Art Thoughts, Week 41 -- Berckheyde & Synesthesia

Street Scene, Gerrit Berckheyde (Dutch, 1638—1698), c. 1670, oil on canvas, BF829.

My first memory of synesthesia (the triggering of one sense by something associated with another) is from one evening while dozing on my dorm bed. My roommate was listening to music – I’ve forgotten what music, but the most important thing was that I was hearing it. In this subconscious doze, an intense mental picture emerged of a shape divided into three pieces; each with a distinct color. I woke up after that, and realized the music had triggered this crisp image in my brain. This is a concrete example of synesthesia. This capability is latent in every piece of artwork; it has to do more with the participant’s receptiveness – planned or not – and sensual tendencies.

The first synesthetic sensation upon looking at Berckheyde’s Street Scene is that of sound. Several details in the painting jump out as dealing directly with a sound (i.e. a typical sound maker). Crucial to this sensation though is that firstly, the painting is contrastingly quiet: a quiet subject, composition, color scheme, all on a quiet morning. After this sense is absorbed, small details surface, punctuating this veil of quiet with unique sounds: the thud of beaten laundry on the left; the squeak of the well’s straining pulley; the subdued conversation of the central women; the wagon’s wooden creaking; the birdsong and bell-tower pealing (assumed by experience) – all contributing to the fascinating sense of a pre-industrial period where sounds were only naturally amplified, and were more individually distinct.

As mentioned, some of this gently sound-punctuated quietude is owed to this viewer’s experiences with certain times of day. Even in a bustling city like my Philadelphia, intense quiet can be found, albeit in small doses – and the time where it’s most prevalent is early morning – much like the time of day likely portrayed here. Any sounds that are extant in early morning tend to be more individually defined – their edges are more perceivable, by virtue of being rarer. This raises the distinction between noise and sound. Sound suggests individuality; the quality of being more distinct and uninfluenced by overlapping sounds. Our ears can distinguish separate sounds – but noise implies the overlapping quality of a polyphonic experience. Overlapping, clashing – even harmonizing – sounds create an aural texture (noise), which may then become another distinct sound. This is somewhat like two overlapping colors creating another separate, distinct color; say, red and green creating sienna. It is the self-perpetuating quality of artwork and music: materials set into motion by artists, and responding to laws of the natural world.

In Street Scene, the obvious sound makers are distinct in distance, through composition – the wagon, well, voices, etc. – which suggests them as being aurally separate. This also continues the sense of quietude in the painting. Also, other obvious contrasts tend to suggest the separation of not only colors and sounds, but also concepts and values. Chiaroscuro (a painting technique using high-contrast values) is normally a characteristic of early morning and late afternoon lighting – these being more dramatically lit times of day. Contrast is related to polarity, and thus to difference, re-accentuating the particularity of separate elements. So, the Netherlandish morning light creating strong shadows, and the clearly defined shapes and forms, as well as the neatly separated noise makers in Street Scene, all contribute to this idea of sound and encourages the synesthesia of this painting.

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