How Mary Blair brought synesthesia to the big screen

The distinctive visual style of Disney artist Mary Blair has its roots in an early-20th-century artistic movement that sought to blend sound and color.

Walt Disney Pictures / Album / Newscom
Mary Blair created the concept designs for 'Alice in Wonderland' and a number of other Disney animated features. Her visual style was influenced by an early 20th century artistic movement known as synchromism, which sought analogies between color and music.

Disney artist and illustrator Mary Blair, who was born 100 years ago on Friday, was best known for her visual style, particularly her innovative use of color. But her style wasn't limited to one sense; her colors also sang.

Blair, who won a scholarship to the prestigious Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, studied under the painter Morgan Russell, who, along with Stanton Macdonald-Wright, founded the synchromism movement, which produced some of the first pieces of abstract art in the United States.

Russell and Macdonald-Wright believed that every note on the musical scale had an analogous color, and a painter could arrange colors harmoniously on the canvas in the same way that a composer could arrange notes in a symphony. Russell's "Cosmic Synchromy," painted in 1913 and 1914, is a prime example of how he applied this theory. [Editor's note: An earlier version mispelled the name of Russell's painting.]

The idea that there exists some correspondence between colors and sound is not new. Isaac Newton thought that colors and sounds had corresponding frequencies, as did Goethe. Indeed, some people have no choice but to form an association between colors and sound.

Synesthesia – the ability to "hear" colors, "taste" sounds, and so on – is a neural condition, like right- or left-handedness. It doesn't call out for a cure. Indeed, most synesthetes really like the way their minds work.

Probably the most common form of synesthesia is known as grapheme → color synesthesia. (The arrow is not a typo – it indicates which sense gets confused by a person's other senses.) To those with this condition, letters, numbers, and some words and proper nouns are inextricably tied to colors. The letter A is always red, D is always green, seven is always yellow, Monday is always blue, and so on. One of literature's most famous synesthetes, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, expressed this sensation best in his 1871 sonnet, "Vowels."

But there are also rarer forms of synesthesia. James Wannerton, the president of the UK Synaesthesia Association, experiences grapheme → taste synesthesia, in which words, music, and some other sounds produce what he calls "involuntary bursts of taste" on his tongue. For others, such as British doctor-turned-artist Jane Mackay, sounds appear in their minds as colors. "My printer," Mackay told the BBC in 2002, "started jamming recently and the sound turned pink, quite an opaque pastel pink.'

There's no telling whether Mary Blair experienced synesthesia – which affects anywhere between one in 2,000 people and one in 23, depending on which study you believe. The effect is slightly more common among women. But her art certainly showed the mark of a synesthete. Check out this clip from the 1944 animated film "The Three Caballeros," in which Blair is credited as art supervisor.

This visual style, in which sounds explode into colors, was memorably put to use in 1949 in Disney's masterpiece, "Fantasia."

"Fantasia" flopped when it was first released, but the film's 1969 re-release was a resounding success, for reasons that were not lost on the film's marketers. According to Snopes, this line appeared in the promotional materials in 1969: "Disney's Fantasia: A Head Classic: Representation of sound as color does resemble tripping on STD [sic], LSD, THC and various other letters of the alphabet."

This isn't to suggest that we recommend attempting to chemically induce synesthesia – the side effects can be a bit much. And why go to the trouble, as long we have the work of Mary Blair?

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