Barb Rosenstock’s The Noisy Paint Box introduces kids to Vasya Kandinsky, a proper Russian boy, who studies math and history and has to practice scales on the piano. Then one day, his aunt gives him a box of paints and he hears the colors sofly hiss to him. In Rosenstock’s telling, Kandinsky is torn from then on between a desire to paint and create art and the more conventional life that his parents desire for him. He went on to become a lawyer but at the age of 30 two experiences so influenced him that he quit the law to study art full-time. The first experience is not told about in this book but Kandinsky described in his writings as seeing Monet’s Haystacks for the first time and realizing that painting didn’t have to be realistic. The second, which Rosenstock focuses on, was hearing an opera (by Wagner) and experiencing the sounds as color and shape. After studying art, Kandinsky eventually goes on to become the first truly abstract artist.
A good picture book biography by nature has to choose which incidents of a life to focus on. Rosenstock wisely chooses to focus on Kandinsky’s unique “seeing sound and hearing colors”. He is thought to have had synesthesia which is an incredibly cool condition where people experience one sense when a different sense is activated. For example, they might taste numbers or see letters and words as having a particular color or even emotion. Or they might hear colors.
The illustrations by Mary Grandpre use color beautifully to show Kandinsky’s metamorphosis from lawyer to more conventional art student to abstract painter. One of my favorite pages showed the little boy Kandinsky bored at dinner with all the grownups “talking and talking”. The adults are illustrated as collages of mixed up words, which is how I imagine we seem to kids sometimes.
The endpages include photographs of several of Kandinsky’s works and an author’s note that explains what parts of the book are historical and what are imagined (the dialogue). She also includes several references, including works by Kandinsky himself who was knows as a leading art theorist as well as an artist.
I have found picture book biographies of artists to be a perfect way for us to include some art study in our homeschool. Usually we do some kind of accompanying art project. To go with the discussion of Kandinsky and synesthesia we used a project suggestion from MaryAnne Kohl’s Discovering Great Artists: Hands-On Art for Kids in the Style of the Great Masters. First, I had David and Ruth listen to a piece of music while lying down with their eyes closed. Then we listened again and painted as we listened.
While listening to Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. (From top to bottom: me, David, Ruth)
While listening to U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (Again: me, David, Ruth)
While listening to Abba’s Dancing Queen. (Top to bottom: Me, David’s 1st painting, David’s 2nd painting when he decided he liked my spirals, and Ruth). Either disco takes Ruth to a really dark place or she was in her usual “mixing all the colors together” phase.
Previous art/artist study posts here at Supratentorial: