In 1975, Lawrence E.Marks wrote:
One of the most curious and intrigueing phenomena of the human mind is Synesthesia - the translation of attributes of sensation from one sensory domein to another. And I will concentrate on one  aspect: What I call "coloured hearing”. 

Vincent van Gogh was born on the 30th of March 1853, exactly a year to  the day after an earlier Vincent was stillborn. 

Van Gogh in 1884 took his friend and lithographer Dimmen Gestel  to the border of Eindhoven, which was then a small town  of around 4000 inhabitants,  and they looked westwards to  the sunset over  Eindhoven.

Already at that time, Eindhoven was attracting lots of different national and international innovative talents and skills. 
All looking towards the upcoming industrialization, mechanization, business and welfare and Eindhoven provided receptive space for unconventional thinking. 

According to Dimmen, Vincent sat down and staring at the sunset with his red infected 
eyes,  he said he was mesmerized by the beautiful colours  and he spent a long time  admiring the evening sky and told Dimmen how utterly overwhelmed he was by the sight. 

At the time Van Gogh was a great admirer of the theories of colour as described by Goethe  in 1810 and later developed by Eugene Delacroix, and he was intrigued by the logic of the complimentary colours shown in the colourwheel which had been developed.
We also know that around that time Vincent was giving painting lessons to some friendsin Eindhoven.

People such as Anthon Hermans, Anton Kerssemakers and Willem van de Wakker. 

From historical facts we know that Van Gogh was interested in learning to play the piano and comparing the phenomenon of colour and sound.
He went to a music teacher, Hein van der Zanden, who also played the organ in the St Catharina church in the centre of Eindhoven.
Hein was well known as a teacher, and  had contact with prominent people  in the Eindhoven cultural life and society.
Hein however ran a private music school at his own house at the Volderstraat to make some extra money.    

According to some of the other pupils Van Gogh attended these private piano lessons, 
and that he argued with Hein that certain music tones sounded too yellow, too green or not at all like Prussian blue.
The teacher got scared of this man with his outspoken opinion on music and the
comparison with colours,  and consequently Hein dismissed him from his classes.

In Paris Van Gogh must have  previously read the studies of Rimbaud in1871 and Fechner’s 1876  reports on coloured music and the overlap of senses of seeing and 

At the time, there were  few publications on the subject, in fact Aristoteles had also mentioned the possibility of connecting the senses and Isaac Newton had proposed that musical tones and colour share common frequencies.
However, per today, no scientific evidence  is  available as cited by Professor Adrian Houtsma, a world expert on acoustics, who says that Synesthesia  has been a topic of intensive scientific investigation since the late 1800’s and 1900’s  but was abandoned in the mid 20th century and  only recently has it been rediscovered. 

Some people have this ability and science shows that there is a parallel correlation between the frequencies of light and sound although in a very limited area.Visible light frequencies vary from 450 nm - 750 nm. 

Synesthesia is a condition in which people have difficulty distinguishing between 
various sensory inputs which can be seen as a handicap, an advantage or a lost rudimentary gift.According to Houtsma,  no explanation can  be given within the scientific domein of physics but he says experimental perception psychology needs to be involved. 

In 1975 Lawrence  E. Marks seems to have written  the best review on the subject and he believes that the matter is very individual, but for sure there is  a systematic and describable phenomena since many people seem to have such an ability. 
However, psychological research has demonstrated that Synesthetic experiences 
can have measureable consequences and can also add to the creative processes, and it’s more in the psychology field that this phenomenon is recognized.



Synesthesists  are completely unaware  that their experiences have a name.
They are equally unaware of this hidden way of perception in their childhood and the use of that gift in their complex creative activities, like producing visual art, music and theatre, 
which has been rediscovered in the 60’s by the use of LSD or other  psychedelic  drugs which are  used now by current Psychonauts.
Synesthesia is involuntary and automatic. 

Van Gogh himself wrote in a letter to his brother Theo in August 1888: " why am I so little an artist that I always forget,… that the statue and painting are NOT alive…. Why do I understand the musicians better…, why do I see the reason of this abstraction better ? " 

With the previous information I went to see Ad Maas, an Eindhoven composer,  who has a long international career in music for opera, ballet, song riting, etc.

When I showed him some of Vincent’s works, he improvised some chords for me,  based on these paintings. 
The palet of Van Gogh was already changing to lighter and brighter colours during the time he passed with his friends in Eindhoven and of course, he was also  influenced by the  information he got from his brother Theo in Paris, who was  an art dealer supporting the  impressionist movement.
We used some prints of paintings Van Gogh made in that period, like the cornfields close to the house of Kerssemakers, some still lifes and a watermill which he painted 4 times in 1884 and which can be seen in it’s renovated state about a kilometer away from the High Tech Campus.
In due time, we are planning an event and performance to enjoy the paintings together with the music.   


In 2007, together with members of the City of Eindhoven archeological group, we did some excavations in the garden behind the vicarage where Van Gogh had his studio.
There, amongst many other artifacts, we found pieces of a rusty can, containing Prussian blue pigments, zinc white, barium, colofonium and which even included a red human hair.
This hair has been analysed by a forensic institute to try to extract DNA but the quality was too detoriated to be indentified.
The blue paint was analysed by the Institute Collection Netherlands in Amsterdam. 

As an alchemist almost, Vincent experimented with the printing ink and his paint.
He experimented with chemicals such as  the highly poisonous chromium yellow forbidden in 1925 and which darkened with time and to a large extent used during his French period.
This  fact has been recently proven by Professor Koen Janssen from the University in Antwerp, after using the  cyclotron in  Grenoble to age the paint quickly. 
Van Gogh added copiava balsum resin, another hallucinative substance,  to accelerate the fast drying process. 

As an aside, this exhibit was displayed in the Dutch Pavilion " Happy Street” at the Shanghai World Fair in 2010.   
It attracted millions of visitors and was one of the four major topics of the pavilion according to Chris Buijink, Secretary General to the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
After the frequent intake of brandy and coffee, or from working for too long in the sun, this might  have affected his mental and physical condition.
But his worries were lessend  after consulting Dr. van der Loo in Eindhoven in 1885, who told  Vincent that he would probably live a long life, even after the mercury treatment for his  syphilis  in the Hague.      

He had been in contact with so many different chemicals,  with drugs, medicines, absinth, chromium yellow and during his disturbed mental state, he had even drunk terpentine and eaten his paint.

The subject of synesthesia is very interesting and certainly worthy of further research, as Prof. Adrian Houtsma suggested, within the domein of perception psychology.
This could also involve blind and /or deaf people to also measure their experiences and sensations.
Well known painters such as  Mondriaan, who produced Boogie Woogie for example, and Kandinski, an admirer of Schoenberg, explained that every colour is like a note of music  and could effect a certain emotion. 
Hockney, Nabokov, Ellington and Liszt are also among well known synesthesists. 
Curiously enough is that both colours and sounds share measurable frequencies. 
Composer Edgar Varese produced pure electronic music for the Philips Pavilion 
" Poem Electronique” at the World Fair in Brussels 1958, which was also a contempory multi-media show and built on the knowledge and experiments of the legendary Dick Raaymakers from Philips Research. 
The architect le Corbusier considered this presentation and the extraordinairy building to be  the switch from the analogue period into the electronic era and symbolically wanted the pavilion to be destroyed. 

To give an impression of the thoughts in the brain of Van Gogh we can read his philosophy about space and time in his letter to Theo, dated 9th July 1888 , from Arles:" For my own part I declare, I know nothing whatever about it.
But looking  at the stars  always make me dream, as simply as I dream  about the black dots on a map representing towns and villages.
Why, I ask myself, should the shining dots of the sky not be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?
If you take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, then we take  death to reach a star.      

One thing, undoubtedly true in this reasoning, is this: that while we are alive we cannot get to a star, any more  when we are dead, we can take the train.
So it doesn’t seem impossible to me that cholera, gravel,  pleurisy and cancer are the means of celestial locomotion, just as steamboats, omnibuses and railways are the terrestrial means.

To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.” 

And to his friend Bernard, on  June 23rd  1888,  he wrote:" However, since nothing confutes the assumption that lines and forms and colours exist on innumerable other planets and suns as well, we are at  liberty to feel fairly serene about the possibilities of painting in a better and different existence, an existence altered by a phenomenon that is perhaps no more ingenious and no more surprising than the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly or of a grub into amaybug.

The existence of a painter-butterfly would be played out on the countless celestial bodies which, after death, should be no more inaccessible to us than the black dots are on maps that symbolize towns and villages in our earthly life.” 

Science - scientific reasoning - strikes me as being an instrument that will go a very long way in the future, according to Vincent. 

I am not a scientist nor am I a musician, but I am a designer by profession and highly interested in performing the arts myself and I am intrigued by Van Gogh’s life and his works.
Designers are also connectors of factual information and to achieve new solutions they add their own creativity, imagination and intuitive sense of direction. 

Therefore, in my own words: what is the difference between travelling as stardust in space or travelling between the cells of the brain.This it is no surprise to me. 

Was Van Gogh ahead of his time by exploring his own enlightened brain or was he the most famous and worst pupil of Mr Hein van der Zande? 

Peter Nagelkerke april 2011 Eindhoven.