg.pdf (accessed March 25, 2013)
 Cretien van Campen, The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science (The MIT Press, 2008), 54.
 Vincent van Gogh, The Letters (Nov. 1888), translated from French, The Vincent Van Gogh Gallery, endorsed by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, http://www.vggallery.com/letters/699_V-W_W9.pdf (accessed April 6, 2013) Letter W09, Arles, c. 16
 Dietrich Blumer, “The Illness of Vincent van Gogh,” The American Journal of Psychiatry 159, no. 4 (2002): 519-526, http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleID=175449 (accessed April 6, 2013)
 Brenda Milner (1968), “Visual recognition and recall after right temporal lobe excision in man,” Neuropsychologia 6(3): 191-209. doi: 10.1016/0028-3932(68)90019-5 (accessed April 6, 2013)
 Dietrich Blumer, “The Illness of Vincent van Gogh,”